Chapter XXXVII

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas


Silas haight was a profane man


He ran steamer countess in Burlington trade.


Did No Loafing at the Landings

But Hustled Up and Down Stream.


Written Exclusively for this Paper by Captain

E.H. Thomas of South Ottumwa.

            One of the pioneers in the steamboat business on the upper Mississippi was Captain Silas Haight, of Keokuk. I think he was running steamboats along there in the 40s, was in business during the 50s and did not quit the river until sometime in the 60s or 70s, I cannot give  the exact dates. Captain Haight was lame in one leg, but a hustler, and made some money. He also took an interest in matters in his home town, and could and did write some interesting letters for the Keokuk papers. On the boat, Captain Haight was all right as long as everything went right, but when things went wrong he would cut loose. He had the steamboat profanity reduced to a science: all of us could swear, but all conceded that Captain Haight was the ranking man on that and of the river. And when he took one of these spells, he was no respector of persons. All of the crew, from pilot to deck sweep, who happened to be near him, would receive some of his packages. He had no use for a slow boat, and owned, or commanded some fast ones during his time on the river. He was there before the days of the lock up safety valve, at a time when there was no limit to the steam. It was said of him that he would make a fast boat out of a slow one, by ordering the engineers to load the safety valves with iron weights. That if he was chasing another steamer, he would pass  her by increasing the steam pressure in his boilers. An engineer who was in  his employ for several years, told me of one of these races ‘between Keokuk and Davenport.  The two boats were preparing to leave Keokuk.  Captain Haight came into the engine room and said, “Now George, I want to lead that boat into all of the towns above here, and I want you to distinctly understand that what I want to-day is steam, steam and plenty of it.”  Now, it so happened that this engineer was known as a “hot engineer,” somewhat wreckless with his steam, and in the habit of reducing the water in the boilers, and increasing the steam pressure.  So George concluded to give Capt. Haight the steam, by using all sorts of fuel and loading the safety valves with monkey wrenches and old iron he soon had the boilers and steam drum swelled up to about the limit.  Captain Haight passed his rival near Fort Madison, and in approaching Burlington, he was about two miles in the lead.  As the old man stood on the roof looking at the Burlington bluffs, he discovered that his steamer was going some.  He flew downstairs as fast as his game leg would permit.  He there fund a roaring fire under the boilers, the safety valves loaded with iron, and the steam gauge jumping around above the 200 mark.  He then yelled at the engineer “For God’s sake cool her down, or we will all be in h--l before we reach Burlington,”  she is the hottest steamboat I have ever seen.”  Now this engineer was a lover of high pressure and speed, and on this occasion he was pleased to see the old man frightened.  George had served his apprenticeship under one Engineer Campbell.  This man thro big steam and low water, had exploded two sets of boilers, and went to his death in the second accident at some point on the Missouri river.

  Captain Haight did no loafing at the landings.  He would hustle his boat in and out and wait for no one.  His wife went ashore at Burlington one day to do some shopping, telling Silas not to leave her.  As he was backing away from the landing, Mrs. Haight appeared on the levee waving her handkerchief in the air, but it had no effect on the old man.  He told her to go to the Barrett house and stay there until he returned from Keokuk.  That he was not laying around with a steamboat waiting for women to stock up with needles and thread.

  I think Capt. Haight’s last service on the river was as commander and owner of the steamer “Countess.”  As I remember it the countess was a side wheeler and equipped with six tubular boilers.  It was during the 80’s or 70’s.  At that time there were four passengers boats in operation between Keokuk and Davenport, and great rivalry between the company - all fighting for the business.  As the veteran Haight stood on the shore and watched the contest, he concluded to take a hand in it and he went around on the Ohio river and purchased the Countess, and put her into the Davenport and Keokuk trade.  He employed Deck Dickson as chief engineer knowing that Deck was not afraid of steam and low water, and I remember that Mills Ruby was one of the pilots.  With this boat Captain Haight commenced the contest, declaring that he would whip the four passenger packets and whip then to a finish, and he made good.  He took them by turns, and with big steam, the Countess would keep from one to two miles ahead of her rival every day in the week.  Captain Haight would not wait for a large lot of freight and never made a tie at any of the towns.  Holding the steamer up to the shore with the outside wheel, he would take the light packages and being far in advance of the other steamer, would get all of the passengers.  He was skinning the packet companies six days in the week, and it made them sore, but this cut no figure with the veteran Haight.  He whirled the Countess up and down the river, and got the business.  The people always ride on the swift boat, regardless of the danger.  Dickson was carrying an enormous steam pressure, the boilers were old and steamboat men along there who knew the danger, were expecting the old tubulars to go up in the air.  I was standing on the Keithsburg levee one day, when the Countess rounded in to the landing, on her down steam run.  The boat was enveloped in a cloud of steam, and every timber on her was trembling.  Through this cloud of steam Mills Ruby came ashore, and he was carrying his grip.  He told me he had quit his job in the pilot house.  I asked him why he did it.  “The trouble is,” said Mills, “The boat has a d--m fool for an engineer, and I will not ride another mile over his boilers.  I shall take the train for my home in Fort Madison.”  From the engine room door thro the cloud of steam, I saw the familiar face of Deck Dickson.  He was laughing, swinging his hat in the air and roasting Ruby for leaving the boat.  But Mills was justifiable in going ashore.  The way things were running, I would not have accepted a free round trip ticket, with meals included, and rode on the Countess.  We were all expecting to hear of her being blown to pieces.  But Deck Dickson enjoyed these trips.  Knowing no fear he regarded it as great amusement, to be cutting the water and leading all other boats along there.  After whipping all competitors, the countess was laid up.  One or both of the packet companies, purchased the steamer and tied her to the shore in order to get rid of Silas Haight.  I was told that Captain Haight cleaned up about $10,000 on this deal, that he purchased the boilers at a low figure, and then unloaded on the packet companies at a good big price.  

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