Chapter XXIII

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  


Used At Temperance Meetings in Dallas City  

Jim Bludso Legendary Hero of Old Steamboat Days - The Story of Bill Henderson.  A Frenzied Financier  

   In addressing an audience composed of river men, if the speaker desires to stir up some enthusiasm among them and get them all coming his way, he can easily do so by reciting the poem, “Jim Bludso of the Prairie Belle”  I have seen this demonstrated.  If I have the record straight, John Hay selected a well known engineer, who lived in Alton, as the character of his poem.  This engineer had a brother on the river who was a pilot and later on a captain.  The older residents of Burlington will remember Wesley Hobbs, an attorney, whose home was in Fort Madison for many years.  Hobbs was a scholar and an orator and a popular fellow with the people.  He was also a Democrat and a vigorous opponent of the liquor traffic.  I have always believed that had it not been for his radical position on the liquor he would have been sent to congress from the district in which he lived.  After I quit the boats, or rather after the boats left me, I was publishing a newspaper in Dallas city.  The people of that town were holding a series of temperance meetings, and among the speakers from a distance was Wesley Hobbs.  He interviewed me as to the make up of the audience he was to address.  I told him there would be a number of river men in the hall.  “Well,”  said Hobbs, “I shall start that meeting with a recitation of Jim Bludso, of the Prairie Belle.  I think this will catch the river boys and the audience will be with me from start to finish.”  The plan was a success.  The recitation was the finest thing I have ever heard from a platform.  It caught the river men and they stood up and made the hall ring with cheers, and the audience went with them.  When order was restored, Hobbs said “Now boys, dare to do right!  Have the courage and manhood of Jim Bludso who stood by the throttle on the burning boat until the last galoot was ashore!  Come forward and sign the temperance pledge!”  The river men went to Hobbs in a body and signed up, as did many others in the room.  As the old timers and the new generation of river men may take pleasure in reading this poem, I give it above, I have read it many times and I would now give a big silver dollar to hear Wesley Hobbs recite it.    

  The pay of the roustabouts or deck hand was about $45 per month.  Under the skillful management of the mates of that time, such men as Mose Mullen, Hiran Finch and Jim Best, there was little trouble.  There were but few strikes, and altho the work was heavy at times, the men employed enjoyed river life.  There were a few shirks among them, professionals who were afraid of a big freight pile on the shore, and would hide in the hold or wheel houses until it was loaded.  Under the marine laws the roustabouts could collect full pay for the round trip, work or no work, and they would take advantage of this, if permitted to do so.  It then became necessary to drive the shirk from his hiding place and put him to work.  To the people on the shore this looked like cruelty, but it was the only way to handle this class of men.  On the down trip the roustabouts handled no freight at St. Louis.  The boat was unloaded by the stevedores, of levee gangs, at so much per package.  A package was anything from a threshing machine down to a ten pound bundle.  The mates preferred men who had seen service on the river, but now and then, when short of help they would employ a few green hands.  A man of the latter class, who did not know a hitch from a short splice in a line was put through a system of hazing to break him in.  The other fellows usually called him a “Corn field sailor.  The new man would be sent to the roof with a lantern to light the pilot thro the bridge.  With the pilot, a light a mile ahead was all right, when he needed it, but nothing irritated him so much as to flash a light in his face when approaching the draw of the bridge, for it made him entirely blind.  The pilot would always make it warm for the “cornfield sailor,” and drive him off the roof.   Another task they had for the recruit was to take two bricks, and under the direction of the captain, to clean and polish the big bell on the roof.  As this bell was a costly article and liable to be greatly damaged by the brick, the man from the corn fields would get a blessing from the captain and be forced to make a rapid retreat down the stairway.  Then the hazers would rig him up in a gunny sack coat, with holes for his head and arms, provide him with a pair of mittens, and order him to climb the hot chimneys, and out up the head lights.  When not otherwise engaged the new man was kept busy searching the boat for the key of the keelson.  So while breaking in the new man, the gang on the lower deck were also having some fun at the expense of the captain and pilot.  If the “cornfield sailor” obeyed orders and came through this trying ordeal in good shape, he was then enrolled as a member of the “River Rats Union,” and thereafter recognized as one of the boys.

