Chapter XI

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  



                         SUPPLYING SAW MILLS FROM  DAVENPORT DOWN.                       

Manner of Joining Sections of the Raft

Together--Pilot Life on the Big Stream.




   It would be a great pleasure to the writer to know what became of all his   friends and associates. How they  spent their latter days, and where and when they died. The presumption is that that nearly all of them are dead, and I realize that I will soon join them on the other shore. Now and then during the past 30 years, I have occasionally heard some thing concerning them, but I have located but six who were at the wheel, and with whom I was acquainted, in the old days.

   Captain James Harris, who could build a steamboat and work at the wheel or in the engine room, is still a resident of Burlington.

   Captain Thomas Peel another experienced river man is also a resident of Burlington as is Capt. Jules Calhoun.

   Captain Sheldon Ruby, the youngest of the three Ruby brothers is a resident of Rock Island county, Illinois.

   A little farther up the river, in the little town of Albany, is the home of Captain Frank Wild. Frank must have passed the 70 mark by this time, but strange to say he is still guiding the boats here and there. He has been in the business so long and likes it so well that he will not quit it.

   Just above Fort Madison, opposite Dutchman’s Island and on the Iowa shore is the fine country home of Captain L. C. Alley, the one time pilot of the Keithsburg and other boats. And connected with his house is 320 acres of Iowa soil, worth $200 per acre any day in the week. I had the pleasure of visiting him in 1910, and after dinner, we navigated  the great  river  again, (in our minds) during all of one afternoon.

   But very many have passed away. My old friends, Jerome and Miles Ruby with whom I was first associated are numbered among the dead, and sleep at Rock Island and Buffalo.

   In the Rock Island Cemetery at the head of a mound of earth, may be seen a large steamboat anchor which marks the resting place of Dave Tipton, who spent his entire life in the pilot house.

   Hiram Beedle died at the wheel many years ago, while  backing his boat out of Savannah. Vincent Peel lost his life by the capsizing of his steamboat. Henry Coleman was found dead in the pilot house.

Deck Dickson dropped dead on the banks of the Yukon River. The musical Cohn Hamilton, who thirty years ago, charming the girls at the landings with his songs, was buried near the water at Canton, Mo. Farther down the river,  high upon the bluffs, lie the remains of  the Blakeslee Brothers.

   These men have gone to that land from which they cannot return, and with many others of whom I have no record.                




   In the olden days the lumber  business was one of the great industries on the upper Mississippi, furnishing employment to thousands of men. There were saw mills on the upper portion of the river, and many of them  between Davenport and St. Louis, the largest one below being the Lamb mill at Clinton, which used 1000 saws, and employed about 300 men. Logs were rafted and floated down to these mills. The lumber cut above was also sent down the stream in the same way. Some of these rafts contained a large amount of lumber, built in cribs and then rafted together in strings. On each end of a string was an oar with a long sweep, and a man to use it. So that on what was called a ten string raft, there were 20 oarsmen. The depth of the cribs depended on the stage of water in the river. These raftsmen were the most healthy, robust men in the country. It was said that none of them ever died of disease, and that water being a non-conductor, none of them ever were killed by lightening. That the few dead raftsmen were always found with their boots on and their bodies fatally perforated with lead. I cannot vouch for this, but this was the story. They lived in the open, had plenty of air and sunshine, and with their muscles well developed, they were certainly splendid specimens of manhood. For many years, these men manned the floaters, then came the raft tugs, or steamboats. Some one, I think a man in Le Claire, conceived  the idea of placing a steamboat behind a raft and pushing it down the river at a great speed. The experiment was tried, proved a success and about all the lumber companies adopted this plan. It was found by using a steamboat, they could make five trips while a floater  was making three. Then the steamboat, could carry the crew back up the river, after the raft was sold.  The first demonstration of this plan which  I saw at Burlington. A raft pilot whom we called “Slim Jim”, came along with a ten string raft, and there was a steamboat behind it. Pilot Jim made no stop above the bridge, but went straight at it. Spitting the raft, the steamboat followed five strings through the right draw, and his men, with oars, handled the other five strings.  When below the bridge the big raft was coupled together without a stop, and went  on its way. I believe that Slim Jim was the first who attempted to perform this feat with a ten string raft, and  he certainly did some fine work. Later on Jim told us that all it required was a pilot with a level head and the necessary nerve. Though use of the steamer it  required but few oarsmen and the crossings were much easier made. Finally the northern pineries were cut away, but few rafts were seen upon the river, and the saw mills were dismantled. Like the steam boating, business went to pieces and the men employed in the woods, in the mills, and on the rafts were forced to seek new occupations.



