IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
Capt E.H. Thomas
Boats and Old Masters and Pilots
No, I am not looking for a steamboat job-too old, and am not a
candidate for office. I have
no axe to grind and no apology to offer for rushing into print.
Some of my friends have requested me to write a river story.
To give them my recollections of the golden days of steam boating
when more than one thousand steamboats and barges were in the trade
between St. Louis and St. Paul. As
I must go back 30 or 40 years and depend upon my memory, the readers of
the Post must not expect too much of me as to dates, and the events of
RETURN FROM THE
The surrender of Gen. Lee in April, and that of Gen Kirby
Smith in May 1865, the Union soldiers were disbanded and returned to
their homes in the north, and the writer was among the number.
Many of the politicians and editors of that time regarded the
disbanding of this great army as a dangerous proposition.
It was predicted that these men, who had become so accustomed to
the bloody work of war would never again enter upon the peaceful walks
of life. That the country
would be overrun with roving bands of guerrillas, robbing and killing
the people. But in this the
wise men of that period were mistaken; all went back to their former
occupations, to the shops, the farms and the stores.
I took my former place at the printer’s case in Illinois.
The town had a population of about 1,000.
They were good people but there was no push or enterprise in
them. The dog fennel was
permitted to grow in the streets, and lap over onto the sidewalk.
There were but two days in the week when one could notice any
stir on the streets. Saturday,
when the farmers came in to sell their produce and purchase supplies,
and Sunday, when the inhabitants emerged from their homes and slowly
wended their ways to the different churches.
I soon discovered that after being associated with thousands of
men and participating in the exciting events of the camp, the march and
the battlefield, that setting type on a weekly paper in this country
town was too tame a job for me. A
feeling of loneliness came over me, and I could not shake it off.
In fact, I was miserable, and at the end of four weeks I quit the
printer’s case, turned my back upon the town and went to the
A NEW OCUPATION
At one of the river towns I met an acquaintance, Jerome Ruby, who
was ten or twelve years my senior. He
asked me what I was doing. To
him I told my tale of woe-that I had quit my job in the country town and
was looking for something new, a position which would have more of the
adventure in it, and where I could see the people on the move and mingle
with the crowd.
“Young man,” said Ruby. “come
with me, and I will give you all of the adventure you want.”
My friend Ruby was a pilot on the steamboat, New Boston, a
passenger packet then operating between Rock Island and Montrose, a
distance of 120 miles. There
were two of these steamers, the New Boston and the Keithsburg, one up
and one down every day except Sunday.
The pilots were O. M. Ruby, Jerome Ruby and Sheldon Ruby, brothers
and L. C. Alley. I
have reason to remember these men, for they were good to me, my true and
steadfast friends through all of the years I was
on the river.
this is how I came to be a steamboat pilot:
through accident or force of circumstance.
A few weeks after my conversation with Ruby I was in the pilot
house of the steamer New Boston, receiving lessons in navigation, or in
other words, I was a cub pilot. It
was the custom in those days to charge the cub from $300 to $500 for
learning the business, but I could not have raised one-half of the
smaller amount. I have
always believed that the Ruby’s and Alley were aware of this fact, for
they made no charge. The
tuition was not only free, but they permitted me to live, eat and sleep
on the two steamers upon these same terms, and I have always remembered
them for their kindness. I
had always had a fondness for boats and the water, and was anxious to
learn this new business. However,
I soon discovered that it was no easy task.
That to be a successful pilot, one must read the surface of the
water as he would a book. From
his position in the pilot house he must see the draft of water, the sand
reefs as well as the “breaks” of the hidden rocks, snags and other
dangerous obstructions in the bed of the river.
That this was the secret of the business, for which pilots were
then paid from $8 to $15 per day. In
those days, the 60s, 70s and 80s, there were no lights and boards, as
now, to show the pilot the crossings.
No effort was made to concentrate the water and deepen the
channel. The great river, in
many places two and three miles wide, was permitted to flow here and
thee over this wide expense of territory.
There was then but two of the government dams between Rock Island
and Montrose. The first at
the head of Rush Chute, just above Burlington.
The little money then appropriated by congress was spent in
improving the harbors of the sea-coast.
The channel, with its sandy bed, was constantly shifting.
The pilot was expected to keep track of these changes, follow its
zig-zag course, and in the day time, establish two shore marks on every
crossing. Stationary objects
on the shore, which he would be able to recognize in the night time.
Such shore marks consisted of high trees, a notch or low place in
a line of timber, a house,
barn, chimney of a mill, a slice or hole in the bluff, the head or foot
of an island etc. As the
channel crossed the stream about 50 times
in our run of 120 miles, it required the location of 100 of these
shore marks. For the cub
pilot it was a brain rushing job to remember all of these marks.
Under ordinary conditions these marks served their purpose.
There were times, however, when making a long crossing was
largely guess work. With a
heavy fog hanging over the river it was difficult to see the marks.
The pilot was fortunate to find one mark as a starter to cross
the river. On numerous
occasions, when I was surrounded by a thick mist of heavy fog and did
not know whether I was in the Mississippi river, or up some catfish
slough, I could hear the voice of my old friend Ruby, “Come with me,
young man, and I will give you all of the adventure you want.”
But as an apprentice I worked it out in one season, securing a
fair knowledge of the 120 miles of river.
For many years we had a large and paying business on this run
between the upper and lower rapids.
At one time there were four passenger packets in operation, as
well as a lot of tow boats and barges, and all were busy.
Later on the business and the boats employed in this and other
short trades above St. Louis were taken out.
As a result the pilots were out of jobs.
The only thing to do was to serve another apprenticeship:
Extend our runs by learning the channel on other portions of the
river. Many of my associates
went on to the through boats operating between St. Louis and St. Paul.
I went into the Davenport and St. Louis trade, learned the river
below Keokuk and remained in that district during the balance of my time
on the river. In my next
letter I shall give you my recollections of the great steamboat war, the
fight to a finish between the Northern Line Packet Company and
the Northwestern transportation Company, or as it was better
known, the “White Collar Company.’
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