Chapter XIII

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  




Capt Woodward, Steve McBride and Andy Pitts-Transporting Lead and Whiskey in Early Days  

   All old timers well remember the commanding figure of Capt. Bryson as he stood upon the roof telling the pilot to come ahead on the star board wheel, and hold the steamer up to the shore.  He is one of the few surviving captains and is now postmaster at Davenport, Iowa.

   From a recent letter I get information that Capt. H. C. Woodward is still with us, and is a resident of Fort Madison.

   Out here, among the corn fields of Iowa, I discovered, two old time river men, Steve McBride, formerly of Montrose, and Andy Pitts.  The latter died several years ago.  These two men were on the Ottumwa police force for a long time an made  faithful and efficient officers.

   Mr. Tucker, who spent many years on the upper Mississippi as an engineer is also a resident of Ottumwa.

   In early days the principal productions along the upper end of the river were lead and whiskey.  The lead mines around Galena were in active operation and there were many distilleries up there.  There was a surplus of grain and a great deal of it was converted into whiskey.  Both of these man killing commodities were sent to southern markets by the river route.  I think it was in 1849 that the Steamer Tempest come steaming down the river with a tow, and one of the barges was loaded with lead.  While on the Eagle Island crossing below Oquawka Ills. The barge loaded with the pig lead was found to be in sinking condition.  About half way over the crossing, and opposite the foot of Eagle Island, the sinking barge was cut loose from the steamer, and went to the  bottom of the river.  A wrecking crew come up from St. Louis and saved a portion of the cargo.  Later on, in after years, a company was organized in Burlington for the purpose of going down after the remainder of the lead.  This party from Burlington spent some time and money up there, and finally succeeded in getting chains  under the barge, but when the hoisting commenced, the boat went to pieces, and the pig lead is still buried in the sands on the Eagle Island crossing.  Now if some of the younger men want to work a real mine, Capt. James Harris of Burlington, can point out the exact spot where lies the buried treasure.  Pig lead, ready for the market needs no smelting.  Harris is probably the only surviving member of the party that sailed up to Eagle Island on the lead expedition 50 or 60 years ago.

   The people along the shores, congressmen  and others, who have  no experience in navigating it, get mistaken ideas as to the depth of the water in the upper Mississippi river.  When they read the newspaper that the stage is but 3 ½ feet, they jump at the conclusion that the old river, for its entire length, is about dry and that the attempt to increase the depth of water is a waste of government money.  Such views, and ideas have had much to do in killing appropriations.  The facts are, as every pilot knows, that the stage of 3 ½ feet refers especially, and only, to the few high places on the river bed, here and there.  The high sand bars, and the high rock piles.  This is the mark on which the  U. S.  engineers are now engaged.  They are cutting down these  places,  and by so doing increase the dept waters on the bars and rocks. The casual observer in looking up or down this stream, during a high water period, see only the dry sand beds reaching out from the shores. The facts are that when there is but 3-½ feet on the high places, there are then long stretches of the river, miles and miles, where the water is deep, and where no steamboat was ever seen aground.  Miles and miles where no government work is needed, except perhaps, the protection of the banks, and the closing of a few island chutes.  And besides, for five months of the seven, on the upper river the high places referred to are deeply covered with water.  The government work, the cutting down of the high bars, is for the purpose of maintaining a good channel during the dry months of July and August.  The years of 1910 and 1911 have been record breakers the driest ever known, resulting not only in thin water on the high places in the river but a shortage of crops over the entire Mississippi valley.  It was an old saying on the river that low water seasons come in pairs, and so it has been in this case.  Of course, “the opponents of river improvement and cheap water transportation have made good use of the recent dry spell, but they may not see like conditions during the next 10 years.

  Mark Twain, or Samuel Clemens, as he tells us in his book was a steamboat pilot before the civil war.  He learned the river under Col. Bixby, and his run was from St. Louis to New Orleans.  Mark was also a printer, and at one time working at the case in Muscatine, Keokuk, Hannibal and St. Louis.  He quit the river early in 1861.  There were a great many pilots did the same thing about that time. For two reasons:

   The government seized a large number of the upper river steamboats, and they were taken south.  This put a lot  of the upper river pilots out of a job.

