IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
E. H. Thomas
WELL KNOWN CHARACTERS:
LON BRYSON STRODE THE HURRICANE DECK
Woodward, Steve McBride and Andy Pitts-Transporting Lead and Whiskey in
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,
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
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.
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
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
OF DUTCHMAN’S ISLAND
OF WEALTHY GERMAN IMMIGRANTS.
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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