National Geographic : 1948 Apr
Down Mark Twain's River on a Raft BY REX E. HIERONYMUS ATRIP down the Mississippi River on a homemade raft is one of boyhood's most cherished dreams. This is the story of two boys whose fathers turned that dream into 1,400 miles of reality. I might as well confess right now that we two fathers, Tom Roth and I, felt the lure of the big river as strongly as our sons. We shared with Tom's 12-year-old Tommy and my 15-year-old Dick the conviction that a vagabond river journey was the peak of ad venture (page 554). We would ride the river on a raft-did not those prototypes of all adventurous Missis sippi travelers, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, sail a raft? All right, we four would build our own craft and fare forth. If we ever need concrete reminder of our adventure, Tommy has the 12-inch bronze propeller which pushed our floating magic carpet down the river from Chicago to New Orleans. And Dick has the brass-mounted mahogany steering wheel he and I made in a basement workshop to guide our craft on the long voyage (map, page 553). The boys' confidence in our ability to de sign and build the raft and then navigate her from Chicago to New Orleans was a challenge. For a time war delayed us, but shortly after V-J Day we began work on designs for the raft and plans for the trip, and under took serious study of charts and pilot rules. Shipbuilding in a Basement Early in January, 1946, we started actual construction of the raft, dubbed the Meanco by the boys, short for their ambitious name for our outfit-the Mississippi Exploration and Navigation Company! For six months Tom Roth's basement in suburban Western Springs, Illinois, was a beehive of cutting, fitting, threading, tapping, and painting, until one evening in early June we sat back on our heels and surveyed with pride the unorthodox conveyance that was to be our home on the month-long journey. In licensing us, the Coast Guard dignified the raft as a "power-driven open boat, more than 15 and less than 26 feet long," and issued us the number 39-E -344, authorizing us to traverse the inland waterways and en titling us to service through locks, the raising or swinging of interfering bridges, all Coast Guard information services, etc. But their official language fell far short of conveying any picture of what the Meanco was really like. Properly she could be described as a double pontoon catamaran raft, powered by an out board motor. The frame and deck were con structed on two parallel pontoon floats, eight feet apart (page 557). Each pontoon con sisted of five 55-gallon steel oil drums, the front and rear drum of each side assembly being provided with a welded cone of heavier steel to streamline the floats and provide additional buoyancy. The drums were not welded solidly together, but were fastened rigidly into wood and steel saddles to which the tanks were secured by steel straps. Total buoyancy of the pontoons was 5,028 pounds. Our power plant was a 22-horsepower out board motor mounted toward the rear, midway between the two pontoons; for steering we set a conventional wheel forward. We secured an olive-drab tent to the deck and stowed a duffel locker and two cots inside to provide three bunks; the fourth was atop the icebox locker. Pontoons Carry Fuel and Water Fuel was carried in one of the 55-gallon drums, water for washing, etc., in the corre sponding drum on the opposite side. Drink ing water we carried in containers on deck. For cooking while under way we used a special double-walled, steel oven-stove, heated by exhaust gas from the motor. We cooked on a gasoline camp stove or over a campfire when we were ashore. The Meanco was 10 feet wide by 21 feet long, her deck space 10 by 15 feet. Clearance, including the flag mast, was 11 feet 3 inches. She was neatly and durably painted, pontoons and below-deck gear in aluminum and green, and deck and superstructure battleship gray with a gay trim of Chinese red. Tom and I were confident our raft was sufficiently shipshape and river-worthy to assure our primary aim: the construction of a craft that was in keeping with the adven turous spirit of our trip, but one in which our boys would not be exposed to needless danger or discomfort. The Meanco Sets Sail On the cool June morning when we proudly launched the raft in the canal near Summit, Illinois, our assurance was justified. Easily she floated, to the astonishment of bystanders who audibly doubted that anything that peculiar looking would float.