   Then from 1861 up to the fall of Vicksburg July 4, 1863 the shores of the Mississippi from Cairo to New Orleans were lined with Confederate batteries and riflemen.  Steering a steamboat along there in those days was not a healthy occupation.  Many of the pilots, were shot full of holes while standing at the wheel.  As a soldier, I was down there, during those troublesome times.  Many of the boats were perforated with cannon balls.  I counted 23 holes through the cabin of one steamer, the Prima Donna.  She had been up the Yazoo river with the Sherman expedition.  The government was paying enormous wages but under such conditions, pilots were not looking for a job on the lower Mississippi.  The greater portion of the lower river pilots, those who stayed around there were handling boats for the Confederates, and it became necessary for the government to “press” or coerce, a lot of the up river men.  These pilots were met on the St Louis levee by military master of transportation, and told to go on to the steamers and take them down, the river.  My old friends Jerome Ruby, Henry White and others, were caught in this military net, and sent down the river.  If the refused to go they were furnished with a guard to escort them from the levee to the pilot house.  They did not know a mile of the channel below St. Louis, but the government had a plan by which they could use them.  The boats usually sailed in fleets, ten to twenty boats in a fleet.  The steamer ahead was called the “flag boat.”  On this steamer were two pilots who knew the river.  The pilots who had no knowledge of the channel simply followed the flag boat, kept up close after her.

   After learning the river Mark Twain made occasional trips back to it.  He had a brother in Keokuk, and went there to visit him, making stops in St. Louis and Hannibal, the latter place being his old home.  It was on one of these trips that I met him on board of the Mollie M. Pike, Clemens was a peculiar looking fellow, a man whom one would notice in a crowd of one hundred.  As he sat on the deck, forward of the cabin, making a cob pipe, I pulled my chair up near him, and we soon engaged in conversation.  I found him interesting.  Among other things he gave me a beautiful word painting of the beauty and grandeur of the Mississippi river.  Later on he injected a little humor into his talk when he said:  “This is a remarkable coincidence, both printers and steamboat pilots.  But the worst feature of it is the fact that we are both boating our way from St. Louis to Keokuk.  I noticed you taking supper at the officers table.”  Now, after years, when Mark became a famous writer, some people accused him of stretching the truth in order to make his story readable, but on this occasion his statement was absolutely true.  Mark knew Frank Burnett , Captain of the boat and I was acquainted with one of the pilots, and this was sufficient to secure our passes, and with the passes berths and meals we were regarded as visitors.  That was the custom in those days, but I do not believe that this system would go at the present day with Walter Blair or the Streckfus Line.  There is not sufficient business, and I think visitors would be required to pay their fares.   At Keokuk I parted company with Mark and never saw him after.  I remember that one of the incidents of this trip on the Mollie M. Pike, was the “banking” of a gambler.  He was a gentle, well dressed fellow, and had paid his fare to Keokuk, but Captain Burnett spotted him, his money was refunded, the boat landed, and the gambler put ashore.  Before and for a time after the war, these gamblers were permitted to live on the boats, and with their card games, fleece the passengers.  There was much complaints from the public, and the steamboat companies finally issued an order to land them.  




  Fort Madison, Iowa, Nov 19, 1911.

Editor Post:  Recently the Hon. John P. Cruikshank requested me to tell him something about the Mechanic Rock which lies about a mile and a half below Montrose, and I wrote him a part of what I knew of that time.  Mr Cruikshank said he wanted it for the historical society at Des Moines.  The late Captain J. W. Campbell gave me some of his reminiscences, and promised me more of them which I never obtained.  Yet in those that he gave me he tells about the sinking of the steamboat Mechanic by striking a rock that was in or near the channel of the river about seventy five yards from the Iowa shore.  Several other boats had hit the rock previously but sustained no damage.

