Chapter XIV

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  




Collecting Great Quantities of Records and Photos-The Des Moines River is Navigable.  

   Thro his letters, I have discovered another old true river man in the person of Capt. Geo. B. Merrick.  Capt. Merrick was a pilot on the upper river boats for seven years before the civil war, and he is now connected with the State Historical Society at Madison, Wisconsin.  This state is collecting statistics for a history of the upper Mississippi river, and the work is being done under the direction of Capt. Merrick.  The state officials have fitted up a room with glass cases for the preservation of photos of river officers, and information they may furnish.  Captain Merrick is anxious to receive the photos and personal history of all old time river officers and such other data, as they may be able to furnish in reference to the steamboat business upon the upper Mississippi river.  The State of Wisconsin is spending some money in this work, and we should lend our assistance.  Send your photo, with a personal sketch and other information to Capt. Geo. B. Merrick, Madison, Wis.


The Des Moines River is Navigable


   My river story in THE POST, which I have jumped together in a hurried manner, and entirely from memory has had the effect to locate many old time steamboat men, here and there, all over the country.  They are now engaged in other business, well along in years, like the writer, and a little slow.  But the mention, of the river and the boats wakes them up and they are furnishing some valuable information in reference to the navigation of the rivers in the olden time.  I am preserving all of this-pasting it in my scrap book.  Below I give an article written by Mr. Seth Graham, of Des Moines, who was one of the navigators of the Des Moines river in the 50ís.

   In the fall of 1850 I went to work for N. L. Milburn on a bridge across the Cedar River on a proposed plank road from Muscatine (then called Bloomington)  to Oskaloosa, a bridge of Milburnís invention.  He called it a wooden suspension bridge.  The span across the river was 557 feet and the floor in the center was sixty feet above low water, to allow steamboats to run under.  In March, 1851, he took all of his men, but five of us to work on a draw bridge across the Des Moines river at Keosauqua, leaving us to finish the Cedar River bridge, which we had so nearly completed that old Joe Bennett had ridden out from Bloomington and ridden his horse across the bridge.  Stopping at the center, he sat on his horse and made us quite a fine speech, shook hands all around and went home happy.  But I think it was the very next day, the 4th of April, 1851, we had a regular hurricane that struck the bridge broadside and blew the whole span down.  The bridge was never completed and the plank road was never built.

   Then we went to Iowaville, getting out our hewed timber on the Tick ridge and our sawed timber and lumber at Iowaville and rafting it all down to Keosauqua. During the fall we put in one abutment and the first pier and one span to connect them. At the second pier the rock was covered with about two feet of quicksand and for a week we made little  or no progress. The next pier would be for the draw and there was also sand there, and Ed Manning, president of the bridge company, told Milburn that the company would not advance any more money until the timbers for the pier were bolted to the rock. Milburn told him that their contract provided that they were to furnish the money each month to pay for the material and labor and if they did not he would quit. They had a stormy meeting of the board of directors, and decided to stop payment and let him quit and they would go on and use the material and complete the bridge, but when he showed them that he had a patent on the truss he was using and if they used it or his material, he would make it very expensive for them, they finally concluded to abandon the bridge and the material went to waste.

   In 1852, Milburn organized the Des Moines Steamboat and Barge company at Iowaville and got A. E. Dudoc Bosquet of Pella interested. He figured on having steamboat connection between the new colony and Keokuk, and established the town of Amsterdam as their port of entry. They built two barges and the steamer N.L. Milburn and in the spring of 1853 the 2 barges were loaded with coal and sent to Keokuk.  They and the boat were loaded there for the river as far as Red Rock and there being no freight to bring down we were just in condition to take the freight of the Badger State, which had sunk just around the bend below Ottumwa,  We found her tied up at the bank with most of her freight out on the shore, which we proceeded to pick up, much of it for two passengers who were on the boat and went up with us to Fort Des Moines.  They were Col. J. M. Griffith. Who was then in the dry goodís business and is living here yet, and Jesse Dicks, who was in the hardware trade and died here some years ago.  They both had large stocks of goods on board, we also took Captain Eaton, an insurance adjuster, who had been sent up from St. Louis to adjust the damage.  The Badger State pulled out for down the river and we for Fort Des Moines.  Wood yards were few and far between and we were anxious to make Curtisís coal bank, below Red Rock, for coal, but when we were three or four miles below we heard another boat coming after us (which later proved to be the J. B. Gordon) and then the race was on, for if they got to the coal bank first our cake was dough, but Captain Eaton took charge of the firemen and there happening to be a barrel of tar in the cargo, he had it rolled out and the head knocked in and he sat on the capsian and directed the firemen when to dip a stick of wood into the tar and which furnace door to put it in, and he kept it howling.  We barely made the bank by a boat length and well we cheered them on their way and the next morning we found them tied up at a little island chopping the dead drift wood that had lodged at the head of it.  We made the run and delivered the freight all right, but in running down stream the water being high and the current swift, it was rather difficult to keep from running into the bank or the timber in the bends.  That matter was a constant source of conversation between our captain and pilot until just below Lafayette, in a very short bend, we under took to run under a limb of a large elm tree which was too low to let the smoke stacks under.  It broke the front stay rods and piled the stacks back into the pilothouse and run the bow into the bank.  Just what the conversation was about then I really could not say, but we tied up under the limb that broke them down and threw a rope over it and I climbed up and pulled up the tackle to raise the stacks and was then told to raise the stacks and was then told to remain-there to let them down again when they were secured.  There may be a whole lot of fun in setting astride of a three or four inch limb out over the river and fighting numerous and able bodied mosquitoes for an hour or two, but I did not see it then as I can now. 

   We went down to Keokuk and took another cargo for up the river and got as far as Plymouth dam, but the river and got so low that we abandoned the trip, left our freight there and went over into the Illinois river.

   I was watchman on the N. L. Milburn all the time we were on the Des Moines river, and as we could not run at night.  I kept a memorandum of where we tied up for the night and if it will assist any of our doubting Thomasís to believe that the Des Moines river was once a navigable river, I will copy a little of it.  I will say too, that sometime in June, 1858, there were six steamboats tied up here at Des Moines at one time:  ďSteamer N. L. Milburn left Iowaville, Tuesday, May 17, 1853, and laid up the first night at Keosauqua, 18th at Bennettís wood yard, 19th to 22nd at Keokuk, 23rd at Churchville, 24th at Farmington, 25th at Iowaville, 28th five miles above Eddyville, 29th at Red Rock, 30th at Ottumwa, 31st with the Badger State, June 1st at Curtis Coal Bank, 2nd at Lafayette, 3rd at Fort Des Moines, 4th at Mosquito bend, 5th at Amsterdam, 6th at Iowaville, 7th in Tomís Lock, 8th running 9th at St. Louis.  There we went into dry dock and put on another bottom and loaded for points up the Des Moines river, but only got as far as Plymouth, and on account of low water left our freight and went over to the Illinois river.


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