Chapter XXII

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  

History of old Burris City


Once 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 business.  I  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.

   One of the most picturesque places between Davenport and St. Louis is the “chalk bluffs”  above Alton.  They loom up about 100 feet from the surface of the river, and the rock is soft and white.  The action of the wind and water formed columns on the face of these  bluffs, giving them the appearance of masonry.  In the old days, when there were no lights, along these bluffs was a mean place for the pilot, in the night time.  The river was wide and the opposite shore was low and flat.  There was nothing over there which would answer for a night mark.  Some shoal reefs put out from the bluffs, and the latter shaded the river along there.  Our only plan was to take a mark on the bluff to run under these reefs, heave the lead lines on both sides of the boat, and run by the soundings until we could get around the reefs and back to the bluff.  Peter Hall, the veteran pilot, had a story about this place.  Peter stated that at one time he saw a horse walk off the top of this bluff and fall down to the river.  He was not sure, but expressed the opinion that the horse was either blind or insane, and while picking grass up there, made a misstep.  And strange to say, as Peter always put it, this fall of 100 feet did not injure or kill the animal.  As Peter explained it to the passengers, it was the landing, or step, on a ledge of rock, near the water, that put the horse out of business. Knocked him to smithereens.  When surrounded by a group of passengers and they were pumping him as to the bluffs, the depth of the water at that point, and river matters, generally.  Peter took great pleasure in telling this horse story.  Peter was a good pilot, but a silent man, and to ask him if he ran by a compass, or to put other foolish questions at him would make him very sore.                              

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