The Winnebago Indians called him 0Ke-wah-gah-kah (“Man Who Takes the Pictures”) and he certainly did that, over a career that spanned more than four decades. His name was Henry Hamilton Bennett, and the landscape he spent most of his life recording was that of the Wisconsin Dells, a region of ancient sandstone through which the Wisconsin River had carved a witchery of caves and palisades and curious rock formations.
But the river had other uses. Like the state’s other major streams—the Chippewa, the Black, and the St. Croix— each spring between the 1830’s and the 1880’s the Wisconsin became a river of wood, as great lumber rafts of roughcut Wisconsin pine were pieced together from the winter “harvest” and floated to markets as far south as St. Louis. This was no puny trade: by the end of the nineteenth century, one estimate has it, the four Wisconsin rivers had floated nearly 46 billion board-feet of logs and lumber.
It was in 1886—not long before the state’s expanding railroads would eliminate the river trade in lumber—that Bennett contracted with a local mill to document a typical Wisconsin lumberraft trip, and the forty views of “The Raftman’s Life on the Wisconsin” that he produced remain the most complete record we have of an odd, tough vocation long since vanished. On the following pages, we present a selection from this remarkable series.