Chapter XXXIV

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas




Atmosphere Over The Water Purifies Itself  

Unique Suggestions For a Floating Sanitarium-Comment on Disasters On the Water


   The sinking of the great steamship Titanic, and the drowning of 1,600 people, was a fearful disaster.  To read the horrible details makes one shudder.  Many excuses have been offered the great calamity, but from the boatman’s standpoint, the serious mistake was made by the navigators in driving the vessel thro the great sea of ice, in the night time, at a speed of 25 miles per hour.  Captain Smith is dead, and can give no evidence in the case.  In the hour of danger he proved himself a hero and went down with his ship.  He died that others might live, and if the truth were known, it would probably show that he was acting, not on his own judgment, but under the positive orders of the company by whom he was employed.  That he was instructed to beat all records on this voyage to Europe and return.  The vessel was short of life saving equipment, as all ships and steamboats usually are at the critical moment when they are needed.  Accidents of this kind are so far and few between on the water, that little attention is given to the life saving operator and then they are not reliable.  A person wearing a cork jacket or a life belt, thrown into the icy water of a river, lake or sea, will soon go into the cramps and perish.  Under such conditions the jackets and belts are absolutely worthless.  The  life boats, thro the long exposure to the weather, are likely to be in a leaky condition.  During my 20 years on the upper Mississippi river we had our experience with thee so-called life-saving traps.  For about the first 10 years we used the wooden floats, and carried them on the roof of the steamer.  Later on the rules required metallic life boats and cork jackets, the latter being hung up in the staterooms.  In those days we were in the habit of making many excursions trips, taking from 1,000 to 1,500 people on a steamer.  The steamboat men and the inspectors soon discovered that in such a business there was little or no protection for the passengers, and in case of accident, the crew would be unable to handle the crowd.  We could manage the usual passenger list of 50 to 100, but to control 1,000 or 1,5000 frightened, excited people in their mad rush for the life boats and the river, was another and more difficult proposition.  It is strange, but nevertheless true, that at a time like this, passengers will at once leave a boat and jump to their deaths in the icy waters.  In which case the officers of a steamer are severely criticized and sometimes made responsible for the acts of others and sent to prison.  Notwithstanding our life saving apparatus, passengers were lost in those days.  There were a few accidents and as a rule the passengers lost their lives by jumping overboard, the crew being unable to stop them in their wild, rush for the river.  There finally came an order from the Board of Inspectors that no steamer should leave the bank with an excursion party without a barge in tow of sufficient capacity to carry all of the excursionists.  This order was strictly enforced.  To violate it one would incur a heavy penalty, and I know of no case where it was disregarded.  Now, as I see it at the present time when a river steamer or a ship has 1,000 or more passengers, the only sure protection for them is the relief barge or relief ship.  The Titanic was a monster, nearly 900 feet in length.  A relief vessel, following close on her trail, 300 feet in length, would have saved all of the 2,000 passengers.  Under certain conditions the so called life saving traps on those ocean steamers are absolutely worthless.  People who board one of them for a trip across the sea, are taking desperate chances, and should make their wills before they start.  These ocean steamships companies should be compelled to take with them a relief vessel.  A swift sea going boat close after the great steamer with its load of human beings .  Such a relief vessel could carry sufficient freight as a ballast, to pay its expense, ahead of it.   A man, and a good swimmer, with a life belt, in the icy waters of the ocean, is no better fixed than he would be in purgatory with a chunk of ice tied to his body.  I am thoroughly convinced that the only sure protection on the ocean will be a second vessel, close in the wake of the passenger steamer, and the companies should be compelled to use them.

   The mates of the steamers tried many experiments in the reduction and handling of their deck crews from 25 o 40 men.  There were colored crews, Irish and “Spotted crews.”  The latter was made up of negroes and white men of different nationalities.  My observations led me to believe that a negro crew was the best of the lot.  The colored man could do more work and do it easier.  And then he was not so easily irritated, or insulted, as his white brother.  The white man would resent the sharp commands of the mate, while the negro would laugh and go along with the work.  Therefore a better discipline and organization could be maintained with a black crew than any other.  Aaron Hall and Hiram Finch two well known mates of that time, believed and said the secret of maintained discipline was to keep a sharp lookout for agitators and get rid of them.  Men who were around stirring up dissension among the other fellows.  Finch’s plan to get rid of the agitator, was to first whip him then pay him off and put him ashore.  Another well known mate who spent many years on a large side wheel steamer, was of the opinion that the proper place for the agitator was in the river, just forward of the wheel, and it was currently reported that he had got rid of a number of them in this way, but I never believed this story.

    Mose Hall was one of the well known captains in the old days.  He was in the employ of the companies for many years.  When the insurance ran out on his line boat, and she went to the bank, Captain Mose would charter some old steamers which carried no insurance and keep in the business as long as the river was open.  Many of the towns at that time had no railroads, and after the other boats left the river, Capt Hall found plenty of freight at good rates.  He kept going up and down through floating ice until the channel was closed.  On account of his being an expert in this sort of navigation, he was called the “Arctic Explorer.

  He would also operate these chartered boats early in the spring before all the ice was out of the river in the spring.  First in and last out and there was plenty of money in it.  I remember that at one time he was caught at Keithsburg with a steamboat and two barges, all loaded with freight for St. Louis.  The river closed on him, but he was out of there very early in the spring.

  As stated, our occupation on the river was a healthy one.  Contrary to the belief of many, there is no malaria hanging over and around the boats.  This is found on the shores, under the bluffs and on the bottoms.  There the people are frequently afflicted with chills and fevers, and other diseases.  I account for it in this way: When there is the least wind stirring from any direction, when it strikes the river it follows it, as smoke follows a stove pipe.  In this way the air is kept pure, and the malaria driven to the shores.  Even in a dead calm the movement of the boat creates a breeze, a circulation of the air through the cabins and rooms purifying it.  Several years ago, when the matter of establishing a state sanitarium for tuberculosis patients was being discussed the thought came to me that the Mississippi river would be he place for such an institution.  I wrote the State Board of Health in reference to this matter.  The mind has been such to do with the body.  Sick persons cooped up in a hospital, makes slow progress toward recovery.  Each day they see the same objects around them.  A sameness that makes them disconnected and nervous.  To make any improvements in the body the mind must be in proper condition.  It occurred to me that to take a steamer like the Quincy and remodel her, convert her into a floating sanitarium, would be the place for the sick people.  With large well ventilated staterooms, and wide decks, it would make an ideal home for the invalid.  As they sit in the shade, with the boat moving up and down the river, there would be a constant change of scenery something to take their minds off their ailments and cheer them up.  A moving panorama of towns, cities, farms and other objects, passing before them.  Then here they would receive the benefit of fresh air, as well as a change of climate as necessary.  During the summer season, such a boat could cruise around in northern waters, go south for the winter, and return in the spring.  Such a boat as the Quincy or St. Paul could be arranged to accommodate 150 patients, and the expense to each would be about what they would pay at a good hotel for board and lodging.  The board of Health wrote me that it was a new and novel idea.  That my assertion that the place for a sanitarium should be in a healthy place, was correct.  Thought it was good thing but that it would be difficult to induce the legislature to appropriate sufficient money to maintain it.  I am of the opinion that it would prove a paying proposition as a private enterprise for I notice that Capt. Walter Blair sends his family south for the winter and returns in the spring. Many of these people undoubtedly make this trip for the benefit of their health and the floating sanitarium would have plenty of business.

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