  The steamboat Mechanic was a side wheel boat single engine, which was the prevailing construction of steamboats at that time, 1830, and owned by Capt. Hugh L. White and others.  Capt. White was an uncle of Capt. J. W. Campbell, who was cub pilot on the boat learning the river.  It was just after dark when the boat sank, but was raised and taken to St. Louis for repairs.  The winter followed the sinking of the boat Capt White whose home was just below Nauvoo, Ills. Got several men interested with him to join in while the river was at low tide and hauled the rock to the Iowa shore which was done by prying the rock from its embedment and putting log chains around it hitching on sixteen yokes of oxen pulling the rock to near the bank, they could not get any nearer, the bank being so steep there was only two yokes of oxen that could get a foot hold- and ever since then that rock has been called “Mechanic Rock,”  The pilots had it for a gauge to tell how much water was in the channel over the rapids, and the writer remembers that when a boat would land at Montrose on the down stream trip the pilot would stop ashore and inquire from some of the pilots that lived in Montrose how far Mechanic Rock was out of water, until after low water of 1863 and 1864, when the upper Mississippi river pilots association had two indicators erected; one at Montrose and the other at Keokuk.

  The late Capt R. S. Owen and Sam Speake, as good rapids pilots as ever piloted a boat down over the rapids, told the writer the name of some that participated in getting the Mechanic Rock from the channel to the Iowa shore to with; Hugh White, Wm. Gore, Thos. McIntosh, Wm. Adams of Galland (then it was called Nashville), the two Brierly brothers, Col Snodley and other names that I have  forgotten.  Hon. J. B. Kiel  Mayor of Montrose, had taken several views of Mechanic Rock, but his supply is exhausted now, but will print some more as soon as he recovers from his sickness, so he writes me.  I endeavored to get some for you to mail with this, and will have to abide my time until Mr. Kiel is able to get around.                                                              

Charles H. Patten




Large Fortune Buried Near Fort Madison -- The Pilots Association of Long Ago.


   As to shore marks, some were good and some not.  At one of the cities a railroad company owned a big transit steamer on which logins and passengers were taken back and forth across the river.  She was speedy and had sufficient deck room to carry one thousand people.  To get some money on the side to help their expense account, the railway officials frequently sent this steamer up and down the river with excursion parties.  The license of the pilot permitted him to go back and forth across the river, but not farther as he knew nothing about the channel above and below the city.  However, he was in the habit of taking the boat out on these excursions trips in violation of law.  He left the city one afternoon with 800 or 900 passengers for an up stream run of 15 miles.  Knowing that the return trip must be made in the night time the ferry pilot concluded that it would be good policy to establish some shore marks on the crossings which he could see in the darkness.  At one point on the trip the draft of water or channel was from the Iowa shore and out to the center of the river, and then down thru an island chute.  On this crossing the channel was narrow, the water shoal and there was a big snag in the pathway of the steamers.  The pilot with the short trip papers, regarded this as a danger point, and it was.  So he established two, marks which he thought would keep him in the best water, and enable him to miss the snag.  His lower mark was the head of the chute, and his upstream, or stern mark, a large hay stack on the Iowa shore.  With the boat aligned on these two points he was sure that he would be in the channel and miss the snag.  But fortunately, when the big ferry boat came steaming down there her pilot could not find his stern mark, the hay stack.  The farmer who owned the hay had hauled it away during that afternoon and before dark.  Now it worries the best of pilots to lose their marks, but this ferry pilot lost his head.  He played a tune with the engine bells, cramped the wheel, backed the boat and twisted her around, and finally at full speed made a run toward the head of the chute.  He did not clear the snag.  The big steamer went up on top of it, a large hole was punched in her bottom, and she settled down on the sand, in four or five feet of water.  The passengers were safely transferred to another steamer, and a few days later the ferry boat was raised and sent to the docks.  The pilot was called to Galena to see the steamboat inspectors, there his license was revoked.  The railroad company also paid a fine for running an excursion business without a competent pilot.  After his haystack incident the pilots along there concluded that it was not a safe proposition to make a night mark out of anything that could be carted away from the river.

