IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
E. H. Thomas
of old Burris City
RIVER LANDING THAT WAS BELOW HIGH WATER MARK
Had a Hotel, Newspaper, Paved Streets and Many Brick Buildings Up
Against a River Flood-Keokuk’s Great Future.
Just above New Boston, Ills.,
on the Iowa side of the river is a smooth bank, known to the pilots of
the present day as Iowa City Landing.
A tract of bottom land, about 3 miles square with the Toolsboro
bluffs on the west, the Iowa river on the south, the Muscatine slough on
the north and the Mississippi river on the east.
This landing is not much below the high water mark of the
Mississippi. Perhaps two or
three feet, and at one time had another name.
During the 50’s some railroad promoters came along with their
speakers, and brass bands, and told the people that they were about to
commence the building of a great air line trunk road from Philadelphia
to San Francisco. It so
happened that the survey crossed the river at this point.
W. W. Burris received the idea of building a great city there.
Believing that with both rail and water transportation, and a
good agricultural region west of it, that it was a fine location for a
city. He purchased a large
tract of this bottom land, plotted it, called it Burris City and
building operations started. The
financial agent of the enterprise was one C. R.
Dugdale, who was sent east, and there sold many lots at from $500
to $1,000 each. Many of
these eastern investors came out there.
Burrris and his friends put a lot of money into it, and some 60
or 70, buildings were erected within 90 days, among them a large two
story brick hotel. In the
basement of this hotel was a fine bar and a billiard room.
It was regarded as a first class up to date establishment, and it
was operated by the Stafford brothers, who came there from St. Louis.
The town had a newspaper, the Burris City sentinel, a
brick yard and a planing mill. The
place was attracting attention abroad and the hotel could not
accommodate all the visitors. Many
of them stopped at private houses, and each day they were purchasing
lots. The railroad men were
throwing up their grade on both sides of the river, and business was
humming in and around Burris City. The
writer was in this push for about 60 days, or while the boom lasted.
I went in there at the suggestion of Mrs. Burris, whom I had
known for several years. I
was then in my teens, but had finished my apprenticeship at the printing
received employment on the Sentinel.
The editor of this paper was well along in years, a smooth,
forcible writer, and had evidently seen better days, but he would get
gloriously drunk and kick the furniture all over the office.
And he was slow pay. He
had at one time been private secretary for some congressman in
Washington, D. C. and had there contacted the habit of taking large and
frequent drinks. He could
close his lips on the neck of a bottle and hold his breath longer than
any man I have ever met. The
Stafford brothers, who operated the hotel were old newspaper men, and
for a time published the Burris City Commercial, a large weekly paper.
I think the printing was done in New Boston.
Later on they concluded to launch a daily-paper, purchased the
necessary material, and shipped it in there.
I quit the Sentinel to go to work for the Staffords.
They intended to issue the first daily in about three weeks so I
went home for a visit. Two
weeks later, when I returned to Burris City, both the Mississippi and
Iowa rivers were at flood stage. The
entire bottoms from the Toolsboro bluffs to both rivers was covered with
water. The investors in
Burrris City lots were coming out to the bluffs in boats, cursing the
town and everybody connected with it.
Many of these men were from the east.
They had seen the rise and fall of the ocean tides, but never
before been up against a river flood.
They were not only disgusted with their investments, but imagined
that their lives were in danger. I
took a boat and went to the wet city.
I there found a good steamboat stage on any of the streets, and
there was about three feet of water on the first floor of the hotel.
During my stay there I had many talks with Mr. Burris and learned
his plans. Before he went
into this enterprise he had investigated the conditions, and knew that
the land was subject to overflow from the waters of the Mississippi
river, but he had established a grade time, and placed the buildings
above the high water mark. Men
with money were pouring it in there and later on, with their assistance,
Burris intended to build a train way back to the bluff, bring the dirt
down there and make a fill, grade the town up above, the flood mark.
During his investigation he also learned that the Iowa and
Mississippi rivers had never, at any time, come up together.
In this, is where he was caught.
The unexpected happened. The
rain came down in torrents for weeks and weeks, and both rivers went up
and out of their banks at the same time.
I am not positive, but I think this high water was in 1858, or
about that time. The great Philadelphia, Fort Wayne, Platte river, Air
Line Railroad, proved a fake and a graft.
This hot air company throwed up some grade here and there,
secured many thousand of dollars in county bonds, sold the bonds to
third parties, pocketed the money and abandoned the work.
Later on the people were compelled to redeem the bonds, under the
“innocent purchaser” clause of the law.
The people were skinned to a finish, and got no railroad.
W. W. Burris went to Colorado, and while engaged in building
another town, was killed by the Indians. The flood killed Burris City,
and I have always believed that the name had much to do with the death
of the railroad scheme.
It was too long and covered too much territory especially for
that early period. One by
one the buildings of the new town were torn down, and the lumber, brick
and stone taken away.
Cap Au Gris was a very small village. A few houses and one store.
Our captain was a good fellow, but was reared in the mountain
region of Pennsylvania and operated a saw mill before he went on to the
roof of a steamboat. He
never gave this town the French pronunciation, but persisted in
pronouncing it as he spelled it,
with a strong emphasis on the “au”
and the “Gris” the
boat was short of supplies and we landed at this town.
It was here, in this country store, that we first learned that
there were three grades of butter in the state of Missouri.
The merchant told the steward that he was selling three varieties
of butter, and the prices 20, 25, and 30 cents per pound.
The steward purchased ten pounds of the top grade, and later on
this stuff made much trouble with the crew.
It was placed on the table in the cabin, and there condemned.
No one would eat it. It
was then passed down to the roustabouts, who at once sent a committee to
the captain with a demand for better food.
It was finally turned over to the engineer who thought he could
use it in the engines, and did, and declared that it was the best thing
he had ever found. That this
high grade Missouri butter had such great strenght that it would force
its way down through the oil cups and into the cylinders against a steam
pressure of 150 pounds. Now,
I will not be responsible for the statement made by this engineer, for
the reason that he had been on the river 25 years, and that his home was
in Keokuk. The people of
this city are noted for power stories.
Just now they are telling us about the big dam.
That when completed it will have the pulling power of three
hundred thousand horses. The
forty mule team and the big load of borax will not be in it with the
Keokuk dam. If this be true,
and the engineers ought to know, this great dam, with its enormous
power, will pull Keokuk out in the old rut, and place her on the high
road of prosperity. In the
near future it should be a great manufacturing city.
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