Chapter XLIV

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas



Navigation With Aid of Spanish Windlass

The Iowa River Has Three Feet of Water and is Navigable-Accidents at Bridge


   I was working on the steamer Young Eagle, navigating the Iowa River and running to Burlington, Muscatine and Davenport.  At Muscatine, the owner, Capt.  Jack Atchison, traded the steamer, for a livery stable, horses, buggies, an omnibus, etc.  On the day of the sale of the Eagle I received a telegram from the owners of the Iowa City , saying that their boat was aground in the upper Iowa river, about 15 miles above Fredonia.  The pilot had left them, and they asked me to come to their relief and get the steamer out of the Iowa river and into the Mississippi.  I received my final pay from the Eagle and took the train for the Iowa river.  On my arrival there I found the steamer lying in the middle of the river, hard aground, and the steam was at a very low stage.  I took a skiff and went down to the Junction of the Iowa and Cedar sounding the water as I went.  I found that the steamer was drawing more water than there was in the river. The job ahead of me was to get the boat to Fredonia, a distance of 15 miles.  Below that point, where the two streams came together, I knew that there was sufficient water to float her to the Mississippi river, a distance of about 25 miles.  After considering the matter, I concluded that I would be compelled to float and pull the boat over the reefs for the entire distance of 15 miles.  That I could not use the steam until I reached the junction of the two rivers.  The only pulling power on the steamer was the capstan worked by hand.  The crew had gone to their homes, so I hired a gang of farmers, 8 of them, to assist me in the work of dragging the boat over the sand.  The water was let out of the boilers, and I stripped the boat of everything loose, reducing her draft to about 18 inches.  I would let the boat drift with the current until she hit a reef, and then pull her over it with a Spanish windlass.  My windlass, located on the bank, had a lever 22 feet long, and I worked four-men on each end of it.  The Spanish windlass is a very simple affair, and if properly handled, is a powerful and effective concern.  It consists of the lever and an upright stick.  The rope winds around the upright stick as the men go around it.  One man holds the upright to keep it in a perpendicular position.  All went well on the first day and we made a distance of one and a half miles.  I held the upright stick, and the farmers on each end of the 22 foot lever walked around it, pulling the boat over the sand reefs.  On the second day we had a disaster which my farmer crew regarded as a very serious affair.  We struck a shoal reef.  We were pulling hard with the windlass, and the line was on a heavy strain, when the farmers, contrary to my instructions, at both ends of the layer, attempted to cross the line at the same time.  The lever came around with terrific force and four of the farmers were hit, knocked down the bank and into the river.  I saw the lever coming around to me, but escaped by dropping to the ground and letting it pass over me.  The four farmers crawled out of the river, and they were in a wet, bruised and dilapidated condition.  As a result of this accident, the entire bunch demanded their pay and quit, declaring that they would have nothing more to do with my windlass.  That it was a dangerous concern a man killer.  On the following day we went inland in search of another crew, but not a man could be secured.  My strikers had spread he news of the great disaster, and all of the farmers around there were afraid of my windlass.  They wanted nothing to do with it.  I then went down to Fredonia and Columbus Junction, where I secured another crew of nice men.  I put one of these men at the upright stick, while I stood off and watched  them closely to prevent another accident.  I soon had them well drilled, and slowly we went along over the shoal, sandy reefs, day by day, until we reached Fredonia.  It was heavy slow, laborious work, and it took us just seven days to cover the distance of 15 miles, a little more than two miles per day.  It was in the fall of the year, there was no prospect of a rise, and when I went to them, the owners of the boat had little hope of getting her out of there.  They declared that the ice would come and crush her.  At Fredonia we filled the boilers, fired up. Steamed down to Wapello, and out of the Iowa river.  On the lower Iowa I found three and one half feet of water on the high places.  As stated in a former chapter, on the lower Iowa, the bars are high, and a well defined channel under the reefs.  On the upper Iowa, the conditions are different.  The bars are not more than 8 to 12 inches high.  When the stream is up the pilot can go along in the center of the stream.  But, during the dry months there is no water anywhere between the banks.  This was my first trip on the Iowa City, but I remained on her three seasons thereafter. 

