Chapter IV

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas





How 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 transportation business.

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. 





Towing 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.”

  Being 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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