Chapter XIX

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas    




   As I had the story at the time, Jo Reynolds commenced business in Dubuque as a buyer and shipper of grain.  Later on he purchased some mines in the west, which proved wonderful producers of gold.  After Jo was well fixed, financially, he purchased a very large and valuable diamond pin, and wore it on his shirt front.  The sparkling brilliancy of this precious stone was noticed by the farmers who brought in the grain, as well as the residents of Dubuque, and they named him “Diamond Jo,”  He accepted this title, and there after used it, as his shipping mark on the sacks of grain.  He furnished the boats a great deal of freight and finally concluded to have a fleet of his own.  So an organization was perfected, and it was incorporated under the name of the Diamond Jo Steamboat Co., with Diamond Jo as the general manager.  He proved a successful steamboat man.  Mr. Reynolds died many years ago, but his widow, a resident of Chicago, continued to hold a large interest in the boats, up to a last year when they were sold to the Streckfus company.

   At Hickory Island, above Louisiana, was a place where the river shifted its channel frequently, and for a time the water would be shoal.  The island appeared to uplift the river so that the channel was first on one side and then on the other, and it had to be watched.  Sometimes we would run the chute on the Missouri side, and then again go above the head of the island and over to the Illinois shore.  The conditions here caused old Captain Sanderson to order his remains buried on the head of Hickory Island so that he could see the route of the boats, whether they went thro the chute or above the head of the island and over to Illinois.  At least this is what he told Pilot Peter Hall just before his death.

   The fuel used by the boats was largely wood.  The coal strata touched the river in but one place between Davenport and St. Louis.  This was near the top of the bluff above Alton Ill.  There was a mine with a small output, where we would take coal occasionally. There was coal at the different towns, but as it had to be hauled to the river by the railroad, it was expensive fuel.  The cutting and banking of wood for the boats gave employment to a large number of men.  The wood was cheap, but to get good money out of it, the owner of the yard depended largely on the piling and measurement.  The professional piler of wood could easily make five cords out of four.  He would work in all of the knotty logs, which would not go into a furnace, and leave holes in the rank of wood large enough for a dog to pass through.  This system caused many joint discussions between the buyer and seller.  If the knotty logs were thrown aside, as they were, the boat would find them in the wood pile again on the return trip.  If the knots were dumped into the river the wood yard men would fish them out of the water and return them to the rank.  After a long experience we finally destroyed this system by taking the knotty sticks aboard the boat and transporting them to some distant point, where there were no wood yards.  I heard Captain Jim Campbell declare that one of these crooked, knotty sticks of wood had cost him about ten dollars, and after handling the owner of the yard a few packages of rive profanity, he ordered the stick brought on board of the Keithsburg.

   During my experience with them I learned that steamboats, like horses have their tricks, and the pilot, like the driver of a team, must get on to them.  Boat builders very often attempted to make an exact model of some other boat, but as a rule their duplicate would be different in the matter of speed, handling etc.  Some of the steamers would skip along on shoal water, while others would slow up, “crawl,” as we called it.  Some would back into the wind while others would not.  During one season I worked on the Pearl, a tow boat, which had been brought down the river from Lake Pepin.  The Pearl was round on the bottom, and sharp at both ends like a candle.  Had a long single rudder and a small pilot wheel.  She had big power, and could send five or six loaded barges up against the current of the river.  Frank Wild who had handled her, told me that on this boat I would earn my salary, and then some, and I did.  The Pearl’s trick, when loose from her tow, was to make a run for the bank and the woods.  Unless her sharp nose was put square up on a sand reef, she would not mount it, but run away with the pilot.  Then if the pilot attempted to back her at full stroke, against the long single rudder, the small pilot wheel was likely to throw him through the window of his glass house.

  The steamer Rock Island was supposed to have been built after the model of a fast boat, both as to hull and machinery, but she proved slow and difficult to handle.

  The New Boston and the Diamond Jo were of the same class.  The New Boston would skip along on shoal water, and back into the wind, but the Diamond Jo would do neither.  When she hit a shoal place, she would slow up and crawl, and it took some time to get her away from a windy shore.  Would frequently lay anchor and pull out with the capstan I think the difference in the boats must be in the construction of their cabins and hulls.  Some of them are not properly balanced in the wind and water.

