IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
Capt E. H. Thomas
WHEN MONTROSE WAS A LIVE TOWN
LIGHTERING FREIGHT SHIPMENTS OVER LOWER RAPIDS.
During my time on the river
the rapids at Rock Island and Keokuk were serious obstructions to
navigation. But little work had ever been done to improve the channel.
On a down stream run it was difficult to make all of the short angles
and crooks with a boat, and we frequently bumped the rocks. At a low
stage there was more water on the upper rapids than on the lower one.
Before the war R.E. Lee, then a government engineer, did some
work on the lower rapids. For the greater portion of the distance the
channel was along the Illinois shore. Lee’s plan to widen and deepen
the channel appeared to have been to take the rock from the bed of the
river and pile it on the west side, and near the channel. The rock piles
were circular in shape and ran up to a peak. This work widened the
channel but it did not increase the depth to any extent. The rock piles
appeared to scatter the water. To throw a portion of it into the channel
and a great deal of it to the west of the stone piles. At a low stage
the boats could bring a fair load over the upper rapids but on the lower
one there would be from 15 to 24 inches of water. At such times the
freight from above was transferred to lighters and manned by oars, these
boats were floated to Keokuk. The lighter was a long wide flat boat
which would carry a good load on little water. When there was sufficient
water these lighters were towed back to Montrose by the steamer Dan
Hine. When the Hine could not make the trip the lighters were towed
back along the shore by horses. The steamer Dan Hine was a light draft
stern wheel boat, with good
power. Her bottom was of six inch lumber and she could crack the rock
without breaking the plank. However, she wore out three of such bottoms
during the years she operated on the rapids. Capt. Patton was her
commander and Robert Faris her pilot. It was conceded by all that
Faris knew more about the lower rapids than any other man on the river.
His daily trips had enabled him to locate all the rock piles and chains
and at a low stage, I have seen him send the Hine along at full speed
without hitting any of them. We had much trouble along there
and were frequently hung up on the rock piles and chains, all the
while hoping that the canal, then in course of construction, would be
completed in time to do us some good during the remainder of our time on
the river. But the work was going slowly. Now and then the annual
appropriations was turned down by Congress and the work would stop until
The transfer of
freight at the head of the lower rapids furnished employment to a large
number of men and in those days Montrose was a live town. These
freight handlers were a healthy, well developed bunch of fellows and
thorough believers in the doctrine of home rule. Outsiders were not
permitted to interfere with their ideas and customs. A raft crew landed
there one day and after taking some drink, intimated that they could run
the town and paint it bright red. In this they were mistaken. The war
cry of the Montrose legion was heard and the men from the lumber regions
of the north were thoroughly whipped, driven on to their raft and the
raft cut loose and started over the rapids.
A circus gang under the management of one Grady arrived at
Montrose one morning and after loading up with whiskey at Fred Green’s
saloon announced that they
were bold, bad men and that they were looking for some of the noted
fighting men of that town. And
a few hours later they found them. It so happened that the writer was
present on this occasion and witnessed the entire contest. Tho. Burns
of Montrose, was a trained fighter and had seen much service in the
ring. He passed the word around that the Grady gang must be licked and
he led the attach on the showmen. The tents were all torn down, the
circus men severely punished, driven onto the ferry boat and forced to
leave Montrose without giving a performance. The boss canvas man was so
badly disfigured by Burns that he looked as though he had been run
through a corn sheller.
At one time during the progress of the battle I discovered that
the air around my head was full of tent stakes, stones and other
missiles and in front of me I could see the glittering steel of knives
and the business end of a number of guns. As I was not there to be
either killed or wounded, I fell back. The line of battle was moving
toward me, and I took a new position behind a tight board fence, where I
could see just as well and
be in less danger. I had learned this much in the Army that when a
position could not be held, the thing to do was to retire or fall back.
My reverse movement on this occasion was strictly in accordance with
military science as we had it from Grant and Sherman. At
least this was my defense in after years when Wm. Spain, Wm. Owens,
Steve McBride, Charlie Patton and the rest of them accused me of
showing the white leather on the day they gave the circus gang such a
drubbing. These handlers of freight at the head of the rapids were good
fellows when let alone. The steamboat men had no trouble with them. But
it was not a safe proposition for a non-resident gang to come in there
and attempt to run Montrose.
The passengers who congregate around the pilot house of a
steamboat are usually loaded up with questions for the pilot. Among
other things the travelers want to know are the following: The depth of
the water? Does the pilot run by a compass? What is his object in
crossing the river so many times? Why does he not take a straight course
and keep it? Why does he toot his whistle when meeting another boat? Why
does the boat go so slow at certain times, etc. On one occasion I heard
an interesting conversation between a passenger and pilot O.M. Ruby.
The pilot answered all the foregoing
questions and then the passenger wanted to know if he would not
rather work on a faster boat. (We
were going against the current and a head wind and towing two barges.)
Ruby answered this last question in the negative and said that he would
prefer the slow boat for the reason that it
gave him a better opportunity to get acquainted with the farmers
along the shores of the river!
Louisa, for many years, was the Mississippi river shipping point for a
large portion of Louisa, Des Moines and Muscatine counties, but the town
and the roads to it were low, subject to overflow.
Between Muscatine and Iowa city there is a strip of territory
known as Muscatine Island noted for rich soil and large crops of sweet
potatoes. Its width between
river and bluff is from three to six miles.
