Chapter XXX

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas




 Great Possibilities inherent in the Des Moines River--Letter From

Capt. Fred A. Bill  

  Now that the Blair and Streckfus companies are making an effort for the restoration of water transportation on the upper Mississippi, the cities and towns along there can assist the movement by providing good landings for the boats.  These landings should be made and maintained by the towns and cities.  In the old days I could never understand why a city would give a railway corporation $40,000 or $50,000, and permit them to occupy the greater portion of the river front with their tracks, and then collect a tax on each boat for the privilege of landing there but this was the policy for many years.  While we paid it, there was always a doubt as to such cities having a legal right to levy such a tax.  If I have the history straight it appears that when the French acquired a title to the Mississippi river and the land adjoining it, the transfer papers contained a clause that the great river and all of its tributaries, should be for the free use of all persons, for all time.  When the French sold the territory to the United States they insisted that this clause should remain in the title papers, and our government agreed to it.  But after the boats commenced using the rivers, the town councils all adopted a wharfage ordinance, charging the boats a certain fee for every landing.  The charge was increased from year to year, until it was a heavy burden on the steamboat companies.  It appeared to be the intention of the city officials to compel the boat companies to pave the shores and then maintain the landing places, and pay the expenses of making repairs. 

This was wrong, a discrimination in favor of the railroad and against the boats.  Now that the boats are returning a new policy should be adopted.  Good landings should be made, and the boats given the benefit of free wharfage.  I do not know what sort of a landing place the steamboat men of the present time would prefer.  But my experience along the river leads me to believe that stationary or floating docks are impracticable, for the very reason that the rise and fall of the river varies from about 25 or 30 feet down to 3 ½  or 4 feet.  The floating dock cost quite a sum of money, and after being used awhile commences leaking in which case they are a nuisance requiring the constant employment of hands to keep them clean of water.  My plan is to start a little above the extreme high water mark, and grade the bank, make a gradual slope down to the bed of the river.  Below the low water mark.  Then pave the slope with rock.  With this improvement the boats can land at all stages of the river, high or low.  The warehouses should be located above the high water mark, and the rolling or endless chain stage used to take the freight in and out of them.  These stages can be operated by the “nigger engine” on the steamer.  Some of these stages are now being used on the southern rivers.  Thro their use about 10 men will do the work of 100 as compared with the old system of carrying freight on and off the boats.  A city which has one mile of river front, and wishes to improve it, make a beauty spot of it, which they should do, need not give the shore a slope for its entire length.  But at the boat landing only.  With a sea or river wall started at the flow water mark and built above the flood stage, and then a till of earth behind it, some beautiful parks could be made at all of he river cities, below an above the sloped steamboat landings.  THE POST and other papers along the river, have been urging the city officials to start this work, and should keep up the agitation.  Three years ago, after an absence of 30 years, I made a trip between the rapids, and was surprised to see the condition of the river fronts.  They are a disgrace to the towns behind them, and as a matter of local pride, it looks as though the city officials would put them in repair, and I hope to see them make a move in this direction during the present year.  

  My river story has unearthed another old time steamboat man, in the person of Capt. Fred Bill, who is now with the Minneapolis & Rainy River Railway Co., and his home is in the flour city.  If there is anything wrong in being an “exriver rat,” (I do not know that there is) Capt. Fred, should not be censured, for it was born in him.  His father was a well known steamboat owner in the old days.  That others may have the pleasure of hearing from the Captain I give his letter below:

   Minneapolis, Minn. Mar. 27 Capt. E. H. Thomas, Dear Sir;  While most of the incidents in your articles now being published in the Burlington SATURDAY EVENING POST are ahead of my time- I commenced life on the Mississippi river in 1868-there are many of the names of people and boats so familiar that it gives an additional enjoyment to the perusal of the articles, and many of them call to my mind incidents and people that have not been thought of for many years.

  Mills Ruby, I knew well.  Was somewhat acquainted with his brother Sheldon.  The former was in Diamond Jo Line steamers for many years, commencing, I think with Capt. Ben Congar with the Diamond Jo in the ’70’s.  At that time the regular line was from Fulton Ills. To St. Paul.  Having a boat not needed in that trade the Diamond Jo was put into the run between Fulton and Burlington making as I now remember, two trips between Fulton and Burlington every week.  I am of the impression that Sheldon Ruby was also with Captain Conger at this time.  This run continued until the Diamond Jo boats ran regularly to St. Louis, I believe. This run was known to the boys in the regular trade as the “Hurrah” trade.  It was a lively run and Capt. Conger was evidently the man for the trade as he was happiest when under full head of steam and there was “something doing.”  Financially, as I remember it, the returns were not large but some revenue was secured for the upper boats and the line got a good deal of advertising.  In those days Mr. Wm. Penrose was agent at Burlington.  I believe.

