IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
E. H. Thomas
WITH A PIRATE CREW
Captain Kidd of the Upper Mississippi
at Lime Kiln Crossing--Responsibility of the Engineers
It was about the 15th of October and my boat had gone
into winter quarters. I was
in New Boston, Ills., on my way home.
With me was Bob Harvey, who had been a fireman on the boat.
On the streets of this town I met a man who wanted a pilot to
take a big floater to Burlington. The
wind was coming from the North, the mercury was dropping, down toward
the zero mark, and the river was at a low stage.
I told the man that I did not want to make the trip.
That I quit the river for the season, and was on my way home.
He insisted that I should go with him.
That he had come from St. Paul, and had much trouble with the
bars and rock piles. We went
to the river with him and looked at the boat.
It was a very large flat boat, about 140 long and 30 feet wide,
with a cabin, the entire length of it, the latter standing up in the air
16 or 18 feet. I found
that the boat was drawing about 3 feet and there was but 3 ˝ feet on
the crossings. The crew
consisted of the captain and his wife, two cooks and six oarsman.
The captain finally persuaded us to go with him.
I was to receive $35 for the trip, and my companion was to be
paid two dollars per day. I
mounted the roof and told the seven men to let her go and pull her out
in the river. The wind was
blowing straight down the river, and the boat went
along at a rapid gait. I
used the oars just enough to keep her in the channel.
It was a cold place up there on that roof, but I consoled myself
with the thought that we would soon reach Burlington.
We flew past Keithsburg, but at the head of Huron Island my
captain took a crazy spell. He
imagined that the boat was about to be capsized by the wind, and begged
of me to land her. I laughed
at him, and assured him that he was in no danger whatever, and that at
the speed we were going, we would soon reach Burlington.
I finally induced him to go downstairs.
Just above Johnson island he had another attack.
Rushing on to the roof with his hands above his head, he begged
of me to land the boat, saying his wife had gone into convulsions.
That she was having a regular series of spasms.
I told him that if I went to the bank we would be frozen in.
That the river would be full of floating ice in the morning and
advised him to let her sail. But
he would not stand for it. Said
he would rather pay me a salary for the entire winter than to run in
that wind. Thro sympathy for
the woman who was having fits down in the cabin, I headed the boat into
Benton Chute, and forced her up a slough as far as she would go.
About 20 feet of the stern was out in the chute..
I went down into the cabin, and to my surprise, found the woman
sewing, and with a smile on her face.
I called her attention to the fact that her husband had told me
that she was so badly frightened that she had gone into convulsions,
“Not I,” said she, “It was my husband who was having the fit.
He is subject to such spells.”
We had a good supper and went to bed.
During the night I was awakened by the grinding of the ice on the
stern of the boat. This
tough new ice will saw its way through the side of a hull and sink it if
let alone. Knowing this, I
aroused the crew and had them cover the stern with two inch plank.
We then went to bed and let the ice saw the plank.
We spent three nights in Benton chute slough.
This gave me an opportunity to look over the boat and the crew in
charge of it. The boat was
partitioned off into rooms-sitting room, parlor, bed rooms, dining room,
and kitchen. Amidships was a large room, which contained 10,000
pounds of flour, a large quantity of meat, and an assorted lot of
groceries and provisions. These
rooms were well furnished, as a house would be.
This crew of river men were villainous looking bunch.
The captain did considerable talking but the balance of the gang
had little to say, and I asked them no questions.
My companion, Bob Harvey was more inquisitive, for I
noticed him in conversation with them a number of times.
Harvey and I occupied the same bedroom, and on the second night
he came in there with a blood curdling story.
Harvey had been pumping the crew.
They told him that when they left St. Paul they had two such
boats linked together. That
the owners of the other boat disappeared one night, and they did not
know what became of them. That
after they disappeared their
captain took possession of the other boat and sold it with its cargo.
Harvey’s decision was that this gang of river men had murdered
the man, sold his property and divided the money, and that they might
take a notion to put Harvey and Thomas out of business.
That we had got mixed up with a gang of pirates and cut
nerves were somewhat shattered, and under the conditions,
I was not feeling
very comfortable myself. We
had two six shooters and about $150 in money in our pockets.
We talked the matter over, examined our guns to see that they
were loaded and in working order and concluded to stay on the job, for a
time, at least, and await developments.
