IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
E. H. Thomas
DAYS FOR RIVER PILOTS
the Life Went Out
Waited Around the Landing, Hoping against Hope-Driftwood
the latter end of water transportation on the upper Mississippi river,
we were up against it. The engineers and other received steady
employment ashore but it was thin picking for the pilots.
A large number of these men had been on the boats since they were
boys, and had little knowledge of other kinds of business.
But they loved the river and the boats, and stayed around there
with the hope that conditions would get better, but they did not.
They had to depend on occasional jobs, and then rustle on the
shores and earn sufficient money to make up the deficit in their yearly
expense account. We had to
economize, especially in the matter of dress.
The Prince Albert suits, the lavender shirts, the silk stockings,
the gauntletts and the diamonds were cut out.
I met one of my former associates, whom I failed to recognize at
first glance, for the reason that he was attired in a pepper and salt
hand me down suit of the value of about $12.
I had never seen him with a rig like that before.
Another, who in
former years had been earning from $10 to $15 per day in the pilot
house, told me that he had spent the previous winter in a mill, carrying
boards and slabs away from the saw at $2 per day.
Another of my pilots friends who could preach, and was a good
singer, could find no revenues in that line of business, so he purchased
a half interest in a patent bed spring, and went on the road taking
orders for that. Another was
a pilot and an actor. He
picked up what dollars he could find during the boating season, and then
played his parts on the stage during the winter months.
I met another passing down the river with a large yawl and
camping outfit. He appeared
to be hunting the Lost Tribes of Israel, or rather picking up relics and
information in reference to the ancient race of Mound Builders, who are
supposed to have inhabited this country at one time.
And he was being paid for his services by a Davenport
historical society. I
made a short trip with this man, and assisted in the work of exploring
several of these mounds, where we uncovered a lot of silver crosses and
ancient coins There are many
of these mounds along the
river. I think the largest
one of the lot is at Toolsboro on the Iowa river.
From its summit one can see both Burlington and Muscatine.
On a railroad train I met one of my former associates, who was
selling crackers for a Rock Island firm.
Quite a number of the boys went to Fairport, Iowa, where they
loaded some cheap hulls with crocks and jugs, dropped down the river and
sold their ware to the merchants along the shores, cleaning up a fair
profit. And so they went,
back and forth from a shore job to the pilot house, in order to gain a
livelihood. I was compelled
to follow the example of my associated for a time I held cases on the
Burlington Hawkeye during the reign of Frank Hatton, John and Bob
Burdette, Dick Stockton, Mr. Waite and Al Leadley.
Capt Hall was the business manager, and cashed our strips.
I was Slug Six and worked next to Billy Wohlwend.
Later on, at Hatton’s suggestion Al Leadley and
myself took control of the Monday Morning News and ran that for a time.
The News was a sort of Sunday edition-of the Hawkeye.
When the river business let down, and I had a stake, I would
purchase a printing outfit, and establish a paper at some town along
there. When a job was on
sight in a pilot house I would sell my paper on short notice, and return
to the river. I was in the
paper business at Keithsburg, Burlington, Dallas City and Nauvoo, and
thro the use of both occupations, I managed to stay around there.
But the revival of river traffic which we had hoped for and
waited for, never came. One
by one the boats disappeared. Within
a few years the musical whistle for the landing and the steady roll and
beat of the steamboat wheel upon the water were no longer heard.
Water transportation upon the upper Mississippi was a thing of
the past, and the steamboat pilot lost his occupation.
I am not sure but I think that when Robert Fulton backed his
steamboat away from the shores at Hudson river, he was using a wooden
wheel. Wood arms and a plank
bucket. From that day to
this there has been little or no improvement made in the steamboat
wheel, although many attempts have been made in that direction.
During the time of which I write a wheel craze struck the upper
Mississippi river. There
were some 500 or 600 models in the steamboat inspectors office in St.
Louis. The inventors nearly
all had one idea. Appeared
to be at work on one problem. To
wit: To bring the wooden
bucket straight up out of the water after it had made its pull, or
finished its work. And by
this plan prevent the bucket from carrying water up in the air.
Which they regarded as an unnecessary load on the engines and a
loss of power. This was
accomplished by many of the inventions.
The buckets were brought up, but the additional attachments to
the wheel more than equaled the loss of power on the old wheel.
Many of the inventors put money into small steamboats for the
sole purpose of advertising and introducing their patent wheels, but
none of them proved a success. It
was and is now conceded, that the screw, or propeller wheel will develop
more power, with the same machinery, than any other.
But the trouble is that such wheels must be entirely submerged to
get the power out of them. This
makes them too deep to be used on the shoal rivers.
John B. Dawler, an Illinois river pilot, undertook to work
out the problem of using a propeller wheel without submerging it.
His wheel had two heavy cast iron hubs on the shaft, with holes
and set screws to receive the arms.
The latter were made of 1 ˝ malleable iron and five feet in
length. The buckets were of
steel, 16 inches wide and 8 feet long.
