IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
Capt E. H. Thomas
OF RIVER OVERFLOW
Most Rational Remedy
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
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
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--------
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
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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