IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
E. H. Thomas
AGROUND IN IOWA RIVER
With Aid of Spanish Windlass
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.
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.
Return to Table of Contents - Life on the Mississippi
Return to Iowa History Project