GREAT BARRINGTON

Jessie Benton Frémont was overwhelmed when she first saw the rubber raft her husband, John Charles Frémont, planned to paddle down wild rivers in the American west.

Or rather, she swooned when she first got a whiff of it.

It was spring 1842. Georgia-born John Frémont (1813-1890), known as Pathfinder, was a teacher, engineer, military officer, explorer and future Mexican War soldier.

Jessie Frémont (1824-1902), daughter of Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, was a popular writer and memoirist. And she was expecting their first child.

John Frémont had been a second lieutenant with the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers since 1838, charged with surveying several western territories. Congress in 1841 appropriated funds for a reconnoiter of the Oregon Trail. He enlisted frontiersman "Kit" Carson (1809-1868) as guide to take him to South Pass in the Rocky Mountains in southwest Wyoming. Also with the party would be Charles Preuss (1803-1854), a German-born cartographer. Twenty-five men in all signed on for the five-month excursion.

Their equipment would include inflatable rubber boats.

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Frémont commissioned Horace H. Day (1813-1878) of New Brunswick, N.J. to make the raft for $190.98. It had air-tight compartments to keep it afloat as he was "crossing or examining water-courses." Day was born in Great Barrington and in 1847 would return to the town to build a rubberwear factory on the east bank of the Housatonic River, across from the present St. Peter’s Church.

Frémont thought it would be clever to reveal the rubber raft to his family in dramatic manner. He directed servants to place the packing case on "the upper gallery off the dining room where it could be displayed before dinner.

"As the boat was freed of all covering," according to biographer Ferol Egan, "as its form was pulled into the open, the whole house was subjected to the odor of reeking chemicals. To Jessie, this was the only thing which was to make her suffer nausea or any unpleasant sickness during her whole term of pregnancy."

The odor was Jessie Frémont’s lasting memory of the craft. John Frémont’s memory was more dramatic.

Pathfinder set out across Nebraska on June 10, 1842, from the mouth of the Kansas River following the Oregon Trail to the Platte River. He split his party, one group to follow each fork of the river. They would meet at Fort Laramie. Frémont took to the boat, made up of four rubber cloth tubes and a wraparound fabric floor. The rubber boat proved awkward with the heavy loads. Frémont wrote in his journal that the raft was difficult to manage.

When they reached the rough waters of the Platte River, there was near disaster. He penned Aug. 24: "We became flushed with success and familiar with the danger; and, yielding to the excitement of the occasion, broke forth together into a Canadian boat song. Singing, or rather shouting, we dashed along; and were, I believe, in the midst of the chorus, when the boat struck a concealed rock immediately at the foot of a fall, which whirled her over in an instant.

"Three of my men could not swim, and my first feeling was to assist them, and save some of our effects; but a sharp concussion or two convinced me that I had not yet saved myself. A few strokes brought me to an eddy, and I landed on a pile of rocks on the left side. Looking around, I saw that Mr. Preuss had gained the shore on the same side, about twenty yards below; and a little climbing and swimming soon brought him to my side. On the opposite side against the wall, lay the boat bottom up; and Lambert was in the act of saving Descoteaux, whom he had grasped by the hair, and who could not swim...

"For a hundred yards below, the current was covered with floating books and boxes, bales of blankets, and scattered articles of clothing; and so strong and boiling was the stream, that even our heavy instruments, which were all in cases, kept on the surface, and the sextant, circle, and the long black box of the telescope, were in view at once. For a moment, I felt somewhat disheartened. All our books; almost every record of the journey -- our journals and registers of astronomical and barometrical observations -- had been lost in a moment. But it was no time to indulge in regrets; and I immediately set about endeavoring to save something from the wreck. . ."

Thus, history’s first account of white-water rafting.

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Saving what they could of their supplies, including the Day rubber boat, Frémont’s men climbed out of the canyon and followed the Platte valley to a trading post at Bellevue.

Frémont was home in time for the birth of his daughter, Elizabeth Benton, called Lily.

Pathfinder continued to use rubber boats in his excursions to map the west. Day didn’t make many more rubber boats, though. Known as something of a scoundrel for failing to pay vulcanization royalties to Charles Goodyear, Day in Great Barrington would manufacture rubber fire pails, hoses and other utilitarian goods.

I will share stories about Day’s further escapades at a Great Barrington Historical Society meeting Wednesday, at 7 p.m. at the Claire Teague Senior Center, South Main Street. Come if you like.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.