IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
E. H. Thomas
VOYAGES OF WM. PHELPS
FORT DODGE WITH A STEAMBOAT IN 1837
a Cargo of Indian Supplies on the Steamer Pavillion-
Big Boats at Athens for New Orleans
my files I find the following articles written and published several
years ago by that fine gentleman and veteran historian Capt. James F.
Daugherty of Keokuk. It
contains so much valuable historical information concerning the early
navigation of the Des Moines river, that I feel certain all of my
readers will approve of my decision to give it here in full at this
Early Navigation on
the Des Moines River
James. F. Dougherty
in Keokuk Constitution-Democrat
Major Meigs recently made a trip down the Des Moines from
the capital to the mouth of the river at Keokuk in an electric launch,
for the purpose of ascertaining the practicality of making the old
historic stream again navigable for steamboats, as it was of yore, away
back in the thirties and up to the eve of railroads west of the
Mississippi-up to the year 1860.
Major Meig’s report of this trip brought back vividly to my
memory my own experience when a boy and being one of a surveying party
that started out of Keokuk either in the year 1852 or 1853 from Keokuk
to the then small town called Fort Des Moines.
A complete survey was to be made and levels were to be taken on
the ice. The river then
being frozen solid. Soundings were made through holes cut in the ice at
different points in the river to ascertain the depth of the water and it
was proposed also to plat the meanderings of the stream, also surveying
any proposed changes required in the course of the river to straighten
the channel and cut off the many short bends, and to take any other
necessary data as might be required for the improvement of the river for
navigation of steamers.
Our chief engineer in the party was the eminent civil engineer
from New York city. E. R.
His first assistant
and chief in charge of our outfit was our old and honored fellow
citizen, Guy Wells, who had full charge of this survey and had
assistants under him composed of several young engineers from the office
of the chief engineer in New York.
trip up Des Moines
We had numerous supernumeraries from Keokuk, via. A wagon master
by the name of Sublitt, several chain men, ax men and my position
was commissary for this exploring expedition.
We started from Keokuk accompanied by the celebrated Henry
O’Reilly, then of national reputation, he being one of the greatest
telegraph magnates of the United States.
My recollection is he was interested in the first cable across
the ocean. His son, a young
blood, was with us to learn the ways of the wild and wooly west.
My recollection is that Henry O’Reilly was in some way
interested with a New York syndicate in the improvement of the Des
Moines river with locks and dams, which were to open navigation for
larger steamers that were then plying the river and had a contract with
the state solons of Iowa for the improvement of the river which was
afterwards partly completed under this contract.
Several locks and dams were built and others located and partly
But before its final completion the state abandoned the work and
the whole scheme was finally abandoned and the old Des Moines Valley
Railway Co., composed mostly of Keokuk citizens, absorbed and gobbled up
the Des Moines river Improvement Co., this company agreeing to parallel
the river with a railroad.
In consideration for the railway the original land grant, which,
if my recollection serves me correctly, was to be the alternate sections
of land along the Des Moines river, on either side of the stream, if not
previously disposed of, given to pay for the improvement of the Des
Moines river, was to be turned over to the railway company as fast as
the railway should be completed, the objective point being Fort Dodge,
This entire proposition of a land grant ran up into tens of
thousand of acres, a large proportion of which is today the most
valuable land in the state of Iowa.
The value today of this land grant would paralyze and stagger the
original old Keokuk syndicate which took over the old time Des Moines
river improvement scheme. Now,
if they could wake up from their rip Van Winkle sleep “all of the
members of this old company are now deceased,” and they could witness
the many millions of dollars they let go of in this modest deal they
would see that the present price of this land would build and equip the
road tem times over, but they let it slip through their fingers.
But, in spite of this favorable contract with the state, with the
panic and scare of 1857 coming on, they were forced to hypothecate their
bonds, using many thousands of Keokuk city bonds for that purpose.
The Valley Des Moines Railroad Company finally built the road and
received this valuable land grant, but the capitalists in the east kept
squeezing the old company from time to time and took large fortunes away
from the Keokuk original promoters, but still in the wind-up, they were
all let comfortably situated. And now some of the families and children
of those original promoters are basking in the sunshine in Europe,
living on the proceeds of his early ventures in high grade financiering
on a small capital and plenty of cheek of their sires.
It certainly was a mistake of our state solons to have ever
abandoned the original scheme of completing this Des Moines river
improvement for the navigation of steamboats, as it was already partly
complete with locks and dams and many thousands of dollars had already
been expended on this improvement and numerous passenger and freight
steamers and tow boats, often towing two large model barges of over one
hundred and fifty tons capacity each, that plied between the city of
Keokuk and the capital, Fort Des Moines, and in high water on up to Fort
Dodge. On these trips the
steamers would carry many passengers and large cargoes of general
merchandise, and on their return trips they would be loaded down with
grain, pork and miscellaneous freight, gathered up at the different
The Des Moines river was used by
Indian traders, trappers and the government for transportation of
Indian and government supplies. Prior
to the thirties they used what was known as keel boats and used oars or
sweeps, which were handled by two men.
Then two long tow lines were used, which would be strung out over
three hundred feet in length and the boat would be towed up stream by
man power, if the banks of the stream were passable.
