Chapter XXIV

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  


A Captain Kidd of the Upper Mississippi  

Difficult--Navigation 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  throats.  Bob’s 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 the money.


Return to Table of Contents - Life on the Mississippi

Return to Iowa History Project