Rafts and Rafting

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RAFTS AND RAFTING. The raft, the simplest type of watercraft, was first constructed by lashing together several logs or reeds with vines or animal hide, and it served as water transportation as early as prehistoric times. In the United States, the simplest form of the raft, also called a flatboat, consisted of logs and planks fastened together to form a platform moved by river currents. The keelboat, a more elaborate version of the raft that could be poled, rowed, and even sailed, had the ability to travel upstream as well. Both styles of raft were used in the Mississippi River Valley prior to the Civil War. Poor immigrants often used the flatboat to transport lumber, livestock, and fodder. The keelboat, used by Lewis and Clark in their expedition up the Missouri River in 1804–1805, was also used in the fur trade and to transport goods and people. The new steam-powered boat, invented in the early nineteenth century, almost entirely replaced the raft by the Civil War. Rafts, however, did not fall into complete obsolescence. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, rigid and inflatable rafts are used as emergency equipment on ships and airplanes as well as for recreation. Rafting, for some, no longer conjures up Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn; instead, it carries with it the thrill and danger of navigating whitewater rapids.


Baldwin, Leland Dewitt. The Keelboat Age on Western Waters. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1941. Re-print, 1980.

Mueller, Edward. Upper Mississippi River Rafting Steamboats. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995.

Lila CorwinBerman

See alsoRiver Navigation .