Chapter I

Burlington Saturday Evening Post  

Capt E.H. Thomas

Old 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 that period.




   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 Mississippi river.




   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.



 And 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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