IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
E. H. Thomas
CITY ONCE INLAND TOWN
Deal Returned Her To River Map
In Shore Protection At Ottumwa-Spooks That Rang Pilot Bells
As I have stated when the boats
left the river there were but two places where government work had been
done. A dam at the head of Polk
Island, opposite Dallas city, and one at the head of the Burlington
Islands to force the water down Rush Chute.
At that time the Northwestern states were not the power in the
halls of congress that they are now.
The little money appropriated was secured by the eastern and
southern members to improve their harbors on the sea coast.
The steamboat companies and the people between the two rapids,
made an effort to have some work done along that portion of the river,
but were promptly turned down. Dallas
City was one of our best shipping points, but the river had left the
Dallas chute and went to the Iowa shore.
There were but two feet of water in the chute, but 16 feet on the
crossing above Polk Island. The
change in the channel had made, Dallas City an inland town.
At a low stage the river at the head of the Burlington islands,
had become almost impassable. It
so happened that Geo. W. McCrary of Keokuk was secretary of War at that
time, an Col B. F. Marsh of Warsaw, was a candidate for congress.
A small appropriation had been made and there was an additional
sum set apart to be used under the direction of the Secretary of War.
The steamboat companies and the people along there, concluded as
a last resort, to secure some of this river fund through a political
pull. The people of Dallas
City and the country back of it, regardless of their political creed
told Col. Marsh that it would induce Geo. W. McCrary to spend sufficient
money to bring the river back through Dallas chute they would insure his
return to the House of representatives.
On his first run Marsh had received but 410 majority, and it was
evident that he needed some voters in the second contest. I have been
acquainted with Col. Marsh for a number of years and knew that he
favored river improvement, and had been doing all he could in that
direction. I was selected to
carry the message to Congressman Marsh and Geo. W. McCrary.
We held a river improvement and political caucus in Keokuk, the
three of us. I presented the
matter to McCrary, urging the building of two dams-one at Dallas City
and the other at the Burlington Islands.
That he should use the money at his command to pay for this work.
I remember his answer. “Well,”
said he, “as you say, I suppose this work ought to be done, but boys,
isn’t there just a little bit of politics in this proposition?”
I conceded that there was. That
the two dams would be of great benefit to the steamboat man, and that
they would also return my old comrade, Marsh to the House of
Representatives, where I thought he should go, and that I could see
nothing crooked in the deal. At
the close of this interview, the Secretary of War assure us that this
work would be done, and started at once, and it was.
The dams were completed and later on came the election.
When the votes were counted Col. B. F. Marsh had a majority of
1,100 in the district, a gain over his former run of 690 votes.
The people in and around Dallas City gave him a solid vote.
It was taking a mean advantage of our eastern and southern
friends in depriving them of using this $70,000 or $75,000 of the water
fund, but it appeared to be the only plan in sight to secure the money
and the work, and my conscience has never troubled me on account of the
part I took in this transaction. I
do not remember the date when the Dallas dam was put in there.
Sam and Matt Gassaway, now
in the same work with Capt. Fetter, can probably do so, as they
were employed there. And
from that day to this they have been engaged in the river improvement
work. What they don’t know
about this class of work is not worth knowing.
Seventeen years ago the rapid current of the Des Moines river was
fast cutting away the bank in from of South Ottumwa.
I saw that something must be done, or the business street and the
buildings would soon be swept away As
a member of the city council I urged the protection of the bank. It took
me about six months to convince the council and a portion of the people
that the plan used on the Mississippi would be a success.
Many of them declared that there was nothing to it.
One of the papers called me a dreamer, and said that the first
rise in the Des Moines river
would tear down my stone wall. But
the council was with me, and ordered one-half mile of the shore
protection. Then the
knockers brought a suit of injunction, and we whipped them in the
courts. At this stage of the
proceedings, I thought of the Gasaway boys, and one of them,
Matt, was brought to Ottumwa. The
shore protection was put in under his direction, and it stood the test
against all of the floods. Later
on the people demanded the extension of the work.