   As you know the State of Illinois many years ago, built a canal from La Salle to Chicago.  And soon after the war we heard a great deal in reference to the Hennipen canal.  The proposition was to construct another canal from the mouth of Rock River to Bureau Junction, a distance of 75 miles, where it would connect with the old canal, and thus give the people an all water route from the Mississippi river to Chicago and Lake Michigan.  Jerry Murphy, who was then in congress from the second Iowa district,  was a principal agitator.  He believed it would be a good thing and he worked at it constantly in Congress, and after he left there.  The people named him Hennipen Murphy.  The government was finally induced to start the work, but congress was very pinchy with the money, and this improvement dragged along for many years.  There was opposition to the project in certain quarters, and many believed that it would abandoned.  But it was finally completed and opened for business about three years ago.  However, but little use has been made of it.  The distance from the Mississippi river through these two canals is about 187 miles.  There is a stationary stage of six feet of water in them. But the government officials of that time made a serious blunder in the construction of the locks.  The chambers are but 170 feet in length 35 in width.  They will pass four boats, each being 16x80 and the load allowed in the canal is 4.08.  The distance from Burlington by this river and canal route to Chicago is about 267 miles. Now any steamboat man will tell you that on a run of 267 miles, the four boats referred to would not carry sufficient freight to make it a paying trip, and there would be no money in using a larger class of boats, and pulling them through the locks one at a time.  The delay at the many locks would eat up all of the profit.  It is therefore, very plain, that these locks should be enlarged, so that they would at least pass a fleet of 30x150 boats, and as coupled up, two and two, they should go through  one lock.  Such a fleet would have a cargo of about 2,000 tons, and there would be good money in a trip to Chicago from any point on the upper Mississippi.  However, Jerry Murphy’s earnest efforts were not in vain.  The bulk of the work on the waterways to the lakes and markets of the east, has been completed, and the people should now ask for an enlargement of the locks.  The U. S. engineers understand the situation, and if given authority to do so can soon put the canals in good shape for business.  The bulk of the freight traffic in this section is east and west, and the rates are much higher than north and South.  The use of these two Illinois canals would at once largely reduce the freight charges and hold them down as on other waterways.  There is no doubt about this.  And such reduction of freight rates would be of great benefit to the farmer, the merchant and all the people of the valley.  This is what Jerry Murphy wanted to do.  To secure the cheap water transportation to and from the great lakes and the markets of the east.  The present rail rate from Ottumwa, Iowa, to and from Chicago is seven dollars per ton.  This is the average on the different classifications.  First class freight is twelve dollars per ton.  The owner of the fleet referred to carrying 2,000 tons, would soon get rich at three dollars per ton.  He could carry this stuff for one dollar per ton and still make money.  I know what I am talking about, and if this statement should be doubted I can present the figures.  The people of the Mississippi valley certainly need an all water route to Chicago and the east.

  I am of the opinion that the longest fleet of barges ever seen on the upper Mississippi, was taken from Dubuque to New Orleans by the steamer Ocean Wave.  I remember of meeting this fleet near Keithsburg, Ills.  There were 13 of the barges, each boat carrying 500 tons of loose, or bulk corn.  They were what we called bulk barges.  The corn belonged to Geo. H. Murry, a grain dealer of Dubuque, Iowa.  The river was at a good stage, and it was the sight of a life time to see this great fleet under way.  But few stops were made on the trip.  The corn, on its arrival at New Orleans, was transferred by floating elevators to the sea going vessels, and sent to the foreign markets.  At the same time Mr. Murry sent the same number of bushels of corn by rail to the seaboard, where it was transferred to ships.  The object of these two shipments was to show the people the difference in the cost of transportation.  Mr. Murry was well satisfied with the result, as the difference in the freight charges amounted to more than the profit on the grain.  Murry was one of the most earnest advocates of water transportation at the time.  His argument was that the natural and cheap outlet for all of the productions of the valley was down the river to the Southern and foreign markets.  He spent one entire winter, at his own expense, in presenting this matter to the people of the different towns and cities.  Had the people of the valley taken Murry’s advice at that time, their cities would have increased their population and been in a more prosperous condition than they now are.  In support of this statement, it is but necessary to refer to the fact that the cities of this country which have made the greatest progress in the past 30 years, are all located near the water, where the people have had the benefit of the cheap water transportation.  The operation of the boats to and from these cities has held the rates down on the railroads and they are doing it now.  No city without cheap shipping facilities can hope to compete with other cities having them.  This is a plain case.  The boats, properly protected by law, are the best regulators of freight rates.  All laws enacted for the control of railways have proved a failure, and the people of the inland towns and the country surrounding them, are still paying a heavy, direct tax on everything they ship in and out.  

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