Chapter XXVIII

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  


Upper Mississippi Cities Should Act  

The Great Advance of Cheap Water Transportation In Building Up Industries  

  In 1910, Senator Burton, chairman of the Committee on Rivers and harbors, visited Kansas City and made a speech there.  Some of the shippers asked him if he could not do something in Congress for the improvement of the Missouri river.  The Senator told them that the Missouri River have been used by the boats in former years and could be used then, in the year 1910.  The senator further said “Whenever you convince me that you really want to use the Missouri river as a means of transportation I will agree to secure an appropriation I will agree to secure an appropriation to deepen the channel, remove snags and other obstructions. Remove snags and other obstructions.  The only way you can convince me is to put the boats on the river and operate them.”  The shippers accepted the conditions of his proposition.  A meeting was held and more than one million dollars was secured for the purchase of tow boats and barges.  The company was organized and two tow boats and four barges were put in the trade between Kansas City and St. Louis.  The steamboat men took a financial interest in the fleets and they were successfully operated during the season of 1911.  This year the Kansas City company is adding one more tow boat and six barges to the fleet.  The barges are being built on the Ohio river.  Two of them have been finished and all will be ready for service this spring.  They are built of steel, are 200 feet in length, 36 feet wide, and 8 feet deep.  They have water tight compartments and cargo boxes.  This sort of an equipment should be put on the Mississippi between St. Louis and St. Paul.  The boats are of the proper class to be used there.  On a six foot stage of water a tow boat, loaded with power, and drawing 3 ½ feet of water will handle five of these barges.  Loaded to four feet they will carry a cargo of 3,500 tons.  On an eight foot stage the tow boat can take nine of these steel barges, and loaded to six feet they would have a cargo of 9,000 tons of freight.  With the business once established between St. Paul and St. Louis, there would be big money in it, at the cheap water rate.  On the Kansas City plan, a combination of the shipping  and steamboat interests, with contracts for freight each season, water transportation can be restored and maintained on the upper Mississippi river, and prove of great benefit to all of the people of the valley.  What has been done by this one Missouri city, can certainly be done by St. Paul, Minneapolis, La Crosse, Dubuque, Clinton, Rock Island and other cities along there.  The shippers and people of any one of these cities between St. Louis and St. Paul could purchase the boats, and thro the combination of the river men they could be successfully operated.  When the boats left the Mississippi, the river fronts were permitted to go into decay and the people went to sleep on the transportation question, and as a result for 30 years they have been paying exorbitant charges on everything shipped in and out of their cities.  Nothing kills a city so quick as excessive freight charges.  No town or city can prosper under such conditions.  Manufacturers and others, with money to invest will not locate in such a place, but go where they can have some competition in rates where they can have both rail and water transportation.  As I stated in a previous chapter, it is a matter of history that the cities which have made the greatest progress in the past 30 years are all located on the rivers and lakes, where the operation of the boats reduce the freight rates and hold them down.  The people of the Mississippi valley now have an opportunity to secure these shipping facilities.  Will they take advantage of it?

Present Conditions

   I am pleased to know that a large majority of the people have at last awakened, and thro their organizations have been doing some good work in behalf of water transportation.  It is certainly to their interest to do so. Man has not, and never will conceive or devise so cheap a method of transportation as that allowed by the boats on our lakes and rivers.  There are three principal methods, the highway, the railway and the water way.  We had that one dollar will carry one ton of freight, on an average wagon road, 4miles, and on a macadamized road, 10 miles, 127 miles on the railroad, and 1,500 miles on the lakes and rivers.  Starting on the lakes and rivers.  Starting as they may appear to those who have not investigated the matter, these figures are correct.  They were compiled in the year 1907 by men who were thoroughly posted in the transportation business of the country.  The figures given represent the actual cost to the carriers of each ton of freight.  The people have also learned that the boats are now doing what the laws have failed to do.  Largely reducing the freight charge to and from all water points, and holding them down to the cheap water rates.  They have concluded that people having a river flowing by their doors should use it as a means of transportation.  With this array of facts before them the people are now demanding the restoration of the cheap water transportations and the boats are coming back to the rivers.  The congress men are also showing a willingness to make liberal appropriations for the improvement of our inland waterways.  There are many of us who can remember a time when not a dollar could be secured for this purpose.  The friends of water transportation feel encouraged.  Their earnest work during the past five years is bringing satisfactory results.  President Taft, in his Memphis speech said, “Devise some general systematic plan for starting and completing the improvement of the waterways and I will be with you.”  This plan was made by the steamboat men and the river organizations, congress made an appropriation and the great work was started.  This plan as endorsed by the government engineers and other officials, calls for less than nine feet of water in the Ohio river, not less than nine feet between St. Louis and New Orleans, and not less than six feet in the upper Mississippi river and in the Missouri.  The engineers believe that this work can be completed in ten or twelve years.  But it is now up to the people.  This general systematic plan should be accepted and endorsed by them.  The discussion and agitation for new additions or amendments to this plan of work, now going on, can only cause delay.  The people should now get behind this great project, and thro their congressmen, see that the necessary appropriations are made to keep the work going along, each and every year, until completed.  The channel from St. Louis to Chicago, the enlargement of the locks of the two canals between Rock Island and Chicago, and the improvement of the tributaries of the three great rivers, will all come to us later on.  This is not the time to be making additional demands on the government.  I take the position that these three great rivers are now navigable.  That there is more water in them now than there was in the 60’s. 70’s and 80’s and that with the channels plainly marked by boards and lights, they are much easier navigated than in the old days. That is with boats constructed to fit the channels, as they should be.  The boats are now returning to the river.  The most effective plan to advance the cause of river improvement is to demonstrate by the operation of the boats, that there is something in it.  The new generation must be shown.  In the re-establishment of this business it will be necessary to exercise great care, judgment, and caution, in order to make it a success. Since the boats left the river, thirty years ago, the country has made rapid strides. We are living in a fast age, and the people will expect quick, cheap and efficient service.  The crude, slow and expensive methods used in my time for handling the passenger and freight business would not be tolerated by the public at this date.  Thro my experience and watching the course of events as to what should be done in the future in order to make the present movement a success.  In some particulars I may be wrong, but I will present these ideas or opinions for the consideration of those interested.  I shall not presume to know it all, and attempt to compel others to endorse my views:

  1.  All hulls should be of steel.  It has been demonstrated that while the first cost is greater, in the end they are cheaper than wooden hulls.

  2.  There should be a law (sufficient number to do the business) swift passenger boats, for passengers only, and they should be run on schedule time.

  3.  Powerful tow boats to handle the barges.

  4.  Barges to have watertight bulkheads, decks and hatches.

  5.  The rolling stage, the derrick, or other modern equipment, to be used in loading and unloading the barges.

  6.  A large number of these weather-proof barges so that they can be left at the different towns as the railroad company drops their cars at the different stations.

  7.  The tow boats to be kept on the move, picking up these barges and hustling them along to their destination.

  8.  No large warehouses are needed.  As far as possible the freight should be handled direct to and from the barges, thus saving the expense of two handlings in and out of a warehouse.

  9.  The floating dock is a lake convenience, and with the rise and fall of the river, ice, leakage, etc.  has proven a very cumbersome and expensive affair for the steamboat company’s.  A smooth paved shore, with the proper stops so that the boats use it at all stages of the river, is sufficient as a landing place.  Such landings should be made and maintained at the expense of the towns and cities.

  10.  The steamboat man as well as the shippers, and people of the different towns should all hold stock in the steamboat companies.  I regard this as important.  They should have a financial interest in the boats.  No steamboat man, who is familiar with the history of the past will engage in the business on the mere promise of patronage.  This was worked out in the old days.  The shippers having no financial interest in the boats, need them to reduce the freight charges, and then sent all of their stuff by rail.  Like conditions would produce like results.  It would be but a repetition of a history and the steamboat man would leave the river, as he did before, in a bankrupt condition.  I may be putting this too strongly; the present generation of shippers may be better men than their predecessors, but it will do no harm to have them financially interested in the new company’s.  It will bring business to the boats.

   With the equipment I have named, and proper management, I am quite confident that the business can be restored on the rivers, and placed on a paying basis.

The conditions look good at the present time, and I hope to be here long enough to again see the steamers plowing the waters of the Mississippi river.

   One of the veterans of the upper Mississippi river, who is still with us, is Captain Kinnear, the steamboat agent at Burlington, Iowa.  He is now, like some of the rest of us, on the shady side of this life, and those gray hairs represent many years of active and efficient service on the boats.  A new generation of men have come upon the stage of life, since Captain Kinnear first walked upon the decks of a steamboat.  During his long career on the river he held many responsible, and prominent positions with the steamboat companies and always made good.  And he is making good now in the ticket office at Burlington.

   I had supposed that Captain Asa Woodward of Fort Madison, had long since quit the boats, but in reading the river news, I find that he is still at the wheel.  Woodward is one of the old timers, was always regarded as a reliable man and I am glad to know that he is still able for duty.

  I had also recently located Alonzo Jenks, at Leon, Iowa. How he came to get so far from the big river I am not informed, but he is out among the cornfields, and holds the position of State Steamboat Inspector.  I think he was at one time an engineer on the New Boston or Keithsburg.

  I regret to announce the death of Capt Frank Wild, which occurred March 3rd at his home in Albany, Ills., at the age of 73 years.  All old time river men will remember the genial Frank Wild and regret to hear of his death.  I have not seen him for 30 years, yet I knew him well, and remember him as an active, genteel young man, away back in the 60’s.  He went on the boats at an early age and last year completed his 50th year as a steamboat pilot.  He was a good pilot, loved the business, and stayed with it to the end.  My remembrance is that the family at one time lived at St. Francisville, Mo.  And from there moved to Quincy, Ills. Where Frank was born.  He leaves a wife and daughter to mourn his loss, and the sympathy of all of Frank’s old time friends and associates will be extended to them in their bereavement.

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