Captain Fetter was given, the contract, and the Gasaway brothers
had charge of it. We now
have one mile of the shore protection, it is a good job and there can be
no more cutting of the bank. It
is making a fill along the shore, and like whiskey, getting better each
If I should speak to the pilot of the present day of “candling
a reef” it is likely
that he would not comprehend the meaning of it.
As stated in a previous paragraph, there were times during the
low water period, in fogs and darkness when a pilot was fortunate if he
could see one shore mark, that behind him, as a starter to cross the
river. Times when he was
unable to see the mark on the opposite shore, and there was danger of
going aground on the crossing. Under
such conditions, on an up stream run, we frequently worked the engines
slow, and put the nose of the boats up against the reef.
If there was sufficient water, well and good, but if not, we
would try another place. Feel
along the reel until we found a sufficient depth to put the boat up on
to it. On a down stream run
it was a different proposition. Going
rapidly with the current there was no time for feeling around for water,
and if you missed the crossing, the boat went up on the sand, good and
hard. So when he river was
at a very low stage, as a last resort, we adopted the candling plan.
I remember that we did this several seasons on the Lime Kiln
crossing, just below Burlington. This
was the worst place we had to contend with between Rock Island and
Montrose. The water was
shoal, and the crossing narrow. A
boat must be put exactly in it to go over it.
The shore marks were an old lime kiln on the side of the bluff,
and a dead, white tree on the island.
And it was a straight run from bluff to island, no slope to the
crossing. The bar was also
so close to the island that with a stern wheeler, it was necessary to
stop and back, after crossing the reef, to get her head down stream.
The candling could only be done in calm weather when the water
was smooth. At such times
while the boat was discharging and receiving freight at Burlington, one
of the pilots went ahead with the yawl to candle or light the crossing.
Our equipment was simple, and consisted of two thick planks, two
short candles and two water glasses.
The boards were, anchored below and close up to the upper reef,
the candles lighted and placed on the boards, and the glasses turned
over the candles. When the
pilot came down with the steamer he would put her across close under the
two lights. Of course the
lighting of the crossing had to be repeated on every trip, for the
swells of the boat would throw the candles and the glasses off the
boards into the river, but we did it many times.
This was one of the many novel methods we were forced to use in
order to keep a steamboat in the best water on the shoal crossings.
But the boats made their trips and the business was handled under
any and all conditions.
The Irishman is and industrious, jovial witty fellow, and always
finds a way out of a corner. He
has an answer ready for every thrust made at him.
Now and then you will find one of them who is loaded with
superstitions. He believes in ghosts, spooks, hobgoblins, etc.
Our night watchman was one of this class.
The captain owned a large St. Bernard dog and kept him on the
boat. He acquired the habit
of loafing in the pilot house. Watching
us pull the bell cords, Jack, as we called him, got busy himself.
Seizing the strings with his teeth he would ring the bells and
stop the engines. We could
not break him of this trick, and finally closed the pilot house door
against him. While lying at
the bank one night I heard the engine bells playing a tune, and knew
that the big dog had been left in the pilot house, but the Irish
watchman was not aware of the fact.
He came to my stateroom and insisted that I should get out of bed
and investigate matters. That
someone or something was ringing the bells.
That he had been up to the head of the gangway, as close to the
ghost as he wanted to get and that there was no one in the pilot house.
At his earnest solicitation I went up there and found the dog
lying flat on the floor with the cords in his mouth pulling and ringing
the bells. Pat was at the head of the gangway, and I shook my head and
told him that it was a mysterious affair, for there was not a soul in
the pilot house. He was them quite sure that the ghosts had taken
possession of the boat, and declared that he would quit his job.
I went to bed, and the following morning Pat told me that he had
spent the night out on the levee-vacated his position on the boat in
favor of the spooks. Later
on we were compelled to explain matters to prevent pat from drawing his
pay and going ashore.
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