Chapter XII

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  



When the Life Went Out

of Steam Boating


They Waited Around the Landing, Hoping against Hope-Driftwood  


   Toward 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. 




   Dear 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  


  Ft. Madison, Iowa.  Nov. 21, 1911

Editor Post;  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 1906.

  Mrs. Patten’s health is improving slowly.  With best regards I remain yours truly    C. H. Patten



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