Chapter XVIII

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas    



Downward revision of Freight Rates is needed-river improvement and Water Transportation is the Solution  

   While rehearsing the history of the past in reference to water transportation, it is well to consider present condition.  The politicians are aboard in the land telling the people that their greatest burden is the tariff tax.  It can be shown by actual statistics and figures that this tariff tax is a very small matter, when compared with the exorbitant freight charges which the people have been paying for the past 30 years.  During the past five years the “Rivers and Harbors Congress,” through experts employed for that purpose, has been looking into this transportation business.  This investigation has shown that what the people mostly need is a downward revision of freight charges.  One of these experts declares that one-third of the present high cost of living can be traced back to the freight charges.  That it is a direct tax, and the consumers pay it all.  This is his statement and he presents facts and figures to prove his assertion.  As I have stated before these experts find that there are three methods of transportation-the wagon, the railroad and the boat.  That on a wagon, one dollar will carry one ton of freight a distance of from five to ten miles, owing to the conditions of the roads.  On the railway train 127 miles on the boat, a distance of 1,500 miles.  One dollar per ton for these distances is the actual cost to the carriers.  These figures are reliable and this item of cost of hauling the merchandise to the merchant, should be sufficient to clinch the matter with the people.  It needs no additional argument.  However, it is difficult to induce the people to investigate the matter for themselves, but some progress is being made in this direction.  The association referred to is now conducting a campaign of education.  Two speakers are making a canvass of the entire country.  They are loaded up with reliable statistics, and are showing the people why they should favor the return of the boats, and the restoration of water transportation, the cheapest method known to man.  I find that the wage earner gives this matter little attention.  He has the idea that the merchant, the shipper, is the only class interested in cheaper transportation.

  I will concede that with lower freight rates the merchant could do a larger volume of business, and get more money out of it.  The steamboat will  concede this, and that he is constantly making an effort to secure lower freight rates through “The Inter State Commerce Commission,” altho he has had little success in this direction.  But the consumer, the person who purchases the goods of the merchant, should understand that he pays the excessive freight charges, and pays them all.  The merchant pays no part of them.  They go into the merchants expense account, with his rent, clerk hire, insurance, capital invested, etc.  It is a very plain matter that the consumer pays all of this, and in addition, the merchants profit, on each and every article.  Therefore, the wage earners of all classes, are certainly, or should be, interested in a lower rate on all articles, which are shipped to them, and which they are compelled to purchase and use.  When the people get a correct understanding, and a full knowledge of the burden they are now carrying, I am quite sure that they will show some interest in the matter, and demand the restoration of the cheap water transportation. The return of the boats and laws to protect them.  These being the two things needed for the relief of the people.

   To illustrate:  the average rail rate, at the present time between Ottumwa and Chicago is a little above six dollars per ton.  On first class stuff it is $12 per ton.  With a steamer and two barges, of the canal type, which would go under our bridges on the Des Moines river, this fleet can take 500 tons of this stuff to Chicago, at two dollars per ton, and get a profit out of he trip not less than $500.  Here is a margin of four dollars per ton.  An extra charge of that amount, and the people, the consumers, are paying it.  There is no doubt about that.  The bulk of the freight in this country is hauled east and west, and the rates are much higher than in other directions, and it has always appeared strange to me, that the people of Burlington and other cities between Davenport and St. Louis, have not used the water route and the boats to and from Chicago.  They have the choice of two routes.  One via Rock Island, then the Hennepin and Ohio and Michigan canals to Chicago, a distance from the Mississippi river of but 157 miles.  These two canals have a stationary stage of seven feet of water, and with the low deck canal, steamers and barges it is clear sailing.  One of these steamers and two of the barges,

loaded to 5 feet, carry 500 tons, and they are being successfully operated on the Illinois river and the old canal between Chicago and interior points, giving the people along these two waterways the benefits of cheap transportation.  The second route is up the Illinois river and on thro the Ohio and Michigan canal to Chicago.  With a proper equipment of steamers and barges a large business could be done on both of these waterways.  The government and the state of Illinois have spent a large sum of money on these canals, and are maintaining them, and the people should use them.  It is not generally known, but the US Engineers along the upper Mississippi river have a standing order from the War Department to go on with the work of river improvement until they create a six foot channel, six feet during the dry months, or low water period.  This they are doing, increasing the depth of the channel each year.  The boats are also coming back to the upper river.  The Blair company, the Streckfus Company, and others, have invested their money in boats, and are making an effort for the restoration of water transportation.  The government and the steamboat men are doing their part of it, and the time, has now arrived when the people of the river cities should show some interest in the movement.  It will certainly pay them to assist the present movement in every possible way for with them it is a matter of dollars and cents.  The cities, in their official capacity, should at once provide suitable landing places for the boats.  Improve their river fronts and make them attractive.  And the people, the consumers who pay the freight bills should urge their merchants to patronize the boats.  Give them at least a portion of the freight, which I shipped in and out of the cities.  By so doing, he merchant can then afford to make lower prices to his customers, and all will receive some benefit from the cheap water transportation.  The steamboat men have not returned to the river as a matter of pleasure, not for the benefit of their health, but are there for business.  If you patronize them, as you should do, they will remain with you, and largely reduce your expense accounts.  If the people take no interest in the movement, t can only result in a repetition of history.  The boats will leave the river, as they did in the 80’s.  Knowing that it will prove of great benefit to the people, I want to see the present movement to use the waterways successful.  Do not listen to the short water story and other tales of woe.  If no work is done on them, the rivers can be navigated now, as they were for 30 or 40 years before in the long ago.  Provide good landing and furnish the business, and the steamboat men will do the rest of it.  Capt Walter Blair demonstrated the navigation part of it, by operating his fleet of light draft steamers all thro two seasons, during the lowest stage of water ever known on the upper Mississippi river.


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