   A great deal has been said and written in reference to boys.  “Boys will be boys, wherever they may be.”  “One boy is bad enough, but two boys are worse than no boys at all,”  and other similar expressions.  During my time I have had a great many apprentices, have made something of a study of them, and I am of the opinion that the boys does not always get the square deal.  To force a boy into an occupation which he does not like, is a serious mistake on the part of the parents.  There is a difference in boys and they have different ideas as to their future, and should be consulted in the matter to a certain extent.  There are boys who prefer to spend their lives on the boats, and like the ducks, go to the water at an early age.  I have one of this class in mind.  Billie Jones, (that wasn’t his title) was a small boy when I went to the river.  His parents lived in one of the river towns.  Billie first showed the symptoms in sailing toy boats in the eddies along the shore of the great river.  He watched the steamboats come and go, and was at the landing as regular as the agent.  He formed the acquaintance of all the boys employed in the cabins of the steamers, and had a constant desire to be with them.  He applied for a position, but there was no vacancies.  But he did not despair.  He continued to visit the boats.  His opportunity finally came, Jimmie Thompson came ashore one day and told Billie Jones that he had quit his job, and that if he would see the boss he might get the place.  Now Billie knew that Jimmie was employed in the dish washing department so he flew upstairs and assumed control of the dish clothes, the pan and water and went to work on his own account, and without consulting the boss.  What he wanted was a job on one of the palatial passenger steamers, he saw a vacancy, and simply filled it.  After the boat pulled out, the boss discovered that he had a new hand in the cabin.  In answer to questions Billie told the boss that Jimmie Thompson had quit his job, and that he had taken his place.  The boss remarked that this was a new and novel plan for securing a position but that if he made good, he would keep him.  Billie was a bright, active, industrious lad, and he made good.  As many other cabin boys had done before him, he soon formed the acquaintance of the pilots, and he would frequently go in to the pilot house and take a turn at the wheel, in this way he learned a portion of the upper Mississippi river, later on secured a license and became a pilot.  He loved the business, and enjoyed life on the river.  His next desire was to own a steam boat, and this opportunity came around to him.  A steamer was being offered for sale at auction.  Its original cost had been about $25, 000.  It needed some repairs on its machinery, and some paint.  Billy Jones looked it over, and made a bid of $800.  Some other fellow said $900.  Billy came again with $1,000 all the money he owned.  There was still another bid of $1,100, and Billy concluded that he was down and out.  But a friend came to his assistance.  He asked him if he wanted that steamboat, and William answered that he surely did.  “Then bid her up,” said the friend, “and I will loan you the balance of the money”  He took new courage, bid against the crowd, and finally got the steamer for about $2,000.  With a few repairs and some coats of paint, she was a fine looking steamer.  Captain Jones put her at work, and thro his activity and shrewd business management, she has made a lot of money for him.  Captain Jones is still on the river.  He could sell his boats, build a palace on the shore, and spend the remainder of his life in ease and comfort, but he will not do it.  He loves the grand old river and the boats, and would not be contented on the shore.  

  The height, or space between the surface of the water and a bridge, when viewed from a distance, is deceiving.  It looks much higher than it is.  As you approach it, the span appears to be getting closer o the water.  I learned this fact in the 60’s while passing under the Rock Island railroad bridge at Fredonia, on the Iowa river.  My boat, a side wheeler, was built for going under the bridge spans.  The chimneys, the pilot house and the pilot wheel, were so arranged that they could be laid down upon the roof.  The pilot would lie down on the roof in reach of the bell cords, and work the boat into the bridge with the wheel.  It was my custom to land the boat at Fredonia bridge and look at my marks on the abutment, to get the stage of water, and also the clearance under the bridge, but on the occasion referred to I failed to take such precaution.  The Cedar river empties into the Iowa about one mile above this bridge.  I was coming out of the Cedar with the steamer and two barges, all loaded to the water with sacks of corn.  There appeared to be ample room under the bridge, so we let everything down on the roof, and sailed along.  As we went under the bridge I was lying flat on the roof, with the cords of the two stop bells in my hands.  A bridge bolt, which extended down some distance below the nut which held it in place, caught the collar of my coat. I was dragged away from the bell strings and back towards the stern of the boat. On the stern was a lower deck, some 12 or 15 feet in length, I realized that if I kept going in that direction I would fall from the roof down on the deck.   When near the jumping off place, I seized a log chain, and I held on to it.  The back of my coat let go, the bolt tearing its way thro it.  I ran forward seized the bell ends, and with the wheels straightened the boat up in the river.  She was going ahead at full speed, with her nose pointed toward a high bar.  It was a close shave under that bridge, and I was very fortunate in escaping with the loss of my coat.  The end of that bolt was very close to my spinal column.  Had it been a little longer, a very little, it would have put me entirely out of business.  This cured me.  I never after went under a bridge without first looking at my marks.  

  Later on, in making an upstream run with the same boat, we met with an accident at the same bridge.  The top of the pilot house could be lifted off and the sides laid down.  Then the chimneys came down.  I had landed below the bridge.  The delay had sent the steam up, and it was blowing out thro the safety valves, enveloping the boat in a cloud of it.  The captain, who wore extra heavy boots, and was clumsy with his feet was assisting in the work of taking down the pilot house.  In some way it hooked both feet into the bell cords, and rang both “come ahead bells”,  There was no line out and when the engineer gave her the steam she shot under the bridge.  The bridge cut off both chimneys, and the pieces came tumbling down upon the roof.  We made the trip up the Cedar and back to Burlington with short chimneys, and short draft and there had the necessary repairs made.  It is a safe proposition to be careful when running through or under a bridge.  The bridge and its parts are harder than boat and it is not good policy to go up against these obstructions.


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