Chapter XXXIII

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas



Old -time Inspector of river Steamers

Comparisons between Ocean and river Regulations-Transporting Raft Crews


   The sinking of the great steamer Titanic and the drowning of 1,600 people is something terrible to contemplate.  There is no excuse for the officers of the White Star Line or for those who were navigating that dangerous part of the Atlantic ocean, to drive the boat thro that great field of ice in the night time at a speed of 25 miles an hour was a criminal act.  Then again the owners of the vessel were guilty of gross negligence in failing to equip the boat with life saving apparatus.  Old time river men will remember the loose manner in which the business was run on the Mississippi in the 60’s.  A river steamer would take from 1,000 to 1,500 people at a trip, and the life saving apparatus usually consisted of from one to three metallic or wooden life boats, some cork jackets in the state rooms, and a few boards or floats on the roof, all in a dilapidated condition.  Fortunately there were few disasters, more the result of good luck than anything else.  Along in the 70’s there came a radical change in the system.  Thro an order of the Board of Inspectors every passenger steamer was equipped with a low water whistle, water floats in the boilers, lock up safety valve, glass water gauges, fire extinguishers and a steam register showing the greatest steam pressure at any time during the season.  This equipment cost the owner of a boat six or seven hundred dollars.  A great howl went up from the owners, but it had to go.  I was caught in this net in the port of St. Louis.  I had a new boat with passenger equipment.  An inspector landed on me and stayed right with me until I had complied with the law in every particular.  I could not leave the shore.  I paid out $450, all there was in the clerks safe, and then telegraphed to the owner of the boat for more money.  The inspectors called on us frequently, and then there was a bunch of detectives along there to see that we were obeying the laws and orders of the Board.  I remember that  one of these fellows, whom we called “Hawkshaw Smith,” was very active.  He was on our trail at all times and we knew not the day or the hour of his coming.  Thro his activity a number of my acquaintances lost their licenses.  He was a terror, and after we came to know him on sight we established a wireless line on him between St. Louis and St. Paul.  Pilots and engineers on up stream boats would yell at those on the steamer,  “Hawkshaw has left St. Louis.”  “Hawkshaw is at Hannibal,” “Hawkshaw is at Davenport,” etc.  this wireless system between the pilot houses and engine rooms of passing steamers enabled us to keep track of Hawkshaw Smith.  In some instances, this fellow was mean.  He would resort to low down methods in order to make a case against a man.  For this reason it became necessary for us to watch his movements.  Later on the inspectors decided that the life boats, the cork jackets and the wooden floats were not sufficient protection in case the boat knocks a hole in her bottom and goes down, and they are not.  An ocean steamer with 1,500 or 2,000 passengers may have an ample supply of life boats and other traps, and yet in the excitement and mad rush of her passengers drown a good share of them thro the swamping of the boats.  On the river steamers we frequently carried 1,000 or 1,2000 passengers on excursion trips.  The inspectors issued an iron clad order that no boat should leave the shore with an excursion party without a barge along side of her and that this barge should be of sufficient tonnage to carry all of the passengers and the crew in case of fire, sinking or other accident.  That the people must at once be transferred to the barge and the barge cut loose from the steamer.  This system would have saved all of the people on the big ocean steamer Titanic.  An ocean line with 2,000 passengers makes big money on a trip, and each and everyone of them should be compelled to have a powerful tug with them.  A relief tug, towing a sea barge of sufficient capacity to carry all of the people on the steamer.  It was demonstrated in the recent terrible disaster that the life belts and other traps were of no benefit in the icy waters of the sea.  Those in the water and many in the life boats, died from exposure. The marine laws have been, and are now rigidly enforced on the river, steamers, but it appears that thro all of these years, little or no attention has been given to the rich and powerful steamship companies.  Thro their negligence and economy thousands of lives have been lost, and the end is not yet.  When people board one of these ocean vessels they are surely taking their lives in their hands.  There is no certainty that they will live to see the other shore.  Ships should be forced to cross the ocean in pairs, or take a power relief tug and sea barge with them.  

   Before the tow boats were brought into use, the raft crews were sent back to the pineries of the north on the passenger steamers.  The logs and lumber were floated down , sold at some of the towns, the men paid off and sent back.  As a rule they were orderly, well behaved fellows, but now and then, on the return trip, they would load up with whiskey and make trouble on the boats.  We took about twenty of these men from Keithsburg.  Sold them tickets to Dubuque.  They had a good supply of whiskey with them.  And they stocked up again at Davenport. By the time we reached the head of the rapids, they were all drunk and disorderly, and looking for trouble, somewhere above Le Claire they upset and broke all of the tables in the cabin, and threw a lot of our chairs in the river.  This was what they called having a good time.  We tried orders and persuasion, but could do nothing with them, and finally decided to get rid of them.  As we approached Savanna the captain told them that the boat would remain there for two hours.  This appeared to suit them as they were running short of whiskey.  As soon as the boat touched the shore all of them went out into the town, except their pilot and one other man.  We then backed out of savanna and left them there.  We did not consult their pilot as to our action, but he said it was all right.  That they were a bad lot and he was very glad to get rid of them.  We carried a great many of these men, and I noticed that there was a difference in crews.  Many of them, even when under the influence of liquor, made us no trouble.

  The most serious disturbance of that time was on the steamer Dubuque, and this occurred between Davenport and Savanna.  There was a battle between a raft crew and the negro deck hands of the boat, and the raftsmen had the best of it.  They killed a number of the colored men, and threw their bodies into the river.  Not only this, but they took possession of the steamer and would not permit her to land at any of the towns.  The captain and one of the passengers devised a plan to handle them.  The passenger appealed to the raftsmen to let him go ashore in the yawl.  That his wife was at the point of death, and he wished to reach her as soon as possible.  They consented to this.  The boat was stopped, the yawl was lowered and the man put ashore.  This man had his instructions from the captain.  He went to the telegraph office and sent a telegram to the commander of the Rock Island Arsenal, asking him to send a special train and a company of soldiers ahead of the boat.  This was done.  The troops were hurried to Savanna and there hidden behind a large warehouse, which stood near the river and the landing.  When the pilot of the Dubuque reached this landing, he sent the steamer hard on to the shore, without ringing any bell.  With guns cocked and ready for business, the soldiers came out from  behind the warehouse, boarded the boat and took possession of her .  The gang plank was put out and under cover of the guns, the raftsman were made to walk it.  The Dubuque went on her way, and the raft crew was taken to Rock Island , where they were tried for riot and murder.  My remembrance is that some of the leaders of this gang were convicted and sent to the penitentiary.  For a time after this trouble on the Dubuque, some of the boats would not carry the raft crews.  As I have said, the acts of a few bad men often brought discredit upon all employed on the river.  The people along the shores were inclined to put them all in the same class.  To regard the river man as an “undesirable citizen.” 


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