Chapter V

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas





Capt. Feris the Only Person Now Living Who Knows the Whole Story


   As to the Des Moines river, I would say that my first experience in navigation was at Bentonsport guiding a ferry boat back and forth across the Des Moines…The propelling power was a blind horse, tramping an endless chain horse power rig, which made the side wheels go around.  This was in the 50’s.  I was a boy, but I remember of seeing the steamboats pass up and down.  I am of the opinion that Captain Charley Faris is the only person now living who can give us the story of navigating the Des Moines, and we shall expect him to do it.  Charlie got his feet wet at a very early age, contracted the water disease and went on to the boats as a cabin boy.  His father, Robert Faris, who died a few years ago at Farmington Iowa, knew more about the Des Moines river than any one of his time.  As a pilot he navigated the stream for many years.  It was here, as a cabin boy, that Charley received his first lessons in steam boating.  Later on, on the Mississippi, he became a pilot and then a captain.  I think it was about 1854 when the old Badger State came steaming up the Des Moines, and just above the mouth of Sugar Arch, she hit a nigger head, and knocked a hole in her bottom.  She settled down on the river bed near where the Ottumwa packing house is now located.  Charlie Faris was on the Badger, and doing cabin work, at the time the accident occurred.  I was never employed on the Des Moines river steamers, but about four years ago I was induced to join the force of agitators who were urging the improvement of the stream, and can give you some information as to it.  The originator of this project was H. C. Miller of Des Moines.  Miller is president of the Home savings Bank of the capital city, and is well fixed, financially.  He has no axe  to grind, but is simply a firm believer in water transportation, that the short and easy method to regulate the freight rates is to improve all of the rivers in the country and use them and I am of the same opinion.  During the past four years.  Miller has not only spent his time, but his money in the cause.  The proposition to have the government create and maintain a six foot steamboat channel in the Des Moines river, and thro the erection of dams develop the great water power, was regarded as a pipe dream by many people of the valley, and in the start, we received little support or encouragement, but everything is now coming our way.  “We secured a preliminary and also a permanent survey, and the U. S. engineers, the Board of engineers and the War Department have fully redeemed their project and declared it feasible.”  The plans and specifications for this work are being prepared in Detroit, Michigan, and will be forwarded to Washington about September 1st.  The plans call for a canal from Croton to the Mississippi river.  Between Croton and the city of Des Moines there will be 23 dams, or a dam about every tem miles.  These dams will be modern, built concrete and steel and about 18 feet high.  Each dam will be provided with locks for the passage of boats.

Dimensions of locks 300 feet long, 60 feet in width.  The owners of all bridges will be required to put draw spans in them not less than 125 feet wide.  This must be done at their own expense, as the bridges have been declared obstructions to navigation, were placed there without any authority and must now be opened up.  Levees will be constructed and rip-rapped along the low lands to prevent the river from cutting around the dams.  Pools or reservoirs will also be made at the headquarters of the stream, in which to store the flood water.  This water will be held in the reservoirs, and released when needed to maintain a six-foot stage during the low water months of July and August.  Each of these dams will develop 2, 000 horse power.  The sale of this water and electrical power, at the market prices will pay the entire cost of the work in less than eight years.  Sometime ago it was the idea of those urging the project to ask the Government to go ahead and do the work, and then sell the water power to the state of Iowa.  The river department endorsed this plan and the state officials were asked to take some action in the matter, but they showed no interest in the project.  Now this part of the plan has been abandoned by those behind the enterprise.  It must be remembered that the main issue with the government officials is to create and maintain a six foot steamboat channel in the Des Moines river, and make the stream a part of the great water way system of the country.  The power developed by the dams is an outside or secondary matter.  They do not care who builds these dams or owns the power.  If a power company wants to build any or all of these dams, build them according to the government plans and specifications, such company or companies will be permitted to do so.  And we are pleased to know that the plan of granting permits to reliable companies to build these dams has been adopted.

   The Des Moines river project has been extensively advertised, water and electricity is to be the power of the country.  The capitalists know a good thing when they see it, and are very anxious to invest their money in Des Moines river dams and power plants, and as the State will have nothing to do with it, the men with money will be permitted to take up the work, under the direction of the U. S. Engineers.  Every dam so constructed will give the government ten miles of the six-foot steamboat channel.  And the government will simply furnish he plans but pay no part of expense.  Under this plan the power companies are being attracted to the Des Moines river.  One, the Chicago and Dubuque Power Co. has already received a permit, secured the plans and located at Keosauqua.  This company is purchasing land down there at $50 and $60 per acre and paying spot cash for it.  Their articles of incorporations have also been filed at Des Moines and the company is preparing to go to work on two dams, one at Keosauqua and the second ten miles above Keosauqua. When this work is completed the government will have 20 miles of navigable water, control the river and require the company to maintain the two dams.  The company will own the 4,000 horse power developed by the two dams and sell such power.  As the actual cost of creating such water and electrical power is but $6 per horse power, per annum, and the average selling price $18, the Dubuque and Chicago company, will have a good thing, a money maker, through all of the years to come.   An effort is now being made to induce an eastern company to build two of these dams at Ottumwa.  So that the project to improve the Des Moines river is no longer a dream, but an actual reality.  The work at Keosauqua will be started in a short time, and it is believed that the greater portion of the 23 dams will be built by such companies, and without cost of the government or the people.  The agitators are very well pleased with the result of their efforts in the past four years.  Their work, is bringing results, and the navigation and the great water power will prove of great and permanent benefit to all of the Des Moines river valley.

