Chapter XXVII

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  


Shippers Hold Key To Situation  

If Steamers do Not Receive Shipments, River Will Not be Used


   In these latter days it is seldom that we hear of one railroad corporation fighting another.  If they have a difference they get together and settle it.  During the 60’s the railroad officials had not yet got onto the pool, or combination plan of running their business.  They could be depended on to line up against the boats, but now and then there would be a disagreement and a row between two rival  corporations. At one time in the 60’s the Rock Island and C. B. & Q. companies got at it.  At that time Dallas City, Keithsburg, New Boston, Port Louisa, Muscatine and Andalusia were great grain points.  I have counted as many as 500 teams waiting their turns at the warehouses in these towns, mostly loaded with corn.  There were two markets for the grain, St. Louis and Chicago.  The grain buyers would figure the price in these two cities and the difference between the water and rail rate, and then ship to the point where they could do the best.  If the price was the same in Chicago and St. Louis, the grain would go to the latter city by the boats the cheaper water route.  There came a time when the price of corn went to a low figure in St. Louis and remained that way for two years.  Under such conditions the corn was shipped to Chicago.  The C. B. & Q. officials discovered that all of the grain between the rapids was being taken by the Northern Line boats and landed at Rock Island, from whence it was shipped to Chicago on the Rock Island road.  There appeared to be some sort of a deal between the Packet company and the Rock Island company.  The Burlington officials were not pleased with this arrangement, and made a roar, but the shipments continue to Rock Island.  I had been at Keithsburg during the winter, where I owned a half interest in a newspaper.  Along in March I received a telegram from the owners of the tow boat Pearl, saying that they wanted my services for the season. I at once sold my interest in the paper and went to Muscatine, where the Pearl was in winter quarters. We discussed the prospects for business for the season, and I told the owners of the Pearl of the fight between the C B. & Q. and Rock Island companies.  I then went to Burlington and made my proposition to the Burlington officials to put the Pearl and four barges in the trade between Andalusia and Burlington, make a cut of 10 cents per hundred pounds, and to divert the grain business to East Burlington, and send it to Chicago over the C. B. & Q. road.  We then agreed on the proper division of the freight money, on the basis of a ten per cent cut.  I then visited all the grain buyers and shippers, and they agreed to stay with the Pearl, on our proposition to reduce the freight charges.  Then the fight commenced for the corn sacks.  A contest between the C. B. & Q. and the Pearl and the Northern Line Packet company and the Rock Island railroad.  We gave through bills to Chicago from all points between Andalusia and Burlington and got the corn.  We used four 500 ton barges, two at each end of our trip, two loading above and two unloading into the cars at East Burlington.  The Pearl had ample power and hustled the barges up and down the river.  When the Rock Island and Packet company found that they were up against it, they tried various plans to intimidate the shippers, but the latter stayed with us during the season.  The next spring I went back to Burlington to make a new contract.  When I walked into the office and made my business known, the agent handed me a telegram, and it was from the general office of the Northern Line Packet company.  And this is what it said, “Make no contracts with outside boats.  We can and will handle all of your business.”  I asked the Q. agent what he proposed to do about it, “ We do not care to get into a lengthy warfare with the Rock Island company.  I will not make a written contract with you for this season.  However, you know what we did last year, and if you bring the corn to East Burlington, we will most certainly haul it to Chicago.” On this verbal contract we brought the Pearl and barges out of winter quarters and went at them again.  There was one peculiar thing in this contest.  I expected the Packet company and the Rock Island to make a heavy cut, a starvation rate, in order to drive us out of the business.  But to my surprise they did not do this.  With the boats we could have made a still lower rate, but we were not forced to do so.  The Northern Line boats refused to come down to our ten cent cut.  Their plan was to intimidate the shippers and force them to ship via Rock Island at the higher rate.  Toward the later part of the season they succeeded in frightening a few of the shippers and they deserted us.  However, the Pearl held the bulk of the business, and made some money during the two seasons.  Along in the fall of the second season there was a change in the market.  Prices were better in St. Louis and thereafter the grain went down the river.

