IOWA HISTORY PROJECT

 

 

Chapter VI

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  

  SUPERSTITIONS OF RIVERMEN 

Legend of the Three Horse Shoes-

Sprinkling the Decks with Flour--

Consulting the Dream Book.

 

 

   During my time on the river I discovered that there was a great deal of superstitions among the steamboat men.  They were loaded up with strange stories and ideas which had been handed down to them by former generations.  While many of them would say that they did not believe these things, yet they regarded it as a safe proposition to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors.  Here are a few samples.

   A steamboat, to have good luck, must have three horse shoes nailed to her before she is launched.  On every steamer you will find one on the bow, and one on each of the engine transfers.  On some of them the fourth shoe is used, and placed over the stairway leading up to the cabin.

   An engineer with whom I worked for a number of years was in the habit of sprinkling the deck with flour.  This was to ascertain if there were any rats on board.  He also carried a dream book.  He spent-nearly thirty years on the river and his head was full of such things.

   A preacher on board brings misfortune to the boat.

  A preacher and a white horse on the same trip is a double / header, and means dire disaster.

   When the bridal chamber is occupied by a newly wedded pair.  It brings great joy to the crew.  They have a sure thing on a safe and profitable trip.

   If the rats are seen making a run on the gang way for the shore, the crew should follow them.  The steamboat will explode her boilers or go down to the bottom of the river.

   A deck load of coffins is another ill omen.

   There are others, but the prize story of the lot is that of the phantom steamboat, which frequently looms up in front of them.  Away back in the 40s or 50s a steamer was on an upstream run, out of St. Louis.  While passing through Piasa Chute, she exploded her boilers.  It was in the fall of the year and the water was cold.  Then explosions knocked the upper portion into kindling wood and the hull and machinery went to the bottom of the river.  The entire crew was lost. Either killed or drowned in the icy water.  This much of the narrative is said to be a historical fact.  But the strange part of it is, that from the night of the explosion to date, this steamer, with her ghostly crew have been navigating Piasa Chute and she is always seen in the night time.  At least this is the story which has been handed to us, and as I heard it many times.  About two years ago I received a marked copy of a St. Louis paper.  It came from a friend, one of the young pilots now navigating the upper river.  This paper contained the signed statement of two well known pilots, who on a down stream run, had met the phantom steamboat in Piasa Chute.  By the starlight they saw the full outlines of the boat.  The black smoke was rolling out of her chimneys, the pilot was at the wheel, the fire doors were open and the firemen were hustling the coal under the boilers.  Just as he descending pilots were preparing to blow the passing signal, the phantom steamer and its ghostly crew disappeared.  Upon the margin of this newspapers my young friend had written this sentence:  You will notice that we are still drinking the same old brand of whiskey and seeing things in the night time.  From which I conclude that he is an unbeliever.  Of course he is new in the business.  Later on he may line up with the other fellows, who believe this story, as some of them do.

   Another one:  Between St. Louis and the mouth of the big muddy Missouri the current of the Mississippi was very swift, especially when the Missouri was at flood stage.  The Sawyer Bend was also full of snags and steamboat wrecks.  To the right, going up stream, were a lot of high dams which had been thrown out to prevent the river from leaving the channel and going over into Illinois.  It was zig-zag work to get through these snags and wrecks, and the current was so swift that even a boat with big power made very slow progress.  When the Missouri was at  15 or 20 foot stage, and the Mississippi low, it was an uphill trip.  At such times the heavy current of the Missouri would dig the trees from her banks and hurl them into the Mississippi-great rafts acres in extent.  In fact, this stretch was the most dangerous part of the upper river, and yet the steamboat captains would insist on leaving St. Louis at the superstitious hour of 4 p. m.  This custom had been established back in the 40s and no amount of argument and persuasion put up by the pilots would induce them to depart from it.  In cloudy weather it gave us a night run, and both pilots must be on duty, one at the wheel, and the other on the roof, the latter watching for drift, wrecks and other obstructions.  One dark, stormy night as we were passing up Sawyer bend, our wheel picked up a green cottonwood tree.  The tree was about 25 feet in length and perhaps 8 inches in diameter.  The current was heavy, the engineer had big steam and he was rolling the wheel.  But when the tough green tree went up through it, it knocked it into smithereens.  We were helpless, and drifting rapidly down the Sawyer bend.  After breaking one line, and making the second tie, we finally succeeded in snubbing her to the bank.  There the carpenter and his helpers spent the entire night in the rain rebuilding the wheel.  Notwithstanding this experience, it made no change in the custom.  Each and every trip thereafter our captain would tap his bell and leave St. Louis at exactly 4 p.m.

 

Return to Table of Contents - Life on the Mississippi

Return to Iowa History Project