Chapter XXIX

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas



CAPT. E. H. THOMAS Writes Concerning W. T. Love’s Great Enterprise-River Reminiscences  


   This week I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Wm. T. Love, the moving spirit of the proposition to build a great manufacturing city on the Mississippi river, just below Burlington.  He made a talk to our Ottumwa people Thursday evening.  Being quite familiar with the country along there, I regard it as an ideal location for a great city.  The “Wonder City,” Lomax is to have a frontage of ten miles on the river.  When the big dam at Keokuk is completed and closed there will be a steamboat channel along there from 12 to 14 feet in depth, and with three railroads, the new city will certainly have ample shipping facilities.  Mr. Love’s plan appears to be to locate factories there, offering the manufacturers commercial inducements to build and operate power from the Keokuk dam and also cheap transportation, the two most important things in a manufacturing business. I find that Mr. Love has been looking into the transportation business, and as a part of the general plan, the town company will own and operate a fleet of tow boats and barges.  In this the company is wise, as I have frequently said that the boats are the best regulators of freight rates.  As in other places, the operation of the boats to and from the new city of Lomax, will at once reduce the freight rates, and hold them down to the cheap water rate. I have many old time friends in and around the new city to be built on the Illinois shore, and it is my wish that the new enterprise over there may be a success, as I believe it will. 

   When an accident occurs on a steamboat resulting in the loss of life, the officers of the boat are usually severely censured and sometimes sent to prison.  The people and the courts fail to understand the great difficulty of handling a lot of passengers under such circumstances. It is strange but never the less true, that passengers will lose their heads, and rush to their death by the water route, if permitted to do so.  The small crew on a boat is sometimes unable to handle them.  They will leave a place of safety on the steamer and plunge into the water.  The most trivial accident will set them going.  I was working on a six boiler boat one summer, operating between St. Louis and Davenport.  On an upstream trip we had about 50 passengers, men, women and children.  We had a weak joint on the steam drum.  There were two flanges, and they did not hit each other square, so it was necessary to use a thick lead gasket between them to make the joint light.  Engineers do not like to use these thick gaskets, for the reason that the steam pressure from the inside is likely to force them out.  It was a dark night, and the steam drum was leaking, but the engineer, thought we could reach Muscatine, where he would put in a new gasket and stop the leak.  However, the crew had been notified to look out for a stampede of the passengers should the joint let go.  It was about one o’clock in the morning, the 50 passengers were sleeping soundly, and we were approaching a wood yard above new Boston.  I was off watch lying in my state room, listening to the singing of the leaky joint, and the noise was getting louder and louder.  As my partner in the pilot house sounded his whistle for the wood pile, the lead gasket went out, all of it, and after it came the steam from all of the six boilers.  The entire boat was enveloped in a cloud of steam, and it made a terrible roar.  The crew were at once lined up for action.  The cabin doors forward and aft were locked, and a man stationed at each.  Along the guard were others of the crew, watching the outside doors of the state room.  The howling steam came up under the cabin floor and made the state rooms.  The howling steam came up under the cabin floor and made it very warm.  The passengers jumped from their berths, and when their bare feet hit the hot deck, the cry went up that the boat was on fire and that she was blowing up. The greater portion of them went into the cabin, and made a wild rush for the front doors.  My station was at the door on the starboard side. The crowd divided about one-half of them coming my way.  At the head of the column was a little old man in shirt and drawers.  He was short and chunky and the top of his head was as bare and smooth as a skating rink.  With the cry that the boat was blowing up, he urged the gang behind him to hurry or they would be lost.  I saw that I must have a collision with this old fellow.  I assured him that there was no danger, and asked him to stop and quit yelling.  He gave no heed to my words, but called me all manner of vile names, and ordered me to open the door.  However, seizing a heavy oak chair, I stood my ground, threatened to smash him and he stopped.  At the other door, the clerk, a little short fellow was having a time of it.  The people were knocking him here and there but he managed to keep the door closed.  My old man, among other things declared that “you river rats are a reckless gang.  You would as soon go to h--l as in any other direction, and if permitted to do so, would take the passengers with you.”  He was violent and hard to handle.  While the racket was going on in the cabin, my partner in the pilot house was holding the steamer for the shore, and the wood yards.  She was landed, and then we had the laugh on the passengers, telling them that they could now make a run for the woods.  We took on some wood, the necessary repairs were made on the steam drum, and we pulled out for Davenport.  After breakfast my little old man came around with an apology.  He proved to be a commercial traveler for an eastern house.  He said that he was badly frightened, but that he should not have used such language.  I accepted his apology, and told him that honors were about even, that I had threatened to smash him with the chair, and intended to do it.  It is strange, how apparently intelligent level headed men will go up in the air on such occasions.  They appear to imagine that there is a greater risk and danger on a boat than there is on a railway train, but in this they are mistaken.  Accidents and loss of life on the rivers are few and far between, and there is always some chance of escape.  The same cannot be said of the railway trains.  They are killing thousands of people every year, I think it was the 60’s that the magnificent steamer, W. R. Arthur, left St. Louis for New Orleans with several hundred passengers.  She had a battery of eight boilers.  Between St. Louis and Cairo, a patch on one of the boilers, just over the furnace blew off, making a terrible roar, and enveloping the boat in steam.   The captain and his crew could do nothing with the passengers.  Finding that he could not control them the captain ordered the pilot to send the  steamer on to a dry bar just below.  The pilot did so, the bow of the steamer going up on the dry sand so hard that she could not swing around.  With the bow of the boat lying on the dry bar, a lot of the passengers jumped off the stern of the boat into the deep water and were drowned.  There was no occasion for them leaving the boat at all, but they could have done so, by simply walking forward thro the cloud of steam to the dry sand bar.