These buckets were placed at an angle on the shaft so that they
would reach ahead, and get a pull on the water.
Each boat was equipped with two of these wheels, each 12 feet in
diameter, and they were operated by two upright high speed engines.
The first boat to use them was the W. D. Smith which
operated to St. Louis and other points, for two seasons.
Some of the lumber companies contracted the fever, and the J.
G. Chapman and other raft steamers were equipped with them.
When light, the Smith drew but 20 inches of water, and the wheels
were set 4 inches above her bottom, the steel buckets 8 feet long and 16
wide, being just covered with the water.
I found that the Dawler
wheel was a complete success as a shoal water propeller, but our
troubles were all in the engine room.
The wheels went around at lightning speed, and the buckets had
such a strong pull in the water, that an end motion was created on both
shafts, which we could not control, altho many plans were tried - the
engines were forced out of line and went to pieces.
The Dawler wheel was used for some time by a number of boats, but
was finally discarded. The
foundry bills were too heavy. And
now, at this date, we are having a test of another shoal water propeller
wheel on the Missouri river. These
steamers are using a three blade wheel, five feet in diameter, with 2 ˝
feet of it submerged, when the boat is light.
However, the wheels are not placed on the stem of the boat, as
was the Dawler, but in the forward end of a tunnel or recess in the
hull. This plan was first
introduced by the English government 25 or 30 years ago and the tunnel
boats were used on the Nile and other shoal rivers.
The experiment on the Missouri river is being watched with
interest by steamboat men. They
have witnessed so many failures that they are slow to endorse any
improvement on the steamboat wheel.
Like the man from Missouri they want to be showed.
The steamer Chester has made several trips from Kansas
City to St. Louis. This boat
has three tunnels and used three of the wheels.
FROM CAPT. E. H. THOMAS TO
Captain: I have just read
your article in the Burlington Post in reference to navigating the Des
Moines river and I accept the amendment.
Stand corrected . At
one time I had a personal acquaintance with a large number of steamboat
men, and when thinking of Charley Faris and Charley Patten I have
always got my wires crossed. For
some reason was unable to tell which from the other.
Got you mixed. I now
remember that the story I got somewhere of the sinking of the Badger
State, said that it was Charley Patten who was the cabin boy.
However, I think it was fortunate that I made this error.
It brought you to the front as a member of the Historical
committee. Your letter
contains many details which are valuable to us, now that we are making a
vigorous effort to have the government improve the Des Moines river.
Many people out here regard the navigation of the river in the
old days as a myth. Along
with my river story, I have pasted your letter in my scrap book, and we
can make use of the facts therein. It
also fills a blank space in my narrative on rivers.
I have written to some of the old boys that some money could be
made now with the right kind of a fleet, between Ottumwa and Keokuk.
Just as the river is now. Our
shippers would be very glad to have connection with the Mississippi
river by boat. It would
largely reduce their freight charges, and the boats could make some
money here during the 4 ˝ to 5 good water months.
One extreme follows another, and I look for big water in the Des
Moines next year. Since I
have been here I have seen wet seasons, where there was good steamboat
water for 6 or 7 months. The
outfit needed is two barges, and a low deck tug with a draft of not more
than 30 or 36 inches to tow the barges, carrying 400 to 500 tons.
Tug should not stand more than 10 feet from the surface of the
river. Such a fleet would go
under all the bridges, 10 of them between Ottumwa and the mouth.
The old dams were all swept away by the ice and it is clear
sailing from Ottumwa out. Our
shippers, 3 years ago offered to put up the cash and take a ˝ interest
in such a fleet if the steamboat man would take the other ˝ and operate
the boats. I think such a
deal could be made now for next year.
You could handle this. Think
it over. Yours E. H. Thomas
LETTER FROM J. F.
Ft. Madison, Iowa. Nov.
I received the letter yesterday that I ought to have received
last Saturday from J. Finley Johnson, formerly at Montrose but now
living at New London, Iowa. In
the letter he writes that he thinks that the steamboat Mexico
struck the Mechanic Rock and drifted down to a point at the lower
end of Galland and sank there.
Then it was called Aunt Jenny’s Point.
Aunt Jenney was a colored woman and had a fine peach orchard
at the point. The steamer
Mexico was a single engine, side wheel boat; was raised and taken to St.
Louis for repairs. Mechanic
Rock had a shoulder some distance from the top of the rock at least
that’s what it was called, and the rapids pilots used to base their
judgment of the water on the rapids by this shoulder on the rock.
Please get the above in my article that I wrote for you on the 19th
inst., and fix it up so it will be readable.
Also, please send to J. B. Keil, Montrose, and J. Finley
Johnson, Lock box 443, New London, Iowa each a copy of THE POST that
my article appears in and oblige me very much .That was a fine
acknowledgement from Capt E. H Thomas that
I was right and he was mistaken, was it not?
I will have a week’s vacation in December and perhaps call to
see you, and again write up about my shipwreck near Mobile in December
Mrs. Patten’s health is improving slowly.
With best regards I remain yours truly
C. H. Patten
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