The 1000 Feet Long Benson Rafts

Grace Higgins | December 2nd, 2020

A Benson raft was a massive seasonal log barge built to transport huge quantities of timber from Canada to Southern California. It was a way to move industrial amounts of unprocessed timber at one time, across miles of water. In fact, they tug boats would drag this wood through the ocean, saving the company millions in transportation costs. Because at the time time, transporting by train or lorries would have cost too much. Simon Benson was the raft building specialist behind the creation of these unique rafts.

Many historians believe this creation alone lowered the cost of finished timber so much that it started the boom of the construction industry in Southern California. Simon Benson was a lumber baron from Portland in Oregon. Today he may only be remembered for covering California in water fountains, known as the Benson Bubblers. However, during his career, he made several ingenious inventions. In fact, he is well known for his determination in building the Colombia River Highway and the Crown Point Vista House.

But ask anyone who was alive during the early 1900s, and they would talk about Benson’s huge cigar looking lumber rafts floating across the ocean. People had been trying to make these lumber rafts since the 1700s, and many attempts had been made. It sounds simple: wood floats. But most designs ended in complete disaster. In 1906, Benson traveled to the American West Coast and made a sawmill there in Southern California, because he knew the boom was coming. But the problem was San Diego did not have enough trees to supply his sawmill. He needed to import trees from logging operations in Oregon and Canada. However, it was extremely expensive to load logs into an ocean schooner.

He designed his raft to take logs from the Columbia River all the way down to San Diego. This meant these rafts were floating over 1,100 miles. It was designed to float as if it was only a gigantic tree trunk. Essentially, they would tie felled trees all together with giant logging chains. It could take up to seven weeks just to put these rafts together as they were usually 700 to 1000 feet long and 55 feet wide. It was a massive success until they started to burn mysteriously. This caused navigational problems given their size and given they had never burned before, it was thought to be sabotage. In 1941, the construction of Benson rafts ended forever.

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