   While on the river I learned one thing-that a great many of the boats were short of boiler power.  The boiler maker will figure the capacity of the engines and from these figures he gets the dimensions of the boilers.  In fitting up several steamers with machinery, I found that it was necessary to have the boiler maker increase his figures at least one fourth.  This gives a reserve steam power, and enables the engine to get and maintain a regular pressure, and give the boat a regular speed.  To be short of boiler power is a serious defect in a steamboat.  To be carrying low water and constantly crowding the fires is a damage to the boilers.  When I went on the river a great many boats were using tubular boilers.  The lower half of the boilers were filled with two inch tubes.  These boilers were great generators of steam, but if the water got low in them, there was danger of an explosion.  For this reason the inspectors issued an order that no more of them should be put on the rivers, and that none of them should be transferred from an old hull to a new hull.  Some of the owners had a slick plan of evading this order.  A boat carrying tubular boilers would be put on the ways, and have a new bottom put on her.  The following year she would be taken out again, and new plank would be put on her sides and a new deck nailed down.  They simply slipped a new hull under the old tubular boilers.  The next required the five flue boiler. Five flues, each six inches in diameter with six inches water space between them.  It require more time to get the steam started in these, but they were a good and safer boiler than the tubular.  About this time the passenger steamers were loaded up with extra traps for the protection of the traveling public, as was stated. This list of safety appliances was the metallic life boat, wooden floats, cork jackets, chemical fire extinguishers, the low water whistle on the boilers, the steam register gauge, the fusible plug and the lock up safety valve.  Engineers had been in the habit of carrying all the steam they wanted.  If they wished to overhaul and pass a boat ahead of them, they would punch up the firemen, and hang some iron, weights on the safety valves.  To present this the inspectors introduced the lock up safety valves. All of the valves and the levers and weights connected with them, were inclosed in an iron case, the latter was locked up, and the inspector carried the key.  The iron ease or “Coffin” as the boys called it, was perforated, had holes in it, so that the steam could escape when it reached the pressure allowed by the inspectors.  These extra attachments to the passenger boats cost quite a sum of money and raised a howl among the owners.  A story was told on a well known engineer of that time, who was in the habit of carrying more steam than the law allowed.  When the inspectors locked up his safety valves he had him beat for awhile.  But he found a way out of the difficulty.  He simply filled the core with hot babbit metal, pouring it thro the holes that the inspector had provided for the escaping steam.  When the metal cooled, the lever which controlled the valve, was stationary.  It could not move in any direction, and sealed the valve so that no steam could escape.  He operated the boat in this way from early spring until fall, when the inspector returned.  The engineer was then, called upon the carpet and asked to explain why he had sealed his safety valves in this manner.  He was up against it., but wiggled out. He told the inspector that the valves were leaking, and having no key to open the cases, as a last resort, he poured the metal into them to stop the leaks around the valves.  The inspector did not believe the story, but told him that he would let him off just this one time, but that if caught at it again he would be made to feel the strong arm of the government law.


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