Along and near the bluff is the Muscatine slough.
This body of water 15 or 16 miles in length no doubt marks the
former channel of the Mississippi river.
At some time in the distant past, the Father of waters has flowed
along at the foot of this bluff. The
head of the slough is just below Muscatine and its mouth a short
distance above Iowa City landing where it enters the river.
Above Port Louisa the slough takes an easterly course to a point
near the bank of the river, and just above Port Louisa, and then returns
to the bluff. At one time
the river threatened to change its course and enter the slough at Port
Louisa, and a heavy embankment was thrown in there, and the banks
strengthened. West and below
Port Louisa is a wide place in the slough known as Lake Odessa.
From the shore of this lake rises a bluff, a gentle slope upward
to the height of 75 or 100 feet. The
distance from the foot of the lake to the river is about 3 ½ miles.
Noticing the conditions here, Van Loon and Lockwood
purchase a tract of land on the bluff, platted a town and called it
Odessa. A warehouse was
built on the shore of the lake and a number of houses erected on the
bluff. This spot was
regarded as a fine location for a city.
Back of it is a fine farming region, and it would have been the
only town on the west shore of the river between Muscatine and
Burlington. When there is a
good stage in the Mississippi, this slough is navigable from its mouth
to the head of the lake, and we went up there frequently.
There are some short bends in it, but boats of the smaller class
made the trip with cargoes of lumber, grain, etc.
Van Loon and Lockwood intended to get their town well started,
and to then cut the levee at Port Louisa and permit the river to force
its way down through the slough and the lake.
And these men would have built a town there had it not been for
the opposition then of the property owners in Port Louisa and vicinity.
They objected to the plan of turning the river in behind then and
leaving them on an island. Some
injunction suits were started in the course and to avoid litigation, Van
Loon and Lockwood abandoned the project.
Later on Port Louisa went to pieces.
There was no business there, and the lots and low lands had
little value. This bluff was
a good place to build a city then, and with the return of the boats to
the upper river it is a fine location now. Money and push would build a
good town here. Had N. W.
Burrus, with the money at his command, located his Burrus City on top of
this bluff and dredged the slough for 3 ½ miles he would have made it
go. He would have had
connection with the river and his town would have been 75 or 100 feet
above the high water mark. It
would have been a better and cheaper proposition than his plan to make a
fill on the bottom, and fight the floods from two rivers.
Even now, with the restoration of water transportation on the
upper river, a god town and a shipping point on lake Odessa would prove
of great benefit to the people of Louisa, Des Moines and Muscatine
counties. It would give them
the benefit of the cheap water transportation to all water points and
largely reduce the present railroad charges.
There is no doubt about this.
The only effective regulators of freight charges are the boats
and the navigable waters of the country.
This is being demonstrated every day in the week.
For this reason people who have navigable rivers flowing past
their doors should use them, as a matter of self protection.
In looking over a newspaper last week I found a six line item announcing the death of Gen. Harvey Graham, in the city of Chicago, at the age of 84 years. When the civil war commenced, Harvey Graham was a resident of Iowa City, Iowa. He promptly responded to the call of his country, and went south on to the fighting line. His first engagement was at Hartsville, Mo. The Union force consisted of about 12 regiments of infantry, some cavalry and a battery of artillery, all under the command of a brigadier general Col Graham was the ranking colonel and as such in the absence of the general would be the commander. When the brigadier leveled his field glass on the Confederate line it did not him. He found that the in battle array, waiting for the general, his staff, and commenced a movement to the general sending an order to co. to follow him with the entire fighting had commenced a retreat did not reach Graham that his general was misinformed and assumed command of the made a vigorous attack on broke the lie, and drove the through and beyond the town, and with his calvary hustled them out of that part of the country. After the battle the dead and wounded were cared for, the roll was called and all accounted for except the general, his staff and body guard. Graham at once sent a courier after this bunch of men, telling them of the battle and victory. The courier found them on the retreat, about 10 miles from Hartsville, and they were brought to a halt. From Missouri Graham and his command went down the Mississippi river, and assisted Gen. Grant in the work of cleaning up the valley, including the capture of Vicksburg. From Vicksburg Graham went east to Gen Sheridan where he and his brigade participated in all of the battles in the Shenandoah Valley. For meritorious service there, he was made a brigadier general. After the war, in 1866, Graham, Reninger and Sparelder built the Iowa City and two barges, and operated them on the Iowa, Cedar and Mississippi rivers for a number of years. Each of these men, owned a one third interest in the boats, and Gen Graham was the head engineer, and he filled the place in a satisfactory manner, as he was a good mechanic. All of the machinery on the steamer Iowa City was made and placed under his personal supervision. General Graham made many friends on the river on account of his jovial disposition. No-one went to sleep or had the blues when General Graham was on the boat, and all of his old time friends will regret to hear of his death. However, he played his part in the dreams of life, lived to a good old age, received the loving care of a daughter in his last years, and died knowing that he had done what he could for his country and his fellow men. He has followed the other members of the crew of the Iowa City-Capt. Reninger, clerk Sparleder, Pilot Mills Ruby and engineer Dillon and Pierce. All have passed away. The writer, the last of the group, has been permitted to live, for which he is truly thankful to our creator.
Return to Table of Contents - Life on the Mississippi
Return to Iowa History Project