Chapter XV

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas    





Pilots and Engineers Took Turns

On the Roof--Old River Men Usually

were Democrats



   I do no not know why it was, but as far as my acquaintance went among them, I noticed that the river men were Democrats.  Whenever there was a crowd of us together they had a good working majority. On my run between Davenport and St. Louis I found but three Republican among the pilots.  One of these was Bill Owens of Montrose.  William was not only a republican but a very radical noisy member of the party.  The other fellows nagged him to keep him going and along in the 70’s nicknamed him “Horace Greeley,”  Bill wore an old white overcoat and in some respects resembled the great New York editor, one of the organizers of the republican party.  I was told by some of the older ones, that during the 50’s there was a national law which permitted river men to vote in any port they might be on election day.  That is for president.  If they happened to land in their home state they could also vote for state officers.  But after a trial of this law, it was repealed.  During my time there, some of them got it into their heads that this act of congress was still in force, and that they could vote anywhere along the shore:  It so happened that on the day of the presidential election of 1872, there were four steamboats lying at Montrose.  The four crews went to the polls to vote.  The judges refused the first ballot offered, saying that they were not sure that steamboat men had the right to vote in Montrose.  That they would have to take legal advice on the matter.  The river men insisted that the law of the 50’s was still inforce, and that they intended to vote there.  That they would not be turned down by three judges.  They were angry and noisy, and for a time it looked as tho there would be trouble at the voting place.  Wm. Owens was a busy man around there, taking a lively interest in the matter.  He came to me and insisted that some plan should be devised to prevent these steamboat men from voting there, for the sole reason that they were all democrats.  To quiet his nerves, I explained to William that all men were equal at the voting place, regardless of political ideas, and that his argument would not hold in law.  I also assured him that if the entire river vote was cast, it would not be counted, for the very good reason that there was no law authorizing it.  And further, that, all of us might be arrested and punished for illegal voting.  However, the judges stood pat, and no river vote was cast except that of Wm. Owens and a few others who made their homes in Montrose.

   Now and then I would meet a man who had a Southern streak in him, and one who believed in the doctrine of States rights.  That secession was right, and that the government was wrong in whipping the Southern States into line.  As I had spent three years in that movement, we would then and there have a joint discussion.  I have in mind one, of this class, and engineer, with whom I worked for two seasons, in renewing our licenses each year. We were required to take what was known as the “Ironclad Oath.”  My friend did not like this part of the ceremony  in securing a license. The particular clause of the oath to which he so strongly objected, was this: “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the government of the United States against all of its enemies, either domestic or foreign, the laws or ordinances of any State to the contrary not with withstanding, so help me God.”  On one occasion an inspector told him that he could take his choice. Take the iron clad or lose his license.  It was a bitter pill to swallow, and as I often told him.  I took a fiendish delight in hearing him repeat it after the inspector.  The secret of the matter was that this engineer went south in 1861.  His sympathy was with the southern people.  He there took the Confederate oath, and was in the employ of the confederacy until it went to pieces. For this reason he had no love for the new Yankee iron clad oath.  He has been dead for several years.  While we had many warm discussions we were friends for 20 years.  I now remember only his many good traits of character.  His faults and mistaken ideas I have buried with him.

   In my time the officers of a steamboat took little interest in political matters beyond reading the papers and indulging in friendly discussions now and then.  There was no trouble among us.  In all of my time I never saw two officers come to blows.  The officers of a boat had to be orderly and polite at all times.   To make our voyages pleasant  for the passengers during the day and in the evening remove the tables from the cabin, start the music and give a dance, in which the officers of the boat would participate.  Thru this policy we secured their good will and patronage.

