IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
E. H. Thomas
OF LIFE ON BIG RIVER
Days of the Rob Roy , Lucy Bertram and Andy Johnson
Man’s Son who preferred Life of a Pilot to the Blandishments of
below Clarksville, near the Missouri shore, is or was in my time, Slim
Island. I have not seen it
for 30years and the current of the river may have cut it away.
It was properly named, for it was a very narrow strip of land.
The chute was also narrow, and thro it was the channel of the
river. On the bank of the chute was Slim Island Landing.
The only things in sight on the shore was a heavy body of timber
and a smooth place where the trees had been cut away.
This was one of our flag stations, and it was a very dark place
in the night time. The
Keokuk & St. Louis Packet Co. was operating the Andy Johnson
Son, Rob Lucy Bertram, Mc Pike and other large steamers along there. One of the pilots of the Rob Roy was John Hamilton, whose home was in Canton, Mo. As I had it, his parents were wealthy and in his younger years John had received everything he asked for. He was educated, and in vocal and instrumental music he outclassed all of his school mates. He had a good voice, knew many songs and could sing them to perfection. The favorite with the passengers and the girls along the shore was “ tassels on her Boots,’ and I heard him sing it many times. One would suppose that a young man of this class would have remained under the parental roof, plunged into the giddy whirl of the social swim and there enjoyed all of the comforts and happiness of home life, but he did not . John, like some of the rest of us, contracted the water disease, and his love for the river drew him to the pilot house of a steamboat, where he remained for many years. And there was no one who enjoyed this sort of a life more than he. He preferred to be racking his brain by holding a steamboat out on the dark crossings, rather than to be mingling with the society belles of Canton Mo. With his other accomplishments, he was also a way and a joker. He was always happy when having some fun at the other fellows expense. He found many victime’s among the passengers, as well as in the crowds at the landings. The Big Rob came steaming up Slim Island chute one day. John was on watch, and there was a bunch of passengers on the roof. Just below the landing was a pail of skinny horses, a rickety wagon and an old man and his son-a typical Missouri outfit. The man and his son were loading the wagon with wood. John took one of his mischievous spells, and made a bet with one of the passengers that he could make the Missouri lad quit his work and jump down under the bank. As the Rob Roy approached, John let go of the wheel, and in an excited manner, called out to he boy: “The river!” “the river!” at the same time turning his face toward the stern of the boat and pointing down the chute. The young man, supposing that something or somebody had fallen off the boat, did as John predicted, dropped the wood, jumped down under the bank, and looked down the river. John and the passengers had a hearty laugh, and the Rob Roy sailed on for Keokuk. Soon after the incident someone reported to the company that one of their boats ignored a hail from Slim Island landing. This brought an order from the company that off of their boats should recognize hails from that place day or night, and land there. Soon after, one dark, stormy windy night, the Rob Roy came along there on her down stream run, with John Hamilton on watch. In the dim distance john saw a lantern, swinging to and fro. It was a hail from Slim Island Landing. Now when the big Rob Roy was straightened out across that narrow chute, she was about filled it. There was no room cutting half circles, and John told the captain that it would be risky to attempt to land her on that windy, night. But the captain insisted that late order of the company must be obeyed. There being no way out of it, John slowly worked the big steamer down in the dark, narrow chute, where the ringing commenced. Her nose would hit the bank and her rudders hit the island but John finally got her head up stream and worked her up to the landing. The mate was busy, and she was soon tied to the shore. By this time the man and lantern had disappeared. The mate called out, “What’s to go down” but there was no response. He called again. This time from the woods came the Missouri lad waving his lantern at the pilot, he called out “The river1 the river! You son of a gun!” then he hiked for the woods again, and was lost in the darkness. “What’s the matter with that man? Said the mate. “I think he’s insane, and you better keep away from him,” John said. This satisfied the mate, but John knew that it was the young Missourian whom he had made jump under the bank a short time before and that the fellow had surely handed it back to him, with interest. John kept this as a secret for six months, but finally gave it out to his associates.
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