And Congress Should order the Bridges Opened

Navigation of Des Moines Regarded as a Legend


  As I stated in the commencement of the river stories, I am writing entirely from memory, and have been expecting some of the boys to rise up with corrections.  This is all right.  We should keep the story straight.  I am making an effort to tell the truth:  and if I should err in some of the details it is not intentional. Capt Charley Patten is the first to come to the front.  It was he and not Charley Faris who was a cabin boy on the Badger State when she hit a rock pile and went down on the Ottumwa rapids, and I am glad to make the correction, and give Capt Patten his place among the veteran steamboatmen.  However, I think it was fortunate that I made this error.  It brought the captain out with a very interesting article on the Des Moines River, which I had re-published to show the people up here that the Des Moines river had been actually navigated by the Mississippi steamers.  Many of them regarded this as a sort of legend, and I was pleased to furnish them the testimony of Captain Patten, one of the navigators.  Capt. Patten’s article has been pasted in my scrap book, and completes the story of navigation upon the three principal rivers of Iowa-the Cedar, the Iowa and Des Moines-positive evidence that with the bridges open, the three streams could now be used by the steamboats, as they were in the olden times.  And this winter, we shall ask congress to open the bridges, or rather have the owners to do it.  This will be the first move on the Des Moines river project. With the bridges open, provided with lift or draw spans, the steamboats and the shippers will again have the use of the river for at least four months of the year, and during wet years, from six to seven months.  If there is business up here and theirs plenty of it, the Mississippi steamers will surely come up after it.




  While the steamboat companies did a large and paying business for many years, there were some defects in their system of transportation at that time, as we see it now.  Perhaps the officials of the companies believed they were doing the proper thing for the accommodation of the people, yet at this date, it is amusing when we call to mind some of the methods and customs of that time.  The officers of a railway company would not  hold a passenger train at a station for five or six hours to load a lot of freight. Yet this is the way the steamboat company’s handles their large passenger steamers.  The tickets sold at that time included meals, and it was not a paying proposition for a steamer to lay at the bank half a day burning coal and feeding a hundred passengers.  Besides the passengers were not pleased with this slow method of transportation, and it had much to do in killing the passenger business on the boats.  Another custom was to answer every hail between towns to land a steamer for one passenger, a cow or a horse.  Of course the captain and the company officials were popular with the people along the shore for being so accommodating., but from a financial standpoint there was nothing in it, this landing at every station.  I then believed, and I am still of the same opinion, that to do a combination business, carry both passengers and freight on the same boat, was a mistake.  There are a number of good and sufficient reasons why this should not be done.  In the old days we had our tow boats and barges.  (the present barge movement is not new) All of the heavy freight should have gone into the barges, instead of on to the passenger steamers.  And now, if the boats are to be coming back, the business should be classified, and with the rolling stage, the derrick and the other modern appliances to handle the freight in and out of the barges, there would be more money in the business.  Our old system of carrying the freight in and out on the backs of a gang of men, was not only slow but expensive.  But as that time this plan appeared to be the only way to handle it.  Now, with the modern appliances, ten men can do the work of 40 roustabouts, and do it quicker and at less cost.  Another advantage would be that the machinery used in the work would not go on a strike.  As illustrating this waste of time and money, a story told that on her down stream trip a large passenger boat was hailed, and she rounded to, the man from the shore had a letter and some pennies, which he gave the clerk, with instructions to stamp and mail the letter, when the boat reached St. Louis.

  If the business is to be reestablished on the upper Mississippi, my idea of it would be this: There should be a few- a sufficient number to do the business-speedy light draft passenger steamers, and they should be of steel.

  The freight train does not wait for the unloading or loading of cars, and the tow boat should not lay at landings, burning coal, but be moving along, picking up the barges and hustling them to their destinations.

  There should be a large number of steel barges with water tight compartments, and water tight hatches, so they could be distributed along the river at the different towns.

  The steel barge should be made to serve the double purpose of boat and store house.  When possible to do so, deliver and receive all freight, to and from the barge to save the expense of handling.

  With such barges it will not be necessary to erect and maintain large warehouses.  A small building on the shore for the use of the agent, will be sufficient.

  It will not be necessary to build and maintain stationary or floating docks.  A paved levee, with the proper slope, so that it can be used by the boats at all stages of the river, is all that is needed, and these landing places should be maintained by the different towns and cities.  Six feet of water from St. Louis to St. Paul, and good landings is all that the steamboat men of the present time are asking. The government is now making the six foot channel, and the different cities and towns should furnish the landing places. 

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