Chapter III

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas


When Railroads killed River Business

One Dollar Will Carry a Ton of freight 127 miles on a Railroad and 1,300 Miles on the Water.  


   Fifteen or sixteen years after the close of the Civil War, there came a sudden and rapid decline in water transportation.  The boats in the short trades and the magnificent palatial steamers which had been so successfully operated, all disappeared from the upper Mississippi.  The black smoke of the powerful tow boats with their great fleets of barges was no longer seen.  The surface of the great river was no longer disturbed by the buckets of the steamboat wheel, and it was as silent as a graveyard.  The army of men who had handled this great fleet were forced to seek new occupations, for the same conditions existed on the other navigable rivers of the country.  What was the cause of this sudden change in conditions?

   It was said at the time, by those who were interested in killing water transportation that there was not sufficient water in the rivers to make steam boating a paying proposition, and that for this reason the boats were taken off.  This short water story has been told, printed in the papers and rehashed so often during the past 20 years that many people of the present generation have been made to believe it.  With a very distinct recollection of the situation at that time, I am here to say that this short water story is a fake. There is not a grain of truth to it.  The boats were driven from the river by the railway corporations.  The fact that the upper Mississippi had been successfully navigated for 20 years by the large passenger packets and the powerful tow boats pushing from eight to ten 500 ton barges ahead of them, gives the lie to that statement. 

Reliable authority tells us that one dollar will carry one ton of freight 127 miles on a railroad, and 1300 miles on the great lakes and the rivers.  This is the actual cost.  Herein lies the secret of the war of the railroads against the boats.  Finding that they could not compete with the water transportation, they resolved to destroy it and under the plan adopted by the railroad corporations, backed by millions of dollars, it was accomplished.  At that time there were no laws for the protection of the boats.  The railroads adopted the policy of billing all freight between water point at the water rate, and then giving the shipper a rebate of one-half of the freight charges.  In other words, if a shipper sent one thousand tons of freight from Davenport to St. Louis, it was billed at the water rate of $2 per ton, or $2,000 for the shipment.  When the freight reached St. Louis the Davenport shipper would receive a rebate, a railroad check for $1,000.  The railroads were losing money in transporting the stuff from one river point to another, but the deficit was made up by raising freight rates of their interior stations.  The shippers at the inland towns were forced to square the account.  The steamboat companies put on a vigorous fight, but it was an uneven contest.  There was no plan by which they could meet such competitors and the boats were finally driven from the river.  The shippers of that time were so short sighted and foolish as to assist and cooperate with these powerful railway corporations in the work of destroying the cheap water transportation.  After the river was cleared of boats the railroad rates were advanced, and for 30 years the shippers and the people have been paying dearly for the blunder made by their predecessors during the 70’s.  The present generation, having learned something by reading the history of the past are now demanding the return of the boats and the restoration  of  water transportation. The for going is the true history of the matter and I repeat, that the short water story is a fake, and that with the cooperation of the shippers, the boats were driven from the rivers by the powerful railway corporations of the country.

   The life of a steamboat in the old days was uncertain.  Some of them appeared to be hoodooed, meeting with one accident after another, until they were put out of business.  There were several places by Davenport and St. Louis where the wooden hulls would frequently pick up the trees and push holes in their bottoms..  Just above Burlington and below the mouth of Edwards river was one of those places.  The current of the Edwards river would carry trees out into the shoal  water  above Drew’s Prairie.  The roots of the trees would soon be covered with sand and the floating----would grind the limbs until they were sharp, and the ends of those limbs would gash a hole in the bottom of the boats. 

   Another of those bad places was just above Quincy, what we called Lone Tree crossing where the City of St. Paul went down a few weeks ago.  The Lone Tree crossing was perhaps one and a half miles in length and over a mile flat sand bar.  This bar caught a great many trees, and we were always keeping a sharp lookout for them, but in the nighttime it was impossible to see them or their “breaks”.  Then there were numerous rock piles and rock chains which the boats would hit.  You may be interested in a partial list of such disasters.  For this data I am indebted to Wm. Kelly, one of the old time pilots.  Kelly, like the writer, is now well along in years and might not be able to see a crossing light a mile away, but he is still taking an active interest in river matters.

  The Badger State hit a “nigger head” on the Ottumwa, Iowa rapids and went down about the year 1854.  She was then navigating the Des Moines river.  Robert Faris was her captain and pilot and Charley Faris, his son, who is still on the river, was a cabin boy.  She was raised and went to St. Louis for repairs.  Later on, in 1868, she struck the wreck of the Altoona and went to the bottom again.  

Keithsburg sunk below Chain of Rocks, 1870

Gem City sunk above Milan Landing, raised.

J. B. Carson sunk opposite Alton, 1868.

Mable McPike sunk, 1874.

Mary Morton sunk three miles below Clarksville, 1891. Sunk again in 1896 at Grand Tower.

Raft boat Chapman sunk at Iowa Island, 1880.

Golden Eagle burned and sunk near Read Island, 1893.

Dictator, Eagle and Friendship all hit Hannibal bridge and sunk.

S. S. Merrill, burned and sunk at Warsaw, 1871.

Alex, Mitchell, sunk near Warsaw, 1868, raised.

War Eagle hit Keokuk bridge, tearing span away and sunk at the levee, 1881, raised.

Northwestern, mile on lower rapids 1878.

Raft boat Everitt, sunk in a storm above Burlington. Captain Vincent Peel and his sister, clerk of the boat, were lost.

Diamond Jo hit the rocks three miles below Keithsburg and went down, 1872.

Alex Mitchell sunk for the third time, at the mouth of Edwards river, raised.

M boy sunk at same place, 1888.

 Helen Blair sunk opposite Rockingham, 1910.

 Arkansas, sunk near Commanche, 1875. Raised.

Steamer Sydney hit Clinton bridge and went down 1886.

Quincy sunk,1900, seven miles above Trempealeau, Wisconsin.

Northern Light went down in 20 feet of water, 1866.

G. W. Wilson sunk near Dresbach,1869.

Burlington sunk just below Wabasha, 1865.

Red Wing with an excursion party sunk in Lake Pepin in a storm.  Many lives lost.

Ocean Wave burned at Frontenac, 1877

Clara Hine, which navigated the Des Moines for several years, sunk on Pig’s Island 1864.

The D. A. McDonald, a new raft boat, exploded her boilers just above McGregor, 27 lives were lost.

The Sterling met with the same disaster at Hampton, on the upper rapids

The pilot, Bob Smith, was killed, as was also the clerk.

During the extremely low water of 1910, many of these old wrecks could be seen. 



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