IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
Capt E. H. Thomas
IOWA AND CEDAR RIVERS
NAVIGABLE STREAMS FROM THE BEGINNING
Railroad Bridges Stopped the Steamboats--Incidents of Early River
Traffic to the Interior of the State
In the 60’s I was handling boats up the Iowa and Cedar rivers.
Up to about 1869, the merchants and people of these river valleys
had to depend on water transportation.
The first navigation of these streams away back to the 40’s,
was by the floating pilots, with their barges, or as they called them in
those days, “keel boats”. As
I was born upon the west bank of the Iowa river, and lived along there
up to 1870, I remember these keel boats and many of the steamboats which
came after them. The keel
boats were loaded with grain, pork and other products of the valleys,
and floated to their then nearest market, St Louis.
On the return trip these barges were loaded with merchandise for
the merchants. From St.
Louis they were towed by steamboats to the mouth of the Iowa river.
From that point to the Iowa and Cedar river ports the propelling
power of each barge consisted of poles handled by eight men, four on a
side. The pilot held the
barge on the shoal water and out of the heavy current as much as
possible. The trade of the
merchants was largely a ship and whetstone business.
That is, they were exchanging goods for the products of the
farms. The latter reached so
low a price in the St. Louis market that there was nothing in it.
They found that the expense of operating the fleet of barges ate
up all the profits. Then
they purchased a steamboat to tow the barges, believing that this plan
would reduce the cost of transportation.
That quick trips would be made to and from St. Louis and the
expense largely reduced. It
was the thing to do, and the plan would have been successful had they
purchased a tow boat with sufficient power to hustle the barges up and
down the river. But here is
where the Iowa and Cedar River Steamboat Company fell down.
A man named Drubin, a good reliable farmer, was sent to
the Ohio river to look up a steamboat.
He there purchased the steamer Piasa, assumed command and steamed
down the Ohio and up the Mississippi and Iowa rivers to the town of
Wapello. The passage of the Piasa
up the Iowa was one of the greatest events of that period.
She used the old style of exhaust pipes to get rid of the steam,
and one could hear her cough for several miles.
The people made a wild rush to the river and lined the shores
from Black Hawk to Wapello, and the Piasa was greeted with cheers all
along the line. Water
transportation had actually been established on the Iowa and Cedar
rivers, and the people would have a speedy means of reaching the market
of the world.
The Piasa and her barges were loaded, and left on her
first trip to St. Louis. It
was found that the steamer was all right in several particulars.
She had luxurious and commodious cabins and the meals put up by
the cook were out of sight. But
she had serious faults. Her
foundry bills were something enormous, and on the up-stream run from St.
Louis, she was slower than a yoke of cattle, or the second coming of the
savior. After a few losing
trips, the Piasa and barges were sold and the company went out of the
However, the Paisa was of some benefit
to the people of these valleys. She
had demonstrated that a steamboat could actually navigate the Iowa and
Cedar Rivers. As a result,
many others, and better boats, came up from the Mississippi river after
freight and passengers. In
the early 50’s there were quite a number of them made trips up these
streams during the good water months, going as high up as Iowa City and
Cedar Rapids. Among them I
remember the Adelia, Kentucky, Magnolia, Uncle Toby, Walk-in the
Water, Eureka, Black Hawk, and John Belle.
All of these were large steamers.
Along about 1855 or 56 there came to the then small town of Cedar
Rapids, a lady from Cincinnati, Ohio.
I have forgotten her name, but we will call her Mrs. Jones.
She located on the banks of the Cedar, and she brought a lot
of money with her. Her
husband had been a steamboat owner on the Ohio river, made a fortune and
then died. Mrs. Jones had
made many trips with her husband, and knew all about a steamboat.
She told the people of Cedar Rapids that the one thing needed to
bring prosperity to the little town and the valley, was a steamboat to
make speedy and regular trips to and from St. Louis, and that she
intended to build the boat and operate it and she made good.
Mrs. Jones went back to Cincinnati and there had built a good
steamer. The work was all
done under her supervision and when completed the boat was named the
Cedar Rapids. Capt. Jones
hired a crew and brought the steamer around to the Iowa and Cedar
rivers, where she received a great ovation at the different towns.
At Burlington she hired Capt. Wm. Root as pilot.
Root was a resident of Burlington, and had been on the
boats. I think he at one
time owned the Eureka. The
only one who knew anything about the channel of the Iowa and Cedar was Dr.
T. G. Bell of Wapello. The
steamers would come up there with their Mississippi pilots, but after
taking their cargo, Bell would be employed to take them out of the
river. The steamer Cedar
Rapids was a stern wheel boat about 160 feet in length and 24 feet beam.
