Chapter II

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  


The Steamboat Companies


   In the old days, there was perhaps more than one thousand steamboats and barges on the upper Mississippi river.  The companies operating the great fleet were as follows:  The Northern Line Packet Company, St. Louis to St. Paul: White Collar Co. , Dubuque to St. Paul: Diamond Joe Co., Dubuque to St. Louis; Keokuk and St. Louis Packet Co., Illinois and other rivers.  The latter company is still in existence under the same management, the Leyhe’s, father and son.

   In those days the following named companies were operating passenger, freight and tow boats and barges above St. Louis.

   .  Then there were many “outside” boats, owned and operated by individuals.  All of this great fleet of steamers and barges were busy and making money for several years.

   Old citizens in the river towns will remember the magnificent palatial steamers, Andy Johnson, Rob Roy, Mable McPike, the Eagle, Hawkeye, Sucker State, Minneapolis, Burlington, Davenport, Northwestern, Dubuque, Alex, Mitchell, Milwaukee, City of St. Paul, and others of the same class.

   We hear a great deal at the present time in reference to the barge movement.  This is not new.  We had powerful tow boats in those days.  The Little Grant, Kentucky, Ocean Wave, Bengal Tiger, and others.  Anyone of those steamers would take a tow of ten loaded 500 ton barges and hustle it up and down the great river.


The Steamboat War


   During the time the business was at the best, there came a war between two rivals steamboat companies.  A fight to a finish between the Northern Line Packet Co. and the White Collar Co.  The latter was under the management of Commodore W. E. Davidson.  These boats were operating between Dubuque and St. Paul.  The Northern Line boats between St. Louis and St. Paul. Davidson insisted that the through business should in some way, be divided equally between the two companies.  That the Northern Line was not giving him a square deal in operating their boats between Dubuque and St. Paul.  That they were invading territory which belonged to his company.  Davidson had his faults but he was a good steamboat man and a born fighter.  He at last concluded to assert and enforce his rights.  He made two propositions to the rival company:

    1.  That the Northern Line company should make its northern terminus at Dubuque.

    2.  That if this was not satisfactory, the two companies should put in an equal number of boats between St. Louis and St. Paul.      

   Both of propositions were turned down by the management of the Northern Line Co. and the war was on.  By Davidsons’s orders such steamers as the Northwestern, City of St. Paul, Alex, Mitchell and Milwaukee, no longer stopped at Dubuque but came steaming down the river and into St. Louis.  I was working on the Geo. S. Weeks at the time, a White Collar boat, and witnessed the entire contest.  It was a race of steamboats for the different landings to receive the passengers and freight and the rates were cut.  The class of boats I have named were of about the same build and same power, and it was nip and tuck, there being no decisive victory for either company.  The race created intense excitement at the different towns along the river.  A great deal of money was lost and won.  As the rival boats approached the town, neck and neck, there was great excitement among the thousands of people assembled at the landings.

   The boat on which I was employed was towing three barges, and hauling 3,000 tons of freight up and down, between St. Louis and Davenport, and yet the rates had been cut so low that we could not pay operating expenses.  We had no money with which to purchase wood and made it a rule to take the wood and then whistle before landing at the wood pile, but for this place we reversed it.  This was the custom in the old days with steamboats in a bankrupt condition.  It was practically grand larceny but it had to go.  The company was behind with our salaries and the treasury was empty.  But the stockholders had become greatly interested and they paid a heavy assessment upon their stock and the battle for possession of the river and prairie was on.  As stated, there had been no decisive victory for either company in the racing over the 750 mile course between St. Louis and St. Paul.  So Davidson commenced looking for a steamer which would lead all others on the upper river, and he found it in the Phil Sheridan.  She had great power and was built for speed, a beautiful model.  The Sheridan was now put into and taking them in their turns, the Hawkeye, Sucker State and other Northern Line steamboats were whipped.  The Sheridan led them all into the different ports.  The crowd had little sympathy for the under-dog in a fight and it was so in this case.  The victory of the Sheridan gave the White Collar Line prestige, and the business went to their boats.  It also enabled Davidson to forge a compromise and to dictate the terms.  After some discussion, the two companies were consolidated.  Such boats as the City of St. Paul, White Collar and Hawkeye, owned by the Northern Line were put into the new company on the same valuation.  In this deal the Northern Line got the worst of it.  About all of the Davidson boats had cheap pine hulls, while those of the Northern Line were of oak and well built.  Three White Collar boats went to pieces, and to the wrecking yard soon after the consolidation.  In fact, the high steam pressure and the racing had a damaging effect on all of the boats and their machinery.  At the close of the races, the Sheridan limped into St. Louis leaking badly, and with her machinery in bad order.  The Davidson interest soon after secured a working majority of the stock, the control of the river and the business.




   The pilots of these days wore fine clothes and were the gentlemen portion of the crews.  A pilot with a suit worth less then $100 was considered “seedy” .  As a result, it took a goodly portion of a man’s salary to keep up with the styles in the pilot house.  Dressed in the latest St. Louis tailor-made clothes with a diamond on their shirt fronts, they were very popular with the girls at the different towns along the shore of the great river.  So while the roustabouts were hustling the freight in and out of the boats, you could find the pilots on the bank, talking with the ladies.  It was an iron-clad rule with us to tell no tales ashore, but now, when there are but few of us left, I do not know that there is any harm in referring to these matters.

   In some particulars our occupation was a very pleasant one.  In others a brain racking job.  Two of my associates after a service of 22 years at the wheel, went insane and were put ashore.  The dark night, the mists, and the fog, and the brain work was too much for them.  When a steamboat is underway, the pilot is the supreme commander.  But the marine laws place all of the responsibility upon him.  If he loses his marks, sinks the boat and drowns some of the passengers, he then and there, stands convicted of manslaughter.  The law says that the mere fact of an accident occurring is sufficient evidence of the guilt of the pilot, and the burden of proof is upon him.  In other words, the pilot must prove that he is not guilty or go to the penitentiary.  This was the law in the old days, and it is the law now.  In our sate courts the burden of proof is upon the state.  It must prove a man is guilty before sending him to prison.  Under the marine law this is reversed.  The man is guilty before he reaches the courtroom, and it is up to him to prove that he is not.  The law is not only strict, but severe.  When in a close place where he is not sure of the marks, the pilot feels the weight of this responsibility.  It is this that has brought grey hairs to many heads and sent many of these men to the insane asylum.

  During my time on the river I formed the acquaintance of a large number of these pilots.  In my next letter I shall attempt to give you a list of them.   


Return to Table of Contents - Life on the Mississippi

Return to Iowa History Project