   All old time river men will remember Bill Henderson, who was a German and a frenzied financier.  Bill was not on the river for his health, but for the money there was in it.  In the start, he was a dealer in chip sand whetstone.  Bought and sold oranges, bananas, apples, black berries, and everything out of which he could get a profit.  He next owned one of the bars, where liquor was sold to the passengers.  Later on he purchased all of the bars on all the boats of the Northern Line Packet Co.  At that time when there was a large passenger business these bars proved a gold mine for Wm. Henderson.  Within a few years he owned an interest in the boats, as well as a large farm on the upper end of the river, in fact he was rich, but did not appear to know it, for he continued in his old business of peddling stuff to the people along the shores.  He was also looking after his interest in the fleet of steamers, for he was often seen in front of the boilers telling the firemen to burn all the crooked wood, and keep the ashes out from under the grate bars, calling their attention to the fact that it took money to purchase wood and grate bars.  Bill shifted around from one boat to another, looking after his interests but made his headquarters on the steamer Dubuque.  He had been raised on the boats and his knowledge of farming, live stock, and other matters ashore was very limited.  But in his particular line of business, he was an expert, and often boasted of his success.  He was close in money matters and shrewd, but was finally landed by one Blake, the steamboat agent at Nauvoo.  Blake was an Irishman and something of a wag.  The Dubuque landed at the Mormon City one day, and among other things in the warehouse was a cage containing, two birds.  Bill had never seen anything like them before, and pleased with their beauty and charmed by their singing, he concluded that a pair of these birds, would be a valuable addition to his home.  So he proceeded to interview the steamboat agent as to the name and value of the birds.  Blake was loaded, gave the birds a high sounding title and said that they were being brought from a foreign country by a resident of Nauvoo.  That they were a very rare bird and worth $10 a pair, Bill went down after the ten dollars the deal was closed and the officers of the Dubuque were told to keep quiet, to ask no questions and to answer none.  Blake delivered the goods, and Bill Henderson left Nauvoo very well pleased with his beautiful song birds.  Before the Dubuque reached St. Paul all of the newspapers contained some startling headlines, set in bold, black type, “Bill Henderson and His birds,”  “Bill Henderson Worked,”  “ Henderson fleeced,” etc.  Under these heads the writers gave all of the details of the bird deal between Blake and Henderson.  Bill had coughed up ten dollars for two cackling guineas. When selling price was not to exceed 25 cents.  When the Dubuque returned to the Nauvoo warehouse, Blake was not there.  The man on duty reported that he was sick.  The fact was that he did not want to meet Bill Henderson.  He was afraid that he might be up in the air.  And he was, for sometime.  He would dodge his best friends to get rid of hearing the guinea story.   


Well no, I can’t tell whar he lives,
Because he don’t live you see,
Least ways, he’s got out of the habit
Of livin, like you and me,
Where have you been for the last three year
That you haven’t heard folks tell
How Jimmy Bludso passed in his chocks
The night of the Prairie Belle?

He weren’t no saint, them engineers
Is all pretty much alike
One wife in Natchez under the hill
And another one here, in Pike:
A keerless man in his talk was Jim,
And an awkward hand in a row, 
Bill he never flunked, and he never lied,-
I reckon he never knowed how.

And this was all the religion he had-
To treat his engine well:
Never be passed on the river
To mind the pilot’s bell;
And if ever the Prairie Belle took fire,
A thousand times he swore,
He’d held her nozzle agin the bank
Till the last soul got ashore.

All boats had their day on the Mississip.
And her day came at last,-
The Movastor was a better boat,
But the Belle she wouldn’t be passed.
And so she came tearin along that night-
The oldest craft on the line
With a nigger squat on her safety valve
And her furnace crammed, rosin and pine.

The fire bust out as she cleared the bar,
And burnt a hole in the night,
And quick as a flash she turned and made
For that willer-bank on the right
There was runnin and cursin, but Jim yelled 
Over all the infernal roar
I’ll hold her nozzle agin the bank
Till the last galoots ashore.”
Through the hot, black breath of the burnin 
Jim Bludso’s voice was heard,
And they all had trust in his cussedness,
And knowed he would keep his word
And, sure’s you‘re born, they all got off
Afore the smokestacks fell-
And Bludso’s ghost went up alone
In the smoke of the Prairie Bell.

He weren’t no saint-but at jedgment
I’d run my chance with Jim
Longside of some pious gentlemen
That wouldn’t shook hands with him.
He seen his duty, a dead sure thing-
And went for it there and then,
And Christ ain’t a going to be too hard
On a man that died for men.


Return to Table of Contents - Life on the Mississippi

Return to Iowa History Project