   At the time we made the application for the recent surveys, the War Department came back at us with this proposition:  “Before a dollar of government money can be spent on the Des Moines river, you will be required to establish the legal status of the stream at the present time.  If you can show that it has been used by the steamboats at any time, and give the names of such boats, then it will be recognized and classed as a navigable river by this department.” 

   This looked like a different tackle, but from various, but reliable sources, we furnished the War Department the names of 56 different steamboats which had navigated the Des Moines.  Not only the names of the boats but the names of all the captains in charge of them.  We clinched the matter, and we secured an appropriation of $40,000 to pay the expense of the two surveys.  The improvement of the river will now go along, and in the near future the tall chimneys and the black smoke of the Mississippi river steamers will again be seen at Ottumwa, Des Moines and way ports.



 The Workers Were Honest and Industrious

Floating Population that inhabited caves in bluffs, the Willow Islands and traveled in House Boats


   Rivermen, those who did the work on the boats and rafts were honest, industrious fellows.  They were just as good as men in other callings.  But, many of the criminal class were attracted to the river.  The caves, Willlow Islands and the house boats were their bases of operation.  The stories of their crimes brought discredit on others who were leading honorable, up-right lives.  Of course, some of this class would frequently get into the boats and rafts, but as soon as they were spotted, they were put ashore.  The mates and raft pilots who hired the men, picked them up at the towns, here and there, and knew nothing as to their previous records.  In this way they would necessarily get some bold bad men. These loafers and criminals were not there to work, but for the purpose of gaining a livelihood by some unlawful means.  The crew of a ten string raft consisted of twenty oarsmen, the cooks, the pilot, and the salesman.  A float of this kind landed at Oquawka one afternoon.  The salesman went ashore, sold the lumber, and paid off the crew.  After doing his he had a large sum of money left, which he intended to turn over to his company, but he never did.  The salesman dropped out of sight that night and was never seen again.  He was known as a straight, reliable man and the members of the lumber firm did not believe that he had stolen their money.  Search was made but no trace of him could be found.  Some 10 or 12 years later, my boat was lying at Oquawka.  Just above the landing I saw some men with picks and shovels, digging in an old ice house.  I went up there and the men told me they were looking for the remains of a man who had been murdered. A few days before the police of St. Louis had picked up a raftsman on the levee.  His body had been cut and slashed with a knife, and he was taken to the hospital.  When informed that he must die and meet his maker, this man told the story of the murder at Oquawka.  He and another had killed and robbed the salesman and buried his body in the old ice house.  He further stated that his partner in the crime had been dead for several years.  That while engaged in a drunken row with some other men, he was shot and killed.  The superintendent of the hospital sent this confession to the postmaster of Oquawka, and the skeleton of the missing salesman was found in the old ice house.  This was one of the many crimes committed by this class of men.

  The worst element was found on the “Gun Boats”.  A gun boat was a large flat, with a cabin on it, and many windows.  In other words, a floating bawdy house.  One of these boats was anchored near all of the larger towns.  They were the kindergarten schools of crime and hiding places for criminals.  Young men and young women were enticed to these dens of inequity and brought to ruin.  The wonder is that they were permitted to exist as long as they did.  Young men went aboard these boats who never came ashore.  They were murdered during the night and their bodies thrown into the river.  A cold blooded murder of this kind at Clinton was the commencement of the end for the keepers of these dens, and later on they were driven from the river.  A prominent young man of Clinton was missing.  Several weeks elapsed and the young man had not returned to his home.  The case was taken up by the officers of the city and they found that on a certain evening the young man had crossed the river and went aboard  the gun boat.  He was seen there by others, but this was the end of it, for a time.  Finally, some of the inmates of the place were arrested, taken into the sweat hole and put through the third degree, when they told the story of the murder.  The young man was killed during the night, his body cut, into pieces, and piece by piece, thrown into the river.  The story of the crime caused intense excitement, not only in Clinton, but all along the river.  The people of Clinton did not wait for the slow operation of the law, but armed with shot guns crossed the river, killed the proprietor and several of his loafers, and burned the boat.

  Later on came the killing of one of the inmates at the notorious resort of Bill Lee, at Burlington.  The victim was a Burlington girl, who had been induced to enter the place.  She was murdered by the proprietor and her body thrown into the river.  The Henderson county vigilance committee, with the sheriff, made a raid on this place.  Bill Lee was arrested tried, convicted and hanged at Oquawka.  The two story building which stood just below the east end of the C. B. &Q. bridge was burned by the vigilance committee.

  Another murder was committed on one of these boats, which was anchored in Benton Chute, just above Oquawka.  This was a case of dog eat dog.  Jack Gallagher, manager of the boat at Keithsburg, walked on board of the boat in Benton Chute, where he shot and killed the proprietor.  The latter was put out of business, and Jack was given a life sentence in the penitentiary.

  These murders aroused the people, and they demanded the enforcement of the laws, the officers got busy and the river was soon cleared of gun boats.  If the waters of the Mississippi river could talk they would give away many other blood curdling stories, and many mysteries of the past would be clear up.


Return to Table of Contents - Life on the Mississippi

Return to Iowa History Project