Chapter XXI

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  



Only Bridges are in Way of Successful Navigation of Des Moines River To-day  

   Some of us who have passed the 70th milestone have seen the Mississippi river steamers passing up and down the Des Moines river, but I find that many of the younger people who live along the shores and who have come upon the stage of life in the past 40 years, regard the statement as a sort of legend.  There appears to be a doubt in their minds as to the navigation of the steam during the 40s, 50s, 60s and up to the time it was blockaded by bridges.  To set them right on this matter I wish to state that since I started the river story in THE POST, I have located a number of men who were employed on these boats.  And recently, thro the kindness of the Finley family of Ottumwa, I have secured what might be called record evidence.  Bills of lading which were used by the shippers and the boats during the 50s:  The bills are faded and worn, but they have been preserved thro all of these years, and tell the story of navigation on the Des Moines.  The county capital of Wapello county was located on the north side of the river, and called Ottumwa.  South of the river about one and a half miles from the court house and up the river, was a suburban village called Richmond.  Several stores and other buildings were there.  It is now included in the seventh ward of the city.  From the information I have gathered it appears that Richmond was the business end of Ottumwa in the old days.  John Finley, deceased, father of James, Lloyd, Samuel and Robert Finley of Ottumwa, was the principal merchant of Richmond, and he was also the steamboat agent.  From these ancient bills of lading, now in my possession, I am enabled to give the names of the boats and the dates of their arrival at the port of Richmond to Ottumwa, as follows:

April 1, 1889, steamer Clara Hine, Capt. Patten, with freight from Keokuk rate 25 cents per 100 lbs.

May 18, 1858, Steamer Morgan, Freight and passengers from Richmond to Keokuk and passengers from Richmond to Keokuk, rate 25c G. W. Hill, clerk

July 2, 1858.  Steamer Defiance with  Freight from Keokuk, rate 25 cents.

June 9, 1858. Steamer Defiance,Freight from Keokuk, Willis Young clerk

April 1, 1858, steamer Lizzie Martin freight from Ohio river to Richmond, Willis clerk. 

March 27, 1855, Steamer Dan Conver, Cargo from Richmond to Rock Island. 

April 23, 1858 Steamer G. H. Wilson and barges.  Freight from Richmond to Keokuk, Rate 25c. 

June 30, 1858, steamer Defiance, freight billed from Richmond to Keokuk rate 25c.  R. S. Wilkin clerk. 

October 17, 1855, steamer Carroll Edith.  Freight billed from Cleveland, Ohio to Richmond, Iowa.  Five barrels of mackerel.  Charges $15.20.  N. Monroe, clerk. 

April 16, 1856, steamer Col. Morgan freight billed from Wheeling West Virginia to Richmond, Iowa. 

March 12, 1859, Steamer Charles Rogers and barges.  This cargo was billed from Bentonsport by the K. & D. M. R. R. agent to Ottumwa.  It appears that Bentonsport was the terminus of the railroad at that date,  The freight rate on the Rogers was 40 cents.  Was putting it on to them for shipping from Keokuk to Bentonsport by the railroad.  F. E. Beers was Captain of the Rogers. 

March 20, 1859, Steamer Clara Hine, Capt. Patten. Freight from Keokuk to Richmond.  Rate 25c. 

October 16, 1855, steamer Adelia arrived at Richmond with freight from Alexandria Mo.  Rate 13c per 100 lbs. 

April 23, 1858, Steamer Delta, freight from Keokuk to Richmond at 25 cents per 100. Forsythe clerk. 

March 26, 1858, Steamer Clara Hine, Capt. Patten, with Freight from Keokuk to Richmond. 

April 20, 1858, Steamer Clara Hine, Capt. Patten, cargo from Keokuk to Richmond. 

The Finley brothers, who were old enough to remember it , say that the boats always had a good cargo on the down trip, an carried many passengers up and down.  From information I have collected, the Clara Hine appears to have been the money maker of the lot.  Her net earnings in one season was sufficient to pay for the building of another steamer, The City of Des Moines, which was also put in the trade.

