Chapter XLV

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas



Red Tape Rules Enforced By Martinets

Grouchy Inspectors Who Exercise Their Brief Authority


   The strict enforcement of the marine laws worked a hardship on some of the steamboat men and frequently forced them into bankruptcy.  I remember that the inspectors required a man building a steamboat to use a certain grade of iron in the construction of the boilers.  Every sheet must be branded “C. H. No. 1.”  One firm in Pittsburg, Pa. had a monopoly of this boiler iron business, and could not always keep up with their orders.  A friend of mine was building a tow boat at Dubuque.  Business was good, and he was anxious to get his boat built.  He ordered four boilers from the Pittsburg firm, but they could not furnish them.  He cancelled the order, and purchased his boilers of another shop, at a cost of $4,000.  His capital was limited, and he had run behind with his bills, but he got his boat in the river, and made application for inspection.  The inspectors arrived with their pumps and other traps.  But they refused to test the boilers for the reason that the sheets did not bear the regulation brand.  “C. H. No. 1.”  The owner of the boat through the loss of the boilers, and with some other bills, was in debt $6,000.  His creditors pushed him, the boat was attached and sold, and he lost every dollar he had put into it.

  Andrew Burtin, who built a ferry boat at Nauvoo, was caught in the same net, put through a special act of congress, he was finally permitted to use his boiler and operate his boat there.

  In one other case of this kind, the inspectors for the Galena district were beat.  The inspectors had an iron-clad rule that no second hand boilers should be transferred to a new hull, W. D. Smith, of Keithsburg did a large grain and lumber business.  He was connected with the Hershey Staples Lumber Co., who owned extensive tracts of pine lands in the north, and operated many mills. At Keithsburg, Smith had a saw mill, a planing mill and a flouring mill, and was a grain buyer.  He employed 60 men.  I was in his employ for four or five seasons operating the steamers Lilly, W. D. Smith and their barges.  With these boats I was kept busy supplying branch yards with lumber, and in transporting grain from different points to Keithsburg, and with the Smith and barges made trips to St. Louis.  I also operated the Smith as a daily packet between Burlington and Muscatine for a season.  The hull of the Lilly had been used as a barge for sometime.  Smith put new engines and a new boiler on to it, converting it into a stern wheel steamboat.  In about four or five months the machinery shook the hull to pieces.  Every joint in it commenced to leak.  In pulling it out to make repairs, I discovered that the plank below the water line was rotten.  I advised Smith to take the machinery out of it, and he did so.  He then concluded to build a new and larger boat.  As a result, the Wolveton Bros. built the W. D. Smith.  Some additional sheets were put on to the boiler which had been used on the Lilly, and was put into the Smith.  The balance of the machinery was new, and the wheels were of the Douxlee pattern.  We had rolled the boiler on to the deck of the Smith, and Inspector Girdon came along there, and from the deck of the packet, ordered me to put the boiler ashore, saying that we would not be permitted to use it.  There was trouble ahead, and I went to the office and brought Mr. Smith down to have a talk with the inspector, Girdon and Smith were very much alike in one particular. Both had tempers, and when aroused they were hard to handle.  But in this case, Girdon had a decided advantage with the law back of him.  I had cautioned Smith to be conservative in his talk to the captain, but he did not follow my advice.  So there was a hot time--a war of words between the two me.  Smith declared that he owned the boiler and the boat, and that he would run his own business to suit himself.  As a parting admonition, Girdon notified me not to leave the bank with that boiler.  Smith and I went back to the office, where I looked over the steamboat law.  I found a clause which stated that a new boat, having business there, could go into  another district for inspection.  So, I filled out an application for inspection, mailed it to the St. Louis office, loaded the steamer and two barges with corn, and sailed for the Missouri city.  It was risky business, this running away from a steamboat inspector and out of his district, but we had talked it over and concluded to take the chances of being caught between Keithsburg and St. Louis.  Keokuk was then the only port of entry on the trip, and Sam Clark had charge of the government business.  This one town of Keokuk was the danger point.  A telegram from Girdon to Clark would have tied us to the shore, and got us into other serious trouble.  I was personally acquainted with Sam Clark, and at Montrose I put a rapids pilot in charge of the boats, and took the train for Keokuk, ahead of them.  I thought at one time that I would sail by Keokuk without landing, but finally concluded that I had better report there.  It was Sunday morning, and I found Clark at the post office, getting his mail.  I informed him that my boat was then coming over the rapids.  That it was a new one, and that we were going to St. Louis for inspection, as the law permitted us to do.  It appeared to be alright with Sam.  He said his government job was a sort of sinecure, and that he gave it little attention.  That the wharf master made out a report of the arrival and departure of steamers, and that he simply sent this to Washington.  I met my boat at the landing, paid the wharfage, and at once pulled out for St. Louis.  At this date Frank Burnett was inspector of boats and  a Mr. McMurchy boiler inspector.  While the clerk was discharging the corn, checking it out to the receiving clerk on the St. Louis levee, I went up town to see the inspectors. Burnett and McMurchy were both in the office when I arrived.  Frank Burnett had been a pilot, and McMurchy a well known river engineer.  Frank was a good fellow, but he had grouchy spells, and I happened to call on one of his off days.  He was a large man and a rough talker when things did not come his way.  He made his home in Louisiana, Mo.  On making my business known, he told me that he would have nothing to do with the Smith.  That her boiler had been condemned in the Galena district.  I argued the matter, telling him that the boiler had been used but little and that it was all right, but he would not listen.  And there I was.  The show for getting out of St. Louis did not look good.  It was the dinner hour, and McMurchy invited me to dine with him at a restaurant near the office.  While at dinner I put up a talk to McMurchy, telling him that the boiler was practically new, and that to condemn it, would cause the owner of the boat a loss of about twelve hundred dollars.  I also informed him that we had made no written application on to Girdon for inspection.  That the boiler had not been tested, and therefore could not, and had not been condemned.  “Now” said McMurchy, “you know Frank Burnett.  I do not care to have his ill will.  But you stay here until Frank goes to Louisiana tomorrow evening.  I will test your boiler, and if it stands the pressure, you will get your papers.”  I did as directed, and after Burnett sailed for Louisiana, we put the pump on the boiler.  At my request, he gave the much discussed boiler a pressure of 200 pounds, and there was not a damp spot about it when he finished the test. After loading me up with three or four hundred dollars worth of life saving traps, I was permitted to leave the port of St. Louis.  A short time after I went on board of another boat to see a friend.  Inspector Girdon was there, and I shook hands with him and asked about his health.  I found that the owner of this boat was having trouble about his boilers.  They wee not up to the mark, and Girdon had refused to test them.  The owner was worried, and asked Girdon what he should do about it.  “I do not know,” said the captain.  “but I would suggest that you employ Ed. Thomas to run your boat to St. Louis.  They will pass any old boiler down there.”  This was the package he handed me, and I heard from him many times thereafter on the same matter.  He appeared to take great pleasure in referring to my trip to St. Louis with the W. D. Smith.  I was content to have him treat it as a joke.  What I was afraid of was government laws, and that he might take a notion to enforce them.  

