Chapter XXV

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  


Political Deal Returned Her To River Map

Putting 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 year.

  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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