She had a full cabin, low decks and good power. Her hull was well
constructed and everything about her was first class, but she was an
ugly brute to handle , especially in the wind.
There is a superstition among river men that certain steamboats
are “hoodooed” and can never be successfully operated.
The Cedar Rapids appeared to be one of this class, for pilot Root
had all kinds of trouble with her. On
one occasion, when there was an upstream wind, I saw him spend an entire
half day in trying to get her headed down stream, and finally
accomplished it by getting under the bank, tying her stern to the shore
and then swinging her head around. However,
she went along, making her trips to and from St. Louis and had plenty of
business. At the landings
the female captain was always on the roof and in a clear, shrill voice,
handed her orders out to the crew. Finally,
on one of her down trips to St. Louis the Cedar Rapids came into
collision with the Lucy May.
The wind was blowing, it was a dark night and pilot Root lost
control of his boat, and she went into the Lucy May, cut her hull in two
parts, and she went to the bottom of the Mississippi.
The accident occurred near Scotts Prairie, Mo. In 1856.
Mrs. Jones was not with the boat at the time.
She had made a few trips, put the boat in the trade and then
employed a Captain Rhodes. The
owners of the Lucy May followed the Cedar Rapids to St. Louis.
She was there tied to the bank and sold for damages.
The officers of the Cedar Rapids were all arrested, but the
entire blame was placed on pilot Root and he was sent to prison.
This accident put Mrs. Jones out of the transportation business.
Later on the Cedar Rapids was taken South, and in 1862, while in
the service of the government, was destroyed by fire at Arkansas Post,
on the White river. From
1856 to 1865, other boats were in the trade on the Iowa and Cedar,
making occasional trips when there was freight to go or come.
THE IOWA AND CEDAR RIVERS
OF 25 CONSECUTIVE ROUND TRIPS ON THESE STREAMS
Loaded Barges 31-2 Feet Of Water -- These Find Streams Still Navigable.
Ruby and myself also made affidavits as to the stage of
water on these trips, and to beat the game we were very careful to do
good work, and we did it. Our
record of 26 round trips on the Iowa and Cedar, with the steamboat and
two loaded barges, showed the average stage of water to have been 3 ½
feet, and that we were aground but once, when we went onto the gravel
bar below Florence. This
record of trips made and the freight and passengers carried,
demonstrated to a certainly that the Iowa and Cedar rivers were
navigable streams and the movement to close them against
us failed. We also
has some trouble with the mill companies and the ferrymen on these
streams. A mill company
attempted to build a light rock dam across the Cedar at Moscow, and we
stopped the enterprise with a court injunction.
A great many of the ferrymen on both rivers, insisted that they
were not navigable streams, and that we had no legal right to come up
there with a steamboat. They
would very often refuse to lower their lines.
We found that we would be compelled to make an example of some of
these ferrymen. Upon the
bows of the steamer, and barges we placed three heavy cutters.
They were made of steel and so arranged that they would slide up
on one of the ferry lines and cut it square in two parts.
There were probably 50 of these steel wire cables strung across
the two rivers. When our
cutters were ready, we sent a notice to all of the ferry men, that when
they heard the signal, one long whistle, they must lower and sink their
cables in the river so that we could pass over them.
We found but two victims. We
cut one cable on the Cedar and one on the Iowa.
Hearing of these two disasters, the rest of them lined up and we
had no further trouble with the ferry lines.
During the four years there were other steamers making occasional
trips up the Iowa. The
Harris brothers with their Anna Girdon and Gussie Girdon: Vince and Tom
Pell with the “Tryus”, The Geiger brothers with the
“Last Chance” Deck Dickson with the “Red Bird” and
Horatio and Al Hinkle with their T. P. Benton.
The building of the B. C. R. & N. railroad from Burlington to
Cedar Rapids, and the coming of other roads from the east, put us out of
business up there.
The Iowa and Cedar rivers have about the same water.
during wet seasons they can be
navigated during the full boating period of seven months.
To take a period of ten years, I should say, there has and will
be here after, at least an average of four and one-half months of good
water. But the formations of
the banks and river beds of the Des Moines and those on the Cedar and
Iowa are entirely different. A good portion of the Des Moines has a rock
bed, and rock shores, and in many places high bluffs form the shores.
The lower Iowa has a sandy bottom and soft banks of soil and
sand. The current is swift
and the channel shifts from one place to another.
The upper Iowa, from Columbus Junction to Iowa City, a distance,
by the crooks of the stream, of perhaps 50 miles, is somewhat different.
