IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
E. H. Thomas
DAYS ON THE RIVER
SUPPLYING SAW MILLS FROM
of Joining Sections of the Raft
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
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.
RIVERS ARE NAVIGABLE
Congress Should order the Bridges Opened
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.
IN THE STEAMBOAT SYSTEM
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
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
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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