IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
Capt E. H. Thomas
RIVERS SHOULD BE LEVEEIED
OF MANY THOUSAND FRUITFUL ACRES
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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