The Last Raft: A celebration of heritage ends in tragedy

It was supposed to be one last hurrah of a bygone era, but the much ballyhooed “Last Raft” ended in tragedy on March 20, 1938.

Seven people died when the log raft, patterned after the rafts of the lumber era, struck a railroad bridge at Muncy, sending 45 passengers into the cold and icy Susquehanna River.

In talking about the event, William Poulton, executive director of the Muncy Historical Society, said it is important to understand the culture of the time and what logging meant to the area.

Logging was a vital industry here in the 1800s. As timber was cut, logs had to be transported, and waterways made the job easier.

“Come spring, the logs would be floated to market,” Poulton said.

Rafts would be fashioned of the logs for that purpose.

“Some of the rafts were 300 feet long, 35 feet wide. They drifted on the river,” Poulton said.

Because of the size of the rafts, it was important to know the Susquehanna river.

“You needed to know where the rocks were and the sandbars,” he said.

As time passed, rafting logs became less popular as other, most cost-effective means of transportation became available.

“By the 1870s, it became viable to ship logs to market by rail, but for some reason, rafting as a business continued,” Poulton said. “We think it’s because it became a right of passage for young men in the area.”

He said there was a sense of adventure and pride that came with men who grew up knowing how to raft down the river.

“It didn’t make sense economically, but it was an adventure. That adventure continued until 1905,” he said. “That’s when it became more of a pastime. It stopped, but the thrill was still there.”

Some decided to keep it going for the sake of tradition, including brothers R. Dudley Tonkin of Tyrone and V. Ord Tonkin of Cherry Tree who came from a lumbering family.

Their father, Vince Tonkin, left an area of timber standing so the brothers could cut trees for a raft on occasion as a living history lesson. This would help preserve the tradition for new generations to experience.

Rafting reunions were held every so often, but by 1938, the rafters were getting older, and they decided on one final event.

“The character of the river was changing, and the boys were now old men. So, in the winter of 1938, they took some standing timber down, just for the purpose of a ceremony down the river,” he said.

The Last Raft measured 112 feet and was 25 to 28 feet wide. Its journey was intended to take it from Clearfield County to Harrisburg and was much publicized.

“It had 45 to 50 people on it” at any given time, he said, noting passengers changed by the day and the area through which it passed.

“Thousands of people came out to watch the raft depart every day,” he said. “Thousands lined the banks of the Susquehanna River.”

Poulton said he is often asked why so many people would come out to watch the raft go by. If NASA were to launch a space shuttle in this area today, it’s likely that thousands would come out to see it, he said. For the time period, it was the same type of experience.

“This was the last full-sized raft to ever come down the river. Down it came, stopping at logging towns along the way,” he said. “There was a huge party at Williamsport.”

But just a few hours later, the celebration would be over. As the Last Raft neared Muncy, an event would send it off course.

“It glanced off the Route 405 bridge in Muncy,” Poulton said. “They had a minute, maybe longer, and in that minute, they were out of the current they were supposed to be in and got too far on the east of the Susquehanna River.”

That put them in a path toward the Reading Railroad bridge.

“To further complicate matters, none of the rafters on that boat had ever gone under the Reading Railroad bridge,” Poulton said. “It was at a different angle than the bridge they were used to, and (its supports were) closer together. The room for error was a lot smaller.”

And so the raft collided with the bridge as hundreds of people watched from the bridge and banks of the river.

“They hit the third pier on the east side of the river. The raft rotated … it washed all of the people off the raft, killing seven,” Poulton said.

Onlookers were able to save 38 of the 45 people on the raft at the time of the accident. It would take weeks before the bodies of all seven people who died that day were recovered.

The raft later continued on to Harrisburg, but a different atmosphere surrounded the experience.

“The joy and the gaiety of the crowds that did come out, all the joy was taken out of the journey,” Poulton said.

“The crowds did come out in more of a somber salute to watch it continue on its route to Harrisburg.”