IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
E. H. Thomas
HISTORY IN COMPILATION
OF WISCONSIN LEADING IN THE WORK.
Great Quantities of Records and Photos-The Des Moines River is
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.
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
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
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
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