   It frequently happened that a crew with some kind of a grievance would desert a boat, call for their pay and go ashore.  This was expected as a part of the business.  But for the captain and the clerk, owners of the boat, to desert the crew, 500 miles from their homes, and leave a steamboat on their hands was regarded as a new departure.  This is what happened to a gang of us in the city of St. Louis.  It was sometime in the 70’s during the cholera period.  The steamer and two barges were owned by the captain and clerk, and cost them about twelve thousand dollars.  We had a good trip of freight and passengers from Davenport to St. Louis.  W. H. Pierce and his son Frank were the engineers and Mills Ruby and myself  were the pilots.  The river was at a low stage, and we had some trouble in getting over the bar at Cape Angris, but otherwise had a very successful run.  We landed at Alton.  Here the clerk asked me to fill his place from that point to St. Louis.  Said that he was not feeling just right, and feared that he would get the cholera if he went into St. Louis.  I took his word for it, and he took the train north for his home.  Arriving at St. Louis.  I checked out the freight, and then turned the bills over to the captain, who left the boat just after dinner to go out in the city and collect the freight charges.  He did not return to the boat that night, and was not with us for dinner on the following day.  There was much discussion among the crew as to what had become of our captain.  A clerk of one of the boats had went ashore, on a similar mission, and he was slugged and robbed.  Some of the men feared that our captain had met the same fate, but I had my suspicions.  I had been on the boat for three seasons and was familiar with the business.  The boat had been making some money, but I knew that a certain capitalist up the river held a claim against the owner for $6,000.  The clerk had taken what money there was in the safe when he left us at Alton, and the old man had about $2,500 in his jeans, and it looked woolly-as though they were making a clean up, going out of business, and leaving the crew out of business, and leaving the crew and the capitalist to hold the sack.  However, just before supper, on the second day, we had a message from the missing captain.  A receiving clerk, who worked on the levee brought a note from him to the crew.  The note informed us that the captain had received a telegram that one of his children was dangerously ill, and that he was about to take the train for the north.  He instructed us to bring the boats on up the river, and that he would meet us at some point above.  The humorous part of the deal was, that he sent us the sum of ten dollars as expense money, which would just about pay our coal bill to the head of Sawyer Bend.  However, we took the ten dollars from the receiving clerk, and then called a meeting of the crew to discuss the situation.  At the meeting it was decided to take on some coal and leave St. Louis at once.  I did not believe that we would find the captain on this up stream trip.  His home was inland, 50 or 60 miles from the river, and I had a notion in my head that he and the freight money would remain there, but I finally submitted to the rule of the majority.  They all appeared to have great confidence in the captain.  It was also agreed that Pierce, Ruby and myself  were to take our turns in being captain of the boat and paying the bills.  That when a man’s money run out, he was no longer captain, but must come down and let the other fellow go on to the roof.  In the matter of money I was short.  At Muscatine, on the down trip, I had drawn $250, about all that was due me, and sent the money home.  With me this was the one fortunate feature  of the trip getting that $250 at Muscatine.  I had the honor of taking the boat out of St. Louis and paying for the coal and commissary stores.  I landed at Alton, where we secured a few hundred pounds of freight, but on leaving a wood yard, just below Clarksville, we were out of fuel.  My pockets were empty, and I’d had lost my position as captain of the steamer. Mills Ruby assumed command of the steamer, purchased some wood, and we steamed along, reaching Quincy about five o’clock one evening.  Here it was announced that we had neither coal nor provisions, and that Captain Ruby was in a bankrupt condition.  It was now up to Pierce, the engineer, and Ruby went into the engine room to see him about it, and they had a spat.  Pierce said that he had no money, but Ruby did not believe it, and neither did I.  I had been with him for several seasons, and knew that he always carried a good roll.  When Ruby returned to the cabin he was sore.  He said the engineer was not giving us a square deal.  Now, Bill Pierce was a good engineer and a good fellow, but his bump of self esteem was very largely developed.  He was a fine looking man, a good talker and liked to be at the head of the procession.  Knowing this, Ruby and myself commenced calling him Captain Pierce that night and this gave us the desired result.  On the following morning Pierce flashed up light on ten $20 notes, and I noticed, that he had some more of the long green in his big pocket book.  He at once purchased the necessary supplies, and the boat backed away from Quincy levee, with the commanding, majestic figure of Capt. W. W. Pierce on the roof, passing signals back to the pilot.  We reached Muscatine in good time, but the captain was not there to greet us.  At the suggestion of the crew, I sent him a telegram-and he answered, instructing us to take the boat on to Davenport.  Then we had a mutiny among the deck hands and firemen.  They were tired of promises to pay and refused to sail for Davenport, but we finally induced them to go.

   When we reached Davenport, the captain was not there, but the sheriff and the capitalist gave us a very cordial reception and tied the fleet to the shore on the claim of $6,000.  The matter was compromised, the capitalist accepting the three boats as payment in full on his $6,000 claims.  As I had suspicioned it was a clean up.  The capitalist got the boats at a bargain, and the captain and clerk received about the same amount out of the earnings, and went out of business.  Wm. Pierce was the heavy investor on our excursion trip from St. Louis to Davenport, but it made him feel good to be called captain, and then he got even with the game by chartering and operating the boats for several months.  Ruby and myself had no complaint to make on our investments between St. Louis and Quincy.  Did not even attempt to collect our claim.  We had been on the steamer for several years and had drawn a lot of money at the clerk’s office, and concluded that it was all right, as a closing feature in the service of the owners, to have an excursion trip at our own expense.  Mills Ruby, W. W. Pierce, the captain and the clerk, my old time friends and associates on this steamer, with whom I spent many of the happiest hours of my life, have all passed away.  With many others of my river friends they are sleeping the sleep of death.  If there is a second life and another world, and I believe there will be, I hope to meet them all again.    

Return to Table of Contents - Life on the Mississippi

Return to Iowa History Project