Chapter L

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas



Carried a Cargo of Indian Supplies on the Steamer Pavillion-

Loading Big Boats at Athens for New Orleans  

   Among 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 time:  

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. Blackwell.

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.

Early 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 finished.

   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, Iowa.

   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 landings.

   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 Fort Dodge.

   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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