But when the river was full of sharp bends and its banks were
rough, the boatmen propelled their craft with sweeps and pike poles.
The trips starting at St. Louis, were long and tedious, and often
lasted for a period of months.
As early as 1837 old Captain Bill Phelps was in possession
of the steamer Pavillion and carried Indian supplies clear up to
Fort Dodge. Phelps later ran
the steamer Dove and one or two other small boats, which made
trips with supplies up to 1842. In
that year there were several small boats making regular trips up the
river in high water. I can
now call to memory the names of many of these steamers, viz.
The Glaucus, Badger State, Skipper, Col. Morgan, Charles
Rogers, Alice, Clara Hine, Ed. Manning, Nevada, Flora Temple, Ad Hine,
Des Moines-City, Island City, Chippewa Falls, Belfast, Cedar Rapids,
Oakland, Dan Hine, and barges, Globe, Caleb Cope, Jno B. Gordon,
Kentucky, Agatha, Luella, Des Moines Belle, Defiance, Julia Dean, Jenny
Lind, Michigan, Little Morgan, N. L. Milburn, Revenue Cutter, Geo. H.
Wilson, a powerful tow boat; Time and Tide, S. B. Science, Alexander
Rogers, Pearl, Providence, The maid of Iowa, Light, Pandadaloding and
New George Town. A few
odd trips were made in this river by other steamers.
Often there would be over a dozen of these Des Moines river boats
lying at the Keokuk wharf receiving and discharging freight.
The old time prince of the western merchants was old Isaac
Gray of Athens, Mo. On the Des Moines opposite Croton, Iowa.
He did an immense business, in the early forties and clear on up
to the commencement of the war of the rebellion, in north east Missouri
and the surrounding country and for many miles into Iowa.
And during the long winter months when navigation would be closed
he would pack large quantities of pork, fill immense store rooms with
grain and produce, and in spring charter a large new Orleans steamer at
St. Louis, which would come up to Athens in the spring when the water
was at a flood stage and he loaded to the guards for New Orleans.
At New Orleans these the steamers would be reloaded with large
quantities of Turk’s Island salt, hog sheds of New Orleans sugar,
molasses and sundry groceries. I
remember the names of two of the steamers that were chartered the Jno.
J. Rock and the Prairie Belle. They
were immense freighters carrying from fifteen to eighteen hundred tons.
I believe, and they were nearly three hundred feet long.
Often our big Keokuk packets would go to Gray’s warehouses for
cargoes of pork and grain.
This show what great changes have taken place since that time,
and we are surprised to see how this once navigable river has
degenerated in little over half a century in time.
The reason for these changes was that the state solons diverted
the large land grant from the River Improvement company to the old Des
Moines railroad corporation, which resulted in the building of a
railroad on a route where no railroad should have been constructed
because of the nearness of such a large navigable river.
It was inevitable that the building of the railroad should result
in the abandonment of enterprises for making permanent improvements on
the river. If the river had
been improved according to the original plans and specifications and
contracts already entered into by the state authorities, the result
would have been a great and lasting benefit for all time to come to all
the citizens of Iowa, especially to the people living between Keokuk and
The first lock on the Des Moines was located just above the Des
Moines river railroad and wagon bridge, within the city limits.
Hundreds of cubic feet of huge cut stone were hauled to this
site. A canal was planned
and partly excavated from this point for a distance of 12 miles above.
This has since been filled up and leveled over for agricultural
purposes. However, the banks
and cuts of this old abandoned canal can be easily traced.
The main purpose of the canal was to straighten the channel of
the river at the time when the enterprise was abandoned, at least two
locks and dams, if not three were finished.
The first lock finished was at Croton, Iowa, across the river
from Athens Mo.
The second completed was at Bentonsport, Iowa.
Since the abandonment of the enterprise several buildings have
been erected in Keokuk out of the stone intended for building the locks.
Guy Wells nice home, now owned by William Horn, No. 326 South
Sixth Street, was built entirely with this stone, and many other
buildings have foundations and walls constructed of the stone intended
for the first lock on the river.
On our surveying trip with the big moguls Henry O’Reilly and
son and the young blooded engineers from New York, while we of the rank
and file had a rough time they fared sumptuously on all the delicacies
the land could furnish. Housed
in this extreme cold weather when no work could be done, they were
warmed by a red-hot stove in their double walled headquarters.
Tent enjoying themselves having cards, and we, the younger set
acting as waiters, mixing them hot drinks until late at night.
I got tired of the trip, and arriving at Fort Des Moines, sold my
blankets and outfit to the wagon master for a small sum to pay for my
meals back to Keokuk, as there was no money to pay us off.
I finally returned home to Keokuk, but had to run my cheek for
part of my state fare with the old-time stage line of Frank Walker &
Co., who ran stages for nearly three quarters of a century pushed from
the west to the east by railroads until they were finally pushed clear
to the coast and at last the old stages were worn out in the Rocky
Mountains. One of the old
ones was purchased by Capt. Bill Cody and his Wild West show and used in
the Indian scalping scene to illustrate actual happenings and scenes
perpetrated by the wild savages on the plains
J. F. Daugherty
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