  The name Frank Wild brings up another memory.  In the late 60’s or early 70’s he was for a time on the Buckeye, a small side wheel rafter owned by my father Capt. E. C. Bill.  He came to her from a much larger boat and was a pretty strenuous pilot for a little craft and I used to hold my breath many a time fearing he would make her climb a tree or do some other unexpected thing for which she was not constructed.  However, he soon adapted himself to her gait and everything went nicely and I knew him for many years, although I did not meet him very often.

   The name Jim Best brings to mind a great big good natured man who was always doing his “best” and well liked by everyone.  At one time he was Master of the Sidney of the Diamond Jo Line.  The line was then in operation between St. Paul and St. Louis and the Sidney was not one of the most speedy ships of the line.  To keep her on time required eternal vigilance and frequently in low water time was made at the sacrifice of cargo and vice versa.  One trip the Sidney came into headquarters at Dubuque on the minute with about all the cargo she could hold and Jim was in elegant spirits.  When he came into the office and reported he added, with one of his largest smiles, “Ah Fred, the blind hog gets the acorn sometimes.” an expression I never forgot. 

In one of your articles giving a number of disasters you mention the Red Wing as having been lost in Lake Pepin with an excursion.  This ill-fated boat was the “Sea Wing.”  There was a Red Wing in the Northern Line in an early day, a large side wheeler.  There is now a Red Wing in operation between St. Paul and Wabasha, a nice little stern wheeler doing a good local business during the summer season.  The Sea Wing was a stern wheel boat and I am told poorly adapted for the business in which she was engaged on the fatal day.  However, the storm was a fierce one and would have done serious injury to a much larger and stauncher boat.  The error, as I remember the result of the investigation, was in going out into the storm with the crowd.   

  Do not know as you knew or would remember Mr. Reynolds.  When the line which had borne his name for nearly fifty years passed to other hands I had a sort of sentimental notion and had prepared from a photo I have of him some postal cards which were sent to as many old employees, friends and those interested in river matters as I could remember.  I take pleasure in handing you one here with and trust it may interest you .  Also hope that these lines may interest you and assist in putting you in mind of something else that will lengthen the reminiscences you are publishing and thereby give all THE POST readers the more enjoyment.

   With best wishes and hoping to have the pleasure of meeting you at some time.  I am sincerely yours.  Fred A. Bill



     A few years ago occurred the death of E. P. Howard, a resident of Eldon, Iowa, a man who has never received proper credit for his efforts in behalf of his fellow men.  He came to Iowa in 1853, and located in Keosauqua.  He there developed a spirit of enterprise and push, which remained with him thru life.  At that early time Mr. Howard took a great and active interest in the first attempt to improve the Des Moines river. He was also connected with the construction company which built a railroad from Mount Zion to Keosauqua, now operated by the Rock Island company.  Later on he moved to the then small village of Eldon and had much to do with the up building of that town.  He cared nothing for personal gain.  He took delight in working at some knotty problem.  Which he believed would prove of benefit to the community in which he lived.  If all of his personal funds were needed to make the project go, he would put up the money.  In his last hours he was evidently thinking of the interest of the people.  Weak and emaciated, and realizing that his days were numbered, he called his wife to his bedside and dictated the following letter, as his last message to the people:  

Eldon Iowa.-- E. H. Thomas  Dear Sir.-- I was intimate with Perigrin White, chief Engineer of the Des Moines river Improvement Co.  In leaving here for his home in New York he gave me this charge.  “You will remain here, therefore I will leave these facts with you.  The river should be straightened by the use of wing dams.  With dams every ten miles, where plants could be located for manufacturing, not only developing the resources of the state, but giving to those who in many places so sorely need it, steady honorable, lucrative employment.  Giving to the citizens of this fair state the practical benefit of the interest of our forefathers, voiced in the motto framed for the government of this nation, viz:  “To make it as easy for men to do right, and as hard as possible for them to do wrong.” It is the prerogative of the state of Iowa to develop these possibilities in the interest of her citizens.  In connection with this work should be reservoirs for the storage of water to be used during periods of drought.  To those of us who know the wonderful possibilities of the Niagara, it will be readily seen that those of our own Des Moines river should not be disregarded.”   E. P. Howard

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