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College of Arts & Sciences
Maritime Research Division

Log-rafts and a barge on the bottom of the Waccamaw River

A Discovery by One of Our Exclusive Licensees

 By Jim Spirek, MRD

Besides issuing Hobby Licenses to recover artifacts and fossils for recreational purposes, SCIAA also issues Exclusive Licenses geared towards the recovery of archaeological or paleontological materials for commercial purposes in state waterways.  For a number of years, the issuance of Exclusive Licenses has almost focused exclusively on the recovery of historic submerged logs. These sunken logs have been preserved for a century or so underwater and are prized for having come from old growth forests; especially sought after are cypress axe-hewn logs.  All the recovered logs bear evidence of the techniques involved with felling the tree, i.e., axed or sawn, the length of the trunks, sometimes with log dogs present, and other cultural features. Many of the pine trees recovered bear the marks of the naval stores industry with chevron, or “cat-faces,” cut into the tree to extract sap used to manufacture turpentine or rosin.  These human-modified logs are considered archaeological artifacts and fall within the realm of the South Carolina Underwater Antiquities Act that manages the removal of these and other underwater artifacts from state bottomlands.  When a log is recovered bearing any of the aforementioned distinctive features, we typically request that the logger remove that section of the trunk and reserve it for potential interpretive purposes at a local museum or nature center.  Currently, there are three active licensees recovering historic submerged logs from the rivers in South Carolina.


 As part of the Exclusive License requirements, SCIAA visits with the licensee to observe the topsides operations of recovering logs or to dive to inspect the log deposits and other sites or objects of interest.  We recently arranged to dive on several exciting finds that resulted from the required submerged cultural resources survey of an Exclusive License area in the Waccamaw River. The survey serves two purposes, one to detect any potential archaeological sites that may suffer adverse impacts from the logging recovery operations, and two to assist the loggers in locating the desired sunken logs on the bottom.  Besides pinpointing individual and concentrations of sunken logs, this particular survey also detected several sunken log-rafts and a barge.  The licensee, Rufus Perdue, and his underwater archaeological contractor, Ralph Wilbanks, of Diversified Wilbanks, Inc., offered their support for me and Joe Beatty to visually inspect the archaeological findings.


Joe and I met Rufus and Ralph at the landing on the Waccamaw River, hopped aboard the boat and headed upriver.  The first target we dove was the barge.  The barge appeared fairly intact in the sonogram with its downriver end missing and what appeared to be a large boiler at the upriver end . The barge was about 70-ft in length and 20-ft in width or thereabouts. There was also a sizable magnetic anomaly associated with the acoustic target, presumably indicating the presence of the boiler. Descending down the tannic-infused water, I came alongside the wooden barge and traveled towards the location of the boiler, and came across an iron pipe draped over the gunnel.  Inspecting the pipe and moving towards the interior of the barge, I was impeded by the appearance of several pieces of corroded wire rope. One piece arched for some distance fore and aft in the water column. Further investigations to the upstream end of the barge did not reveal the “boiler” object as depicted in the sonogram.  We believe that the wire ropes and metal pipes account for the imagery depicted by the acoustic device, as well as the magnetic disturbance.  That is why putting two eyeballs in the water is still the way to go, essentially the litmus test of the remote sensing analysis, sometimes likened to a Rorschach test, back at the office. The remainder of the barge exhibited typical construction of side planks edge joined by iron through bolts, bottom planking, and longitudinal stringers, with the downstream end planks missing as observed in the sonogram. 

Next we headed upstream to one of the log rafts.  The sonogram revealed at least eight uniform and parallel logs in the shape of a raft.  Again descending down the target buoy line, I landed alongside the log raft. I might say that the target-marking team of Ralph, Rufus, and Joe put the buoy on the money every time. The logs were all axe-cut, perhaps cypress, and about 18-ft. in length, and lined together as shown in the sonogram.  Close inspection at the ends and the lengths did not reveal any obvious connections between the logs, that is any lashings or log dogs. Perhaps the log raft on its descent from the surface or perhaps freshets had tumbled the raft to land upside down to obscure these connecting elements. Next we moved upriver again to a more nebulous looking log raft near the river bank.  Diving down on this site once again revealed the value of the eyes, as there was no log raft, but rather some eroded trees embedded in the river, with a couple of parallel mud ridges, that mimicked a log raft. Interestingly there was a sizable colony of mussels poking out from the sandy bottom near the tree.  The next dive occurred on an acoustic anomaly that looked like the first raft. Once again descending into the darkness and flicking the light on after hitting bottom, I landed right next to a log raft.  These logs were all pine, axe cut, with some sawn ends, and again about 18-ft in length.  Unlike the other log-raft, the end of each of these logs had a hole bored in them filled with the remnant of an eroded treenail. Historic photographs reveal that the treenails protruded upwards from the log and then were all lashed together by a wooden pole.  After this fourth dive we called it quits and returned to the landing.


Back at the office, I found online an informative North Carolina newspaper article from 1978 that recounted rafting logs on the Waccamaw River from North Carolina down to Conway in the 1930’s.  The old timer reported his last trip occurred in 1935 with his father and retold the process of felling, fashioning, and drifting downriver with the log rafts.  The loggers headed to the forests in the early fall to fell the trees. They left them on the ground with their branches on to dry out. Then at the beginning of the new year they returned to prepare the logs by cutting them into 16 ft. sections and hauled them by mule and cart to the river. The logs were formed into rafts about 10-12 logs wide with 18 to 20 rafts hooked together “like a train.” To form the individual raft, the loggers fashioned a pole, called a binder, to span the logs. Then they whittled pins, called treenails but pronounced trunnels, and inserted them into holes bored into each end of the log, and then attached the binder pole to each treenail.  Once the “train” was ready the loggers used a steering oar mainly aiming to keep away from the river bank.  Starting near the headwaters of the Waccamaw River at Lake Waccamaw in North Carolina to Conway required an 8 to 10 days float.  Difficulties occurred if the river was too low, or if they crashed into a bank or deadfall or if they snagged on a large tree in the middle of the river.  Log-rafting on the Waccamaw River continued to the mid-1930s until the advent of better roads and trucks and the appearance of local sawmills to purchase the logs.  

As we observed the log rafts below Conway are similar and dissimilar to the ones described in the article. In that the fastening or binding system was the same, and the differences between the two lay in the greater number of logs forming each raft and the length of the individual logs.  Perhaps the log rafts we inspected reflect a regional preference to size and numbers between South Carolina and North Carolina loggers.  Unfortunately, the gentlemen did not recount how logs or log rafts were lost and sank to the bottom, but nevertheless we have the archaeological proof that they did.  The results of the survey and monitoring dive will assist us in making informed decisions to preserve the barge and log-rafts in this stretch of the river while accommodating the recovery of individual historic submerged logs.  We appreciate the willingness of the licensee and the contractor to accommodate our site visit and their efforts and interest in preserving the underwater archaeological legacy residing on state bottomlands. 


Figure 1: Joe, Rufus, and Ralph boarding the boat (SCIAA image).

Figure 2: Sonogram of log raft (Courtesy of Rufus Perdue and DWI)

Figure 3: Sonogram of the barge. Up is upstream end with boiler-like anomaly and down is downstream end (Courtesy of Rufus Perdue and DWI).

Figure 4: Treenail in one of the logs (SCIAA image).