Chapter XXVI

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  



The Secret of Building Up River Traffic  


   Capt Lon Bryson, present postmaster of Davenport, is an old river man.  I remember him quite well as a captain on the fine passenger steamer, operating in between St. Louis and St. Paul.  In a recent interview Capt. Bryson made use of the following language:  “The thing that is of the greatest importance in building up the steamboat business to its former glory is the securing of shippers who will stand by the boats.”

  This is the whole thing in a nutshell, and plainly expresses the views of all river men, who have had and experience in the business.

   As I understand it will be the policy of the government to spend fifty million dollars per year for the next ten years in the improvement of the rivers.  Of what benefit will this be to the people, if they do not use these steamers after the work is completed?  None whatever.  It will simply be a waste of government money.  River men take the position that the principal rivers now navigable, just as much so as in the olden days when they were used by the large passenger steamers, and the powerful tow boats with their great fleets of barges.  All are in accord with the present movement to increase the depth of the channels, but business, freight for the boats, is the first and important thing.  The boats should be put on the rivers now, and demonstrate that the people intend to use these great water ways as a means of transportation.  Convince the new generation of men that there is something in it.  As President Taft said to the shippers of Memphis: “Here you have a great river flowing by your doors.  Why don’t you use it now?”  That’s the question.  I am here to say, and all river men will endorse my statement, that water transportation cannot be restored and maintained unless the merchants, manufacturers and shippers generally, take an active interest in the movement.  There must be a combination of the steamboat and shipping interests.  St. Louis and Kansas City have made a movement in this direction.  The shippers have purchased the boats and started them.  A start in the right direction has been made by the business men of the different cities and towns between St. Louis and St. Paul, but it will require a campaign of education.  Many of the shippers do not appear to understand the situation, nor to realize the benefits to be derived from the restoration of water transportation.  They imagine that at some distant time, after the government has deepened the channels, steamboat men will purchase boats and operate them and take all of the chances.  As I have before stated, the river men will not do this.  The return of the boats can only be brought about through a combination of the shippers and the steamboat men.  The latter must have some positive assurance that the boat will get some business at least sufficient to keep them busy during the boating season.  My plan would be to hold meetings in every town between St Louis and St. Paul.  Travel by boat, advertise the meetings of shippers ahead.  Have some good speakers along to explain to the shippers the benefits they would secure thro the restoration of the cheap water transportation.  That it would largely reduce their freight rates and give their towns and cities new life.  Stock in a steamboat company should also be secured at these meetings, and at the close of the campaign a company organized, the boats purchased and put in the trade between St. Paul and St. Louis.  I am satisfied that Capt. Streckfus, Capt. Blair and other river men would encourage this sort of a movement and with the shippers interested, they would also put some money into the boats and operate them.  Thro this combination, or partnership of shippers and steamboat men, the business could be established, maintained and made a financial success.  And in my opinion it is the only feasible plan.  In Kansas City the business men put up more than one million dollars for steamboats and barges.  Not only this but each of them have entered into a written contract with the company to furnish a certain amount of freight each season for their boats, guaranteed, in advance, sufficient business to keep the boats employed between.  A number of steamers and barges who successfully operated last

year, and an addition will be made to the fleet this season.  The St. Louis merchants have started the business in a conservative way, on a capital of but $200,000.  With the money they have purchased a low boat and three barges, all steel hulls.  These boats will be operated between St. Louis and New Orleans, and take a cargo of 3,000 tons at a trip.  The business men of these two Missouri cities have set a pace for these in the different town on the upper Mississippi.  An organized earnest effort would bring the same result on the upper river.  It ought to be very easy to raise one million dollars for steamers and barges.  The Upper Mississippi river Improvement association, under the leadership of your townsman, Captain Wilkinson, could do it.  I think he is president of this association.  Let the government work go along, but in the meantime start the boats, and give the people of the present day a practical demonstration that there is something in it.  That what was done in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s can be done now.

   There was no bridge at that time, and the Burlington company was doing a transfer business there.  My boat was lying at Burlington levee, and I was sent across the river to look after some freight.  Was then known as East Burlington was quite a village and a busy place.  On the return trip and when near the Iowa shore I saw that the levee was covered with people, and among them recognized Marshal Hofer, or as he was better known, “Big Horse,”  There were a number of policemen there also.  Above me was a man in skiff pulling for the Illinois shore.  I recognized this man as Tom.  Tom had worked on the steamboats, but at that time was fishing and doing odd jobs with his skill around Burlington.  As we passed each other in the river, Tom threw his oars in the skiff, pulled his gun on the marshal and told him to get off the levee or he would fill him full of lead.  The marshal being near the Ingersol fish house, went behind it at a rapid gait.  Tom picked up his oars and pulled over to the Illinois shore.  When I landed my boat the marshal came down on to me, and asked why I did not stop that man, saying that he was a fugitive from justice.  That he had commanded me to do so.  I answered that it was not in my line of business stopping fugitives who carried loaded guns.  Then I asked him why he did not take a boat and go after Tom, instead of hiding behind the fish house.  The fact was that Hofer and his police force knew this man and were afraid of him.  Tom weighed about 200 pounds, and was recognized in the Burlington levee as the chief fighter and would use his gun when in a close place.  I went out into the large crowd on the levee and put out the cause of all the excitement there.  As they gave me the story, a large party of excursionists from Galesburg had come to Burlington.  They chartered the ferry boat and went down to the “Cascade,” below the city.  Tom was down there with his skiff, and he was charged with enticing two young ladies into his boat and taking them over to the gunboat, which was tied to the shore of Big Island.  The rehearsal of this story caused intense excitement and Tom had gotten away from the Iowa shore none too soon.  Had he remained there the crowd would have lynched him.  Big Horse, the marshal was up in the air and got busy.  He put 50 armed men on to the ferry boat and sailed to Big Island to rescue the Galesburg girls.  No resistance was made down there and the two young ladies were brought back to Burlington.  That night on our up stream trip, Tom came onto the boat to learn something as to conditions in Burlington. Tom said that he had committed no crime.  That the two girls came to his boat and asked him to take them over to the gunboat, and that he did so, charging them one dollar for the trip.  After being brought back to Burlington, the girls admitted this.  That wishing to learn something as to the shady side of life, they had voluntarily gone over to the gunboat.  After a lecture from the crowd the girls returned to their homes in Galesburg.  In a few days Tom returned to Burlington, as soon as he thought it was safe to do so.   

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