    In navigation the river we were not particularly interested in the deep portions of it.  We had all of the business we could handle in keeping track of the shoal reefs.  The pilot learns to locate both the shoal and the deep water ahead of him.  This is a part of his education as a navigator.  He can point out the deep places, but he cannot give you the depth in feet.  A glance at the surface of the river tells him that there is sufficient water to float his boat and its cargo, and this is all he needs to know.  In the night time.  When he is not sure of his marks, he has another source of information.  This is in the speed of the engines.  When the boat is in good water, the engines work free and easy, and have a regular stroke.  If the steamer strikes shoal water, the engines slow down, or ’labor” as we call it.  If the pilot gets lost and goes up a catfish slough into dead water, the engines at once increase their speed and go at a gallop.  Through the speaking tube which leads from the engine room to the pilot house, the man at the wheels hears the sound, notes the changes in the speed of the engines and governs himself accordingly.  But, as I say, our principal interest was centered on the shoal reefs.  It was these high places that racked our brains and disturbed our dreams.  And from these places, then, as now, the stage of water was secured.  At the present time, when the newspapers report but three or three and one-half feet of water, the average citizen concludes that the bed of the great river is getting very dry and dusty for its entire length, and that the government is wasting money in attempting to maintain a steamboat channel there.  I have met a number of congressmen who had this mistaken idea of the conditions, and were therefore opposed to appropriations for the river work.  Through the kindness of Major Keller, engineer in charge of the work on the upper river, I have the soundings of the river between Genoa Island, just above Muscatine, to Keithsburg, Ills. Which I wish to give to the readers of THE POST.  The distance between the two points about 30 miles.  The figures below give the depth when the river is at low water mark.

   Through Hershey Chute, 18 feet, Muscatine to Crowfoot, along Muscatine Island, 10 miles, 17 feet.  New Boston to Keithsburg, 6 miles, 14 feet.

   Here it will be noticed is sufficient water to float a lake vessel.  In this distance of 30 miles the engineers found but five shoal reefs.  The shoal part of these reefs on sand bars, are usually not more than 300 feet, about the length of one of the upper river steamers.  So that in this 30 miles of river, we find that there is but 1,500 feet of shoal water.  Similar conditions are found at many other points between St. Louis and St. Paul.  Or the matter might be explained in this way, of all the water taken out of the river, between the two cities named, we would then have a great valley, from one to three miles wide and seven hundred miles in length.  In traveling along the valley, one would see, here and there, for its entire length, sand ridges stretching across it.  Such ridges having a short, gentle slope to the north, and on the south side nearly perpendicular.  In the dry valley, as described, these sand ridges would be stationary.  But under present conditions, with the current of the river flowing over them, they are driven here and there.  One of them may disappear, for a time, but through the action of the current, it will come again.  The reefs are ever present, simply changing their location, usually when the river is at flood stage and the current strong.  To cut down these ridges, or sand reefs, so that there will be not less than six feet of water over the highest of them, is the work which the U. S. engineers have undertaken, and they will succeed.  In fact more than 50 per cent of this work has been completed.  That is, about 60 percent of the former shoal places have now more than six feet of water over them.  With six feet of water a large business can be done on the upper Mississippi river.  I notice that all of the political platforms-the Republican, the Democratic and the Bull Moose-favor liberal appropriations for river work.  The prospect for the restoration of the cheap water transportation looks good.       


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