Chapter XXXV

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas



Reservoirs Most Rational Remedy  

Excess Water Furnishes Opportunity for Lateral Canals to Carry Commerce.


   The sinking of the big Titanic, and the drowning of 1,595 of her crew and passengers, calls to my mind a great marine disaster during the civil war.  The Union soldiers, under the leadership of Gen Grant. Had fought their way down the river from Cairo to the Gulf of Mexico, 1863 was a strenuous year, and the many battles and marches through the swamps had put many of the Federal soldiers in the different hospitals.  Along in the spring of 1864, many of these sick and wounded soldiers were given furloughs and sent to their homes in the north to recuperate.  The steamer Sultana was a large boat with eight to ten boilers.  On this boat was put about 2,500 of these men when she reached a point about ten miles above Memphis the Sultana exploded her boilers.  2,500 of these men who had escaped death in many battles and who were happy in the thought that they would soon see their loved ones at home were killed and drowned.  The boat was a total wreck.  The matter was investigated, but no evidence was secured to show the cause of the great disaster.  By some it was thought that the confederates had placed explosives in the fuel for the purpose of killing the union soldiers.  The steamboat men of that time had a different theory, which I believe was correct.  The river men believed that the explosion was caused by the soldiers running over to one side of the boat. That this sudden change in the deck had run the water out of some of the boilers, leaving them entirely dry.  All steamboat men knew the result in such a case as this.  The burning iron or steel creates a gas in the empty boiler.  At a certain heat this gas takes fire and then comes the explosion.  The boilers are blown to pieces and thrown high in the air.  Nothing makes a crew so nervous as to see a large crowd of people shifting around from one side of the steamer to the other.  The crew know the danger and always try to prevent it, but they are frequently unable to do so.  This was demonstrated on the decks of the titanic.  The crew and some of the passengers were forced to use guns and bars of iron to beat back the wild, rush on the life boats.  Had the Sultana disaster occurred in time of peace it would have caused much excitement, but at that time when thousands of lives were being sacrificed on the bloody battlefields, and in the swamps of the south, the great disaster was almost forgotten in a short time.  One of the pilots on the Sultana Wm. Ingram was a native of Iowa, and spent his boyhood in Wapello.  Sometime in the early 50’s the family moved to St. Louis.  Young Ingram learned the river from that city in New Orleans, and was on the boats for many years, up to the time he lost his life in the explosion.

   The upper Mississippi river and its tributaries appear to have had about their usual spring rise, but the lower river went up beyond all former records, millions of dollars worth of property was destroyed and quite a number of the people drowned.  What to do with this flood water is a knotty problem, but it may be worked out by the U. S. engineers.  The closing of the old river beds, and the building of the high levees may have something to do with the trouble on the lower river.  The water down there has been concentrated, piled up and the velocity of the current increased.  I am not an engineer, but the thought has come to me that these old river beds might be converted into reservoirs for the storage of the surplus water.  There are many miles of these old dried river beds, the heads and mouths which have been closed by embankments.  With gates at each end of them and their bank properly protected,  a large quantity of water could be turned back into the river again during the dry months and low water season.  Then again, a great deal of this flood water could be taken care of by the construction of canals east and west from the river, and those canals would give the people benefit of the cheap water transportation.  The trouble appears to be that the big river has been penned up, its width largely decreased, and that it now getting more water than it can handle.  The water being concentrated and piled up, it goes to a higher stage than in former years, when it flowed thro the old river beds and island chutes, and was permitted to spread out over the bottom lands.  Some of the most productive lands in the United States are behind these levees on the lower river, and it will be necessary to devise some plan to keep the water off them.  The surplus water must be taken out of the river during flood season.  With numerous reservoirs and canals into the interior, the high water mark would be lowered.  The river would have a chance to spread itself, as it did before the levees were strewn up.

   I received a copy of “Annals of Iowa.”  which you ordered for me, I was pleased to get this, as it is something “official” as to former work on the Des Moines river.  Many people have been led to believe that the old dams and locks were built by the government, and that the project proved a failure.  This statement has been used by the knockers on the present movement.  So I have had this article printed for the information of the people.  I enclose a copy of it, which you can use, if you wish to do so.  It will be a part of the history of the Des Moines river. I was told by some one that John Hamilton, an old time pilot on the upper river, had died many years ago, and that he was buried at his old home.  Canton Mo.  I have now read an account of his death which occurred at Alton, Ills., during this month.  You can correct this, if any former statement occurs in any of my manuscripts.  The Des Moines river has been at a good steamboat stage since the ice went out.  

  During the time the boosters were advocating the improvement of the Des Moines river they were frequently met with the statement that the government, had at one time made an attempt of this kind and that the project had proved a failure.  Some old letters, engineer’s reports and other documents have recently come into the possession of the state historical department that explains this whole matter and when and by whom the work was done.

  A portion of this information appears in the April number of the ‘Annals of Iowa,” from which I quote as follows”:  

  The Des Moines Navigation and Railroad Co. was an important institution in Iowa affairs from 1854 to 1853.  The principal actor in its earlier affairs was Henry O’Reilly.  A volume of autograph lettrers written to and from the des Moines valley by him and members of his family in 1834, 1835 had been acquired by the historical department.  More extruded attention will be paid to these in the annals at a later time.