It has less fall and current. It
is also narrow. Looks like a
canal. There are no high
bars, and therefore no crossings from one side to the other, as on the
lower Iowa river. When there
is water, the pilot can hold his boat out in the center of the stream,
and let her sail. On the run
of 80 miles from the mouth of the Iowa to Iowa City, there are but two
places where rock is found in the bed of the river.
The first in Florence chute, about 8 miles above the mouth, and
the second at “Buttermilk Falls” about 20 miles below Iowa
City. Here a strata of loose
rock and boulders crosses the stream, creating a rapids a mile in
length. The water is deep
and swift. The naming of the
place, like many other river points, has a story connected with it.
It was our custom to purchase butter, eggs, milk and other
supplies of the farmers along the shores.
At the foot of these rapids was a farm house, where we landed one
day to stock up. One of the
men who was something of a boozer, purchased a quart of buttermilk for
the purpose of putting his stomach in shape to receive more whiskey.
The old lady who measured it out to him charged him 35 cents for
the quart of sour milk. He
paid the bill, but after the boat pulled out, he put up a great howl
about the enormous cost of buttermilk on that end of the river.
Later on, as we were passing this rapids one of the crew said,
“That is the place where Jim got his buttermilk, and we will call it
“Buttermilk Falls”, and so we did ever afterward.
The Cedar river is different from either the upper or lower Iowa.
The water is clear and when not at flood stage, resembles a
mountain stream. The bars
are of both sand and gravel, higher than those on the Upper Iowa.
Some rock is found in the river bed, and here and there are some
high, rock bluffs. In fact,
with its clear water and scenery, the Cedar is one of the most beautiful
streams in the country.
Rehearsing this story of the past, brings to my mind the name of Capt
Geo W. Girdon, the steamboat inspector, from whom I received my
first license to handle a steamboat.
Girdon was appointed steamboat inspector by President Buchanan
and retained the position until he got too old to make the trips over
the river between St. Louis and St. Paul.
I remember that when I first formed his acquaintance I regarded
him as grouchy, and that he would be hard to handle, but in after years
I learned that he was a much better man than he appeared to be, a
faithful and efficient government officer.
He believed that the marine laws were made to be enforced and his
lectures to us in reference to the performance of our duties, were
probably beneficial. It was
his custom to make two trips over the river each season, to keep us
properly lined up. My first
and only serious collision with Capt. Girdon was at the town of New
Boston. With the Iowa City,
I was making the run from Iowa City to Burlington.
The steamer and two barges were loaded to the water and we had 60
passengers. The fare from
one point to the other was six dollars and this included meals.
We reached Wapello after night, behind our usual schedule.
We always aimed to get out of the Iowa before dark.
It was a bad, rainy, stormy night, and there was a heavy wind
from the west. Capt
Peninger, who was always carefully watching the expense account,
wanted to know if I couldn’t drive her through to Burlington that
night. Said he: “It means
the saving of the cost of 60 meals for the steamboat, if we can land
these people at Burlington tonight.
They will go ashore and take their breakfasts at the hotels.”
I told him it was a bad night for a down stream run thru the
snags and sand on the Iowa river, but would try it.
We left Wapello and all went well until we reached the head of
the Cedar Island. There I
expected to be blown into the willows which lined the island, for the
wind was in the right direction, but I knew that there were none of
these willows large enough to injure the boat.
The channel was close down to the island and I sailed with it .
As I expected, there came a blast of wind and flanked the boat
into the tall willows. The
willows thrashed the side of the cabin, and the 60 passengers jumped out
of their beds, but the steamer soon pulled herself out of the woods.
On landing at New Boston, I heard the voice of Captain Girdon
calling my name. I went
ashore, and he asked me how many passengers we had aboard, and gave him
the number. And then he
opened up. Said he:
“Young man, don’t you know any better than to come down that
crooked muggy river, in the night time, with a boat load of
passengers?” I assured him
I knew every foot of the river, but it did not appear to go with the
Captain as he opened up again and said.
“If I ever catch you at such a trick again I will take you to
Galena in irons and you will there lose your license, pay a heavy fine,
and perhaps get a jail sentence.”
young in years and new in the business, I promised that in the future I
would never do such a thing again, and I never did, unless I had a dead
sure thing that Capt. Girdon was up on the Galena end of the river.
We reached Burlington in good time and got the passengers ashore
before breakfast. I had
saved the Captain about $30 and received a good combing from the
steamboat inspectors. In
after years, however, I learned that Capt Girdon was a nice old
gentleman, and that he was simply doing his duty in calling attention to
the law, the dangers and our duties.
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