   A prominent U. S. engineer, who has the rank of Colonel, said to me recently:  “had it not been for the agitators the work of river improvement would have been dead long ago.”  This is probably true.  Many of these men in different parts of the country are doing good and effective work among the people explaining to them the benefits to be derived from the cheap water transportation.  Among these men is a Captain Douglas who has explored the Mississippi from its head to the gulf, securing  information as to the channel of the great obstructions, etc.  he has also issued a number of pamphlets giving his ideas as to boats and rivers.  All of this has been done at his own expense, and he is entitled to credit his vigorous efforts to educate the people.  But, from a perusal of his articles I conclude that he hails from one of the lake cities.  As to the construction and use of boats he appears to have lake ideas.  Some six or seven years ago Captain Douglas organized a company, built a steamer and some barges and attempted to operate them between St. Louis and New Orleans.  His idea was to use a powerful tow boat, and tow the barges in tandem, behind the steamer.  The steamer was equipped with two propeller wheels seven or eight feet in diameter with heavy machines to drive them.  The diameter of the wheels necessitated a deep draft boat, as his wheels had to be submerged in order to get the power out of them.  This new departure in navigation, proved a failure for two reasons:

   1.  On account of its deep draft there was not sufficient water between St. Louis and Cairo to float his tow boat.  She went aground during the low water season, and


  2.  Any experienced river man could have told Captain Douglas that towing barges behind a steamer was impracticable, on account of the “flanking” of the barges in the bends and on the crossings.  This system of towing will do on the lakes where the boats have plenty of room to flank around, but not on the river.

  Captain Douglas now has another new plan for a powerful tow boat, which he believes will be the thing on the Mississippi river.

   This objection to the powerful tow, boat which are now doing such great work on the Ohio river in the coal trade, is that the wheels put too much of a load or weight on the stern of the steamer.  He calls attention to one of these powerful tow boats which uses a bucket 40 feet in length.  To remedy this he proposes to use a double hull with a wheel on each end of it, one on the bow and one on the stern, each using a bucket 20 feet in length.  In other words to cut the big wheel in the center and place one half of it at the bow of the boat, between the two hulls.  To also use two sets of rudders, one forward and another on the stern of the boat.  Now I am aware of the fact that in these latter days a man who does not favor all new ideas presented, is called a stand patter and an old fogy, but never the less, after the many experiments in wheels and hulls, I have failed to discover anything which I thought so good as the old style stern wheel tow boats.  They did the work in the old days, and they are doing it now on the Ohio and lower Mississippi rivers.  The only needed improvement I have noticed in these boats are their steel hulls.  With steel hulls properly constructed well stiffened with keels on and water tight bulk heads, and well appointed with hog chains, the weight of the wheel on the stern will cut little figure.  With her boilers and engines in proper position, the stern and engines in roper position, the stern wheel tow boat can be trimmed up on an even keel.  In a recent article, Major Montgomery Meigs, who has spent many years along the river, as a government engineer, says that the buckets of a wheel should be “feathered,” as the oarsman feathers his oar.  I agree with the major on this proposition, if  it is possible to do this without using too much machinery to change the position at the bucket after it makes its pull. If the bucket can be brought straight up out of the water after it has finished its work, or pull, it would relieve the engines of a great load, and largely increase the power.  The transportation of freight up and down the river at a cheap rate, is the thing desired, and what the people appear to want.  This can be done by the use of such boats as we had in the old days, the Louisville, Kentucky, Little Giant, Bengal Tiger and others.  Any of these tow boats could and did handle from eight to ten of the 500 ton barges.  The main issue now is to get the boats started, and to provide sufficient business to keep them employed.  As I have frequently stated, in my opinion this can be accomplished through a combination of the shippers, and the steamboat men, each having a financial interest in the fleets of boats.  The shippers to furnish the freight and the river men to operate the boats.  On any other plan, my faith is weak in the matter of restoring and maintaining the cheap water transportation on the Mississippi or other rivers.  Business for the boats is, or should be, the first thing to be considered in this movement.  The depth of the channels will have little to do with it, for if the shippers and the people take no interest, the rivers will not be used.  As I have stated in a former chapter, the thing needed at the present time is a campaign of education among the shippers of the different river cities.

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