  Just now it is sufficient to note that his communications in 1836 was sometimes written on stationery bearing the following:

  The Demoine valley, extending 520 miles from the junction of Illinois, Missouri and Iowa, through Iowa, into Minnesota.

  By slack water pavigation, for steamers of the largest class navigating the upper Mississippi, and the Missouri rivers, and by railroading through any part or all of the Demoine valley, or to connect their valley with any part of the surrounding states and territories, as may be deemed advisable.

  The company is endowed with the lands and franchises including the navigation from grants made by the United States government and by the government of Iowa, for the improvement of the Demoine, as connected with the navigation of the Mississippi valley and of the lake country, and as set forth in the contract between Henry O’Reilly and the state of Iowa-of which contract, this company has the assignment.

   The principal place of business is Ottumwa in Iowa, with an office in New York.  The capital is fixed, for the present, at three millions of dollars, in shares of $100 each.  The stock is chiefly owned by parties largely interested in various lines of railroads now extending between the Atlantic, the lake country, and the Mississippi and Missouri river.

   The directory consists of Edwin C. Litchfield, Orville Clark, John Stryker, Henry Ten Evck and Alvah Huet, of the state of new York-Elisha C. Litchifield, N. P. Stewart and Porter Kibbee, of the state of Michigan-Henry O’Reilly, of the state of Iowa.

  The officers are-Orville Clark, president-henry O’Reilly, secretary-Alvah Hunt, treasurer.

  Of the reports on the construction none gives a clearer idea than the following:

    Ottumwa, November 19,1856,

  To the president of the Demoine Navigation and Railroad company:

  Sir:  In accordance with your instructions, I have prepared an estimate of the cost of completing the slack water navigation of the Des Moines river, from its mouth, on the Mississippi, to Fort Des Moines, (Racoon Fork) and herewith present the same:

  The estimate contemplates improving the present channel from the Mississippi to St. Francisville, a distance of about twelve miles without locks.  It is proposed to remove the snags and trees from the present bed of the river and deepen the channel in several shoal places, by dredging and confining the water by means of wing dams, in the lower stage to a narrower channel, from St. Francisville to Fort Des Moines the estimate is based upon--------

Dams.  The locks are estimated as stone lock, and the  dams as timber and stone with wooden abutments on the side of the river opposite the locks.

  The present state of the work: Since the first of August we have a party at work, with the proper tools and fixtures, clearing snags and trees from the channel, of the river, below St. Francisville they have cleared a channel wide enough for the passage of steamboats from the Mississippi to near the big yellow banks, a distance of about six miles, and we are now going on vigorously with the work beyond this point.

  We have also built a most substantial dredging machine, which is at work excavating channels through the bars on the lower part of the river.  It is intended to keep the snaging and dredging going to on until the river is closed by ice.  If the fall and winter are open, it is expected to clear the snags from the channel as far as St. Francesville, by the opening of navigation I the spring.

  At Francisville the coffee dam is built, and the excavation of the pit nearly completed.  The water sills of he lock are in, and the masonry started.  A large amount of materials ae now delivered, and the work is being prosecuted with vigor.

  At Belfast, the second lock, the walls are now built above high water, and can be completed early next season.  The work has been energetically prosecuted during the low water of this year.

  At Croton, the third lock is now in working order, though it is one of the short locks, and will eventually have to e lengthened, and some additional work done to the dam.

  At Farmington the fourth lock, the walls are built to nearly their full height, and thee is stone enough prepared to furnish them.   It was expected to furnish this lock this season, but owing to the sickness during the months of August, September and October, the contractors were not able to keep the requisite force at work to complete it.  It can be finished early next season and the dam can be built during the low water of next summer.

  At Bonaparte, the fifth and Bentonsport, the sixth locks and dams are in the navigable order, the locks are short and will eventually have to be lengthened and the dams requite some more work to compete them.

  At Keosauqua, the seventh lock, the masonry is well started, and with proper energy on the part of the sub-contractors, the work can be completed and brought into use by the time of the June rise of the river to this place.

  At Pittsburg, the eighth lock, the coffer dam is now in, but I have been unable to get any masonry laid this year.

  At Litchfield, the ninth lock, the ninth lock, the masonry is started, and it is hoped that ti will be complete early this year.

  At Orville, the tenth lock, the masonry is started and it is hoped that it will be complete next year.

  At Iowaville, or Jordan’s the eleventh lock, we had to change he location of the lock a short distance, to get a good foundation.  The masonry is started and nearly all the materials for the lock are prepared and it is expected to be completed early next season.

  At Alpine, the twelfth lock, the foundation for the lock is now about prepared and the masonry can be started early in the spring.

  At white bread, the coffer dam is in and the foundation for the lock is nearly complete.

  Below Alpine a very large amount of materials is now prepared and there will be no difficulty in procuring all the balance that will be required to complete the work on this part of the line, during the coming winter.

  The water in the river has been low this season, but the workmen have been very sickly.  Some of the time more than one half of our men between St. Francisville and Ottumwa have been sick at he same time, and for a short time nearly all of the men were sick at once.  This sickness has very materially retarded the work.  Respectfully yours, Edw. H Tracy

Chief Engineer D. N. & R. R Co.  

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