IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
E. H. Thomas
POEM RECITED BY HOBBS
At Temperance Meetings in Dallas City
Bludso Legendary Hero of Old Steamboat Days - The Story of Bill
Henderson. A Frenzied
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.
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.
JIM BLUDSO, OF THE PRAIRIE BELLE
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