   The pilots association established water gauges at different towns on the upper river.  Little houses on the shore, where the members of the association, having keys could go and get the stage of the water.  There was one of these gauges at Montrose, and when the boats landed, the pilots would on in there to get some information, as to the depth of the water over the rapids.  And there was one thing I noticed about these trips.  The older men who had seen the most service, after visiting the gauge, would walk down the shore and look at a flat rock near the bank.  This is known as mechanic rock.  It took its name from the steamboat Mechanic which vessel hit it in the early years of navigation, and knocked a hole in her bottom.  This rock was then regarded as the most reliable water gauge on the upper Mississippi river.  On this was recorded the extreme low water stage of 1864.  I did not see the rock, but I have been told that the stage of 1910 went down below that of 1864.  That last year was a record breaker, altho I am of the opinion that there was more water in the channel than in 1864, through the action of the government dams  in concentrating it, and cutting the sand off the shoal reefs.  I am quite sue that without the dams and other improvements Walter Blair would not have been able to operate even his light draft boats between Davenport and Quincy, as he did, during the entire season.

    As I have stated, it was the policy of the white collar officials to build cheap pine hulls, wear them out and then build others of the same kind.  They claimed that it was better, much cheaper, than maintaining repairs on oak hulls.  This may have been true.  It was a matter of dollars and cents, which I never investigated.  But after this company took possession of the river below Dubuque we discovered that the managers wanted cheap men as well as cheap hull.  The association at St. Louis refused to furnish pilots to handle the White  collar boats at the price fixed by the company.  For a time the up river pilots handled them.  They knew but little about the channel between St. Louis and Dubuque, but as there was a good stage of water, they managed to go along.  The coming of the Davidson Fleet to St. Louis was a detriment to the men in the employ of the Northern Line and other companies, as it finally resulted in a reduction of salaries on all of the boats.

   On the Mississippi river are many hundreds of islands, and they all have names.  In the long ago they acquired their names from nearby towns, from individuals or through some incident or accident on or near them.  I have in mind one of these islands which received its title away back in the 30’s or 40’s.  Dutchmans Island.” and it is located just above Fort Madison, and near the Iowa shore.  Just opposite is the old Alley farm, of about 300 acres, where now lives in ease and comfort, Capt. L.C. Alley, one of the old time pilots.  Capt. Alleys father was among the first settlers of Lee County, and he purchased this land from the government.  With the elder Alley and others came a German, the latter coming direct from the fatherland.  I have forgotten his name but we will call him Schneider.  There was a rush for the lands around there, and it appears that Schneider had a very warm time.  He knew nothing as to the wave and customs of the Americans and they made him believe that being from a foreign country, he had no rights which they were bound to respect.  He was pushed around from one land claim to another, and finally, to get rid of his persecutors Schneider took up his residence on the island.  There he was not disturbed and the settlers named it Dutchman’s Island.  The Alleys were kind to him and to them he told the story of his life.  His father was a prominent and wealthy citizen in Germany.  He had received a good education, and on the death of his father, the son had sailed for America.  The estate was in the course of settlement, and he was expecting a large sum of money from the old country.  As the story went the money arrived, and Schneider placed it in an iron pot and buried it somewhere on the island.  Schneider was in the habit of going to the Alley home every few days.  But there came a time when these visits ceased.  A week or ten days elapsed, during which time Schneider had not been seen on the main land.  Fearing that he was sick, the Alley boys were sent to the island to investigate the matter. Entering his humble house, they found his cooking utensils, furniture and clothing all in place.  The island was searched but Schneider was not there.  For a few days later the boat which Schneider used for reaching the mainland was found below the island, bottom side up.  And from that day to this no tiding has been received of the missing German.  The people believe that had Schneider simply left the island and gone to some other portion of this country  He would have written back to his friends, the Alleys, but no letters were ever received. Picks and shovels were used upon the land, but the hidden treasure was never found.  So from the incident, Dutchman’s island acquired its name, but to what became of Schneider and his bag of money, will ever remain a mystery. 


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