The captain was very clever to us, and wanted us to go right
along with him and spend the winter in the south.
Bob shook his head when the proposal was presented.
We told him that we could not go farther than Burlington, where I
had agreed to get him another pilot.
On the third night there was a rise in temperature, and on the
following morning I told the captain that we would pull out for
Burlington. During the
forenoon I had some additional oars made so that I could use all of the
men. I also watched the
floating ice, and saw that it was getting thinner.
Soon after dinner we left the Benton chute and pulled out into
the river. After a hard
battle with the ice, we made all of the crossings, reached the old wood
yard, passed down through Rush chute and landed at Burlington.
Here I turned the big floater and her piratical crew over to
Pilot Geiger, and he at once sailed for St. Louis.
During the four days we spent on the boat, we had good beds and
splendid meals, but we felt that we were in bad company, and wanted to
get out of it and we did.
If I should speak to a pilot of the present day of “candling
a reef” it is likely that he would not comprehend the meaning of
it. Candling, or lighting a reef, could only be done in calm weather,
when the water was smooth, but we had it to do, as a last resort, on
some of the shoals, narrow crossings.
At the present time the pilot has nearly a straight run from
Burlington to Dallas City. Through
the use of the government dams, about all of the old crossings have been
cut out on this portion of
the river. One of the worst
between the rapids was that just under the head of Big island, below
Burlington. On the down
stream run, the marks were an old Lime Kiln on the bluff and a dead
white tree on the island. We
called it the Lime Kiln crossing. It
was a straight run from bluff to island, the water was shoal, and the
crossing narrow. The bar was
close in to the island, and after passing it, it was necessary to stop
and back a stern wheeler to get her head down stream.
I remember that when the river was at a low stage, we kept two
buoys or floats, on this crossing. They
were of two inch boards and anchored just under the upper reef.
On many occasions, when the water was smooth we placed lights on
these floats. While the boat
was discharging and taking freight at Burlington, one of us would go
ahead with the yawl and place two lights on the Lime Kiln crossing.
Our equipment consisted of two short candles and two water
glasses. The candles, were
placed on the boards, lighted, and the glasses turned over them.
When the pilot came down there with the steamer he would run just
below and near the two lights, as they marked the upper reef as well as
the shoal water on the lower reef. The
bluff shaded the river, it was a dark place and we very frequently went
aground there. Without the
lights it was difficult to locate the upper reef in the night time, and
get the boat in under it. Candling
the reef was one of the many old time methods we used for keeping a
steamboat in the deep water, or channel of the river.
Every passenger steamer carried a well organized force of plain
cooks, pastry cooks, dish washers and table waiters, under the
management and discipline of one man.
This head man received from $100 to $125 per month, and none of
the first class hotels furnished better
meals than the boats. The
tickets sold at that time included this combination as a paying
proposition for the companies. If
a boat was delayed from any cause, the passengers would eat up all the
profits on the tickets and then some.
Walter Blair’s plan of charging them for the ride, and fifty
cents for their meals is a much better system.
It is said that a person’s after sight is better than his
foresight. It is so in this case. I
can now see that his ticket and meal system, our crude slow and
expensive method of handling freight, wasting time and coal at the levee
and landing at all the flag stations, is where we fell down in the
management. With more
economical methods, more money could have been got out of the business
at that time. However, there
was nothing princely about the steamboat companies of that period.
With all of the waste, they were making money, accommodating the
people, pay their men good salaries, and no special effort was made to
increase the net receipts of the business.
Any man with average intelligence can start and stop an engine
and watch the water gauges, but to be a competent river engineer one
must know every part of his machinery and be able to repair it on short
notice when out of repair. The
steamboat companies expect this of their men.
The men on the boats at that time were not only engineers, but
skillful mechanics, could make their own repairs and save the companies
much time and money. With
such men as Spence Bruton, John Parr, Bob Soloman, Lou Jenks, W. H.
Pierce and Geo Owen on watch we knew the machinery would be kept in
good order and the engines promptly handled at the landings and in close
places. The skill and
promptness of the engineer had all to do with handling a boat.
A failure on the part of the engineer to promptly answer the bell
signals sent down to him, would get the pilot into serious trouble.
These engineers were paid from $100 to $150 per month, and they earned
Return to Table of Contents - Life on the Mississippi
Return to Iowa History Project