Chapter XXXII

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas




Shippers Must Co-Operate in River Improvement-The Phantom Raft  

   The destruction of thousands of dollars worth of property by the floods of this spring, on the Des Moines, Cedar, Iowa and other streams, again calls your attention to the need of State legislation for the control of these rivers.  I have noticed that during the past 15 years these floods are more frequent and that the rivers reach a higher stage than formerly.  This can be accounted for by the fact that during the period named, and extensive system of drainage has been going on in these river valleys. Surface water which was formerly taken up by the soil is now carried into great ditches and rapidly thrown into the rivers.   As I have stated before, the remedy is to straighten these streams, and raise all banks above the extreme high water mark.  With such work the floods can be controlled, the water kept within the banks.  The building of these levees will also reclaim all of the low lands behind them, hundreds of thousands of acres on the rivers named.  There are 100,000 acres of rich lands in the Des Moines river valley.  Millions of dollars have been spent to put water on to the dry lands in the west.  Think of what might be accomplished by keeping the water off these river valley lands, which in other places have proved to be the most productive in the United States.   The increased productions and increased values of this land would in a few years equal the cost of the levees and other works.  Behind the levees on the Mississippi river one can find many tracts of land which produce from 80 to 100 bushels of corn per acre.  As truck farms this class of land has no equal.

Another thing. The low lands along those Iowa rivers, are not regarded as a good investment at $20 per acre in their present condition, for the very good reason that the owners have no certainty of securing a crop.  I have known them to lose four crops out of five.  They are very fortunate if they get three out of five.  With the levees to keep the water off, these lands would at once jump to a value of not less than $100 per acre.  Near a good market, such places as Burlington and Ottumwa, they would be worth double that amount as truck farms.  My idea is that this work should be done by the State and land owners.  To secure the reclamation of these lands and clean up a profit of not less than $80 per acre, the owners can well afford to pay a small portion of the cost.  Some member of the Iowa legislature can make a name and build a permanent monument for himself, by securing the passage of a law creating drainage districts along all of these Iowa shores.  Such a law, should provide for the sale of twenty year bonds to secure money with which to do the work.  Such work should be under the direction of a state commission, and when completed an assessment should be made against the abutting lands, the owners of such reclaimed lands being permitted to pay their portion of the cost in annual installments.  It will not do to put up the poverty plea.  This work should be done.  Iowa is in good shape financially, and to her credit it can be said that she always has been.  Other states with a heavy bond indebtedness, are selling more bonds and taking up the important work of reclaiming these low bottom lands.  They find that the increased production is bringing prosperity to their people.  We frequently refer to the native of Arkansas and his razor back hogs, and tell our people how the Missourian must be shown as he goes along, but the facts are that our neighbors on the south are far ahead of us in the matter of reclamation of lands.  Thro the construction of levees thousands of acres in these two states have been brought under cultivation and are now producing enormous crops.  Other states are doing the same thing.  Unless Iowa makes a move in this matter, it will soon be at the tail end of the procession.  It has become apparent in recent years to all of us that what Iowa needs is less political wrangling and more business.  The people are anxiously awaiting for some Legislation that will be beneficial to the state and its inhabitants, and which they believe will prevent the further decrease of our population.  It is time that we should turn over a new leaf and show a spirit of enterprise as other states are doing, and as a starter  I would suggest the reclamation of all the low lands along the rivers of the state, which will largely increase our productions and  be of great benefit to the people in other ways.  

  At one time many believed that President Taft was opposed to the improvement of our inland waterways, but in this they were mistaken.  In one of his speeches he stated his position very clearly when he said, “Devise some definite, systematic plan for the improvement of these streams, and I will be with you.”  he wanted the work started where needed, and to have it continued from year to year, until it was completed.  The engineers estimated that it would require from ten to twelve years to deepen the channels on the principal rivers, and an annual appropriation of fifty million dollars to carry the work.  This plan was endorsed by the President and Congress and the work will be started this year.  Now it is up to the people and the shippers.  The rivers are now navigable.  There is more water in them then there was in the old days. Of course to increase the depth of the channels will make them still better, but they can now be used by the same class of boats which were successfully operated all through the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  The good work has been started, and now if the shippers and the people can be made to see the benefits to be derived from the cheap water transportation, the work will be continued and pushed along to completion.  If the people take no interest in the movement, within a few years congress will cease to make these annual appropriations, the work will stop and the present national movement to restore water transportation will be dead. And Congress would be justifiable in taking such action  If the people do not intend to use these rivers as a means of transportation, then it would be a waste of money to improve them.  The time, has now arrived, when the people must convince the government that they want to use these streams.  The way to do this, is for the people to perfect their organizations, purchase the steamers and barges, put them at work and patronize them.  Furnish sufficient business to keep them employed.  This is the first and one important matter in the present movement, and should be taken up by the National Rivers and Harbors Congress, the Upper Mississippi River Improvement, and should be taken up by the National River Improvement Association and other organized bodies.  It should be made a part of the work of these associations to organize the steamboat companies and put the fleets of boats on the rivers. As I have stated before the thing needed at the present time is a campaign of education among the shippers and the people.  Meetings should be held at all of the river towns, and the work continued until the desired end is accomplished.  The matter of securing business for the boats is the all important thing in the present movement.  I am quite confident that a steamboat load of river boosters, a band and some good speakers could work this up between St. Louis and St. Paul, in 30 days.  To make any public movement a success the people must be aroused.  There must be some enthusiasm injected into them.  This has been demonstrated many times in the building of railroads across the country.  

   In the old days, with our crude facilities for navigating the great river, the cub pilot was a very busy man, and had many things to worry him, and much to learn before he could be classed as a successful navigator.  For many years during, the 60’s and 70’s, the surface of the river was covered with great rafts of logs and lumber floating down from the northern pineries, and manned by oars.  At times when the oarsmen would strike a long stretch of straight river, where there were no crossings, they would take a nap, and their fires on the raft would burn low.  So that the pilots of the steamboats, on an up-stream night run would be keeping a sharp look out for these dark, noiseless floaters, as they glided slowly down the stream.  To come into collision with one of them would result in much damage to the steamboat.  The thing which the cub pilot had to learn, on the night watch, was to tell the real thing from the “Phantom raft.”  On a clear, starlight night when the surface of the water was smooth and under certain atmospheric conditions, from the pilot house one could see a streak on the river which appeared to be a raft.  It could retain its dimensions or shape for a time and then slowly spread out, go to pieces  and disappear.  This was known as the phantom raft, and very much resembled the real thing when seen at a distance ahead of the steamer, in the night time, when they made their appearance.  The veteran pilot who had become accustomed to meeting them, would send his boat into and through them, but the cub pilot would change the course of the boat, and run away from them, until such time as he learned to know the real thing from the imaginary.  I remember of meeting one of these sleeping raft crews one night near Fort Madison.  Their fires were gone out, and all were asleep, including the pilot.  The river was at a good stage, so   ---------------------------------------------------------

Others made a season contract to run the rafts at so much per thousand feet. On the latter plea, where they had good luck the pilots would make from $2,00 to $3,000 a season.  But if a pilot had a run of bad luck, hit the bridges and lost a lot of the lumber or logs, or was delayed by low water, he would lose a large portion or all of his earnings for the season.  Unless they were there to see it, people have no idea of the magnitude of the lumber business on the river in the 60’s and 70’s It was something enormous, and furnished employment to thousands of men.

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