   Among the old documents I find a railroad bill, bearing the date June 29, 1860.  This appears to have been the first shipment received by rail.  The goods were shipped to Ottumwa by Stafford & McCane of Keokuk, over the K. & D. M. Valley railroad, and the freight charge was 35 cents over the former boat rate.  The track of this road must have reached Ottumwa about this date, June 29, 1860.  March 12, 1859, when the agent there transferred some freight to the Rogers, the western terminus appears to have been at Bentonsport.

   The foregoing is but a portion of the boats navigating the Des Moines in the old days,.  When required to do so we sent the names of 56 of them to the War Department in Washington.  But the list given, with dates, shows what was done, and what might be done again.  If the ten bridges  between Ottumwa and the mouth of the river, were provided with draw spans.  The people and the steamboat men would again have the use  of the river which is a God given right.  These who are behind the present movement to induce the government to recognize and improve the stream hope to secure the opening of these bridges next year.  They have asked the War Department and Congress to have this done, as a first move on the project of improving the river, and making it a part of the great waterway system of the country.  With the bridges open and the boats in operation during the good water months, the work of securing appropriations to make the river navigable during the two or three dry months of the season, will be easy.

   In a previous paragraph I referred to the many experiments with steamboat wheels.  The geared steamboats also had their run in these days.  Short stroke, high speed engines and cog wheels were tried on many of the boats of the smaller class.  For a time, quite a number of the raft tugs were equipped with this kind of machinery.  It was demonstrated  that there was something of a gain in power, when the cogs hit their places, but they did not always do this.  The cogs would frequently ride one another, crush the wheels and throw the iron all over the deck.  It was not a safe proposition to stand near these high speed engines and their cog wheels.  I remember that two men were hit and killed by the iron from these wheels.  Geared machinery appears to be satisfactory in the mills and factories, where a solid foundation can be made for it, but not on a boat.  No solid bed can be secured there, for the reason that there is more or less spring and twist in the hull of a boat, especially when the waves are running on the surface of the river.  The geared machinery was a failure, and like the many patent wheels was discarded.

   Rivers cut some peculiar pranks.  Men who have made a life study of the matter tell us that at certain points here the banks are soft the Mississippi, and other streams have shifted their channels from bluff to bluff, cut their way here and there, through the valley lands.  These changes are slow hardly noticeable within a generation, yet they have been going on for hundreds of years.  And we have much evidence in support of this.  Between St. Paul and New Orleans many of these old river beds can be seen.  The Muscatine slough which I have mentioned, about 16 miles in length, is one of them.  At the head of Cedar Island, on Iowa river, 5 miles from its mouth, one can see where great change was made in the course of this stream.  Looking in a southeasterly direction one can see the head of Iowa slough about two miles distant.  Three miles below its head it makes connection with the Mississippi river in Huron chute.  When the Mississippi is at a fair stage, this slough has good water.  In it I have taken large boats up there with cargoes of lumber grain etc.  When the Iowa river is at flood stage the water goes over the bank of the Cedar island bend and flows across the bottom and down through this slough

  The conditions here indicate that the Iowa river, at some time, left its south easterly course took a square turn to the left, and cut its way east to the Mississippi river.  What the engineers call a closing dam at the head of Cedar Island would put it back on its old trail, down though Iowa slough.  The distance from the head of Cedar Island to the old and the new mouth of the Iowa is about the same, 5 miles.  The distance from Cedar Island, via the Mississippi, to the old mouth in the Huron chute, is 8 miles, an increase of three miles.  This is the problem which the U. S. engineers are now working at.  By paving the shores to keep the rivers within their banks, and by building of dams to concentrate the water and increase the depth of the channel.  This system is proving a success, and in many places the streams are now under the absolute control of the engineers, and cannot change their course, as formerly. 

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