IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
E. H. Thomas
SUPERSTITIONS OF RIVERMEN
of the Three Horse Shoes-
the Decks with Flour--
the Dream Book.
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.
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
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 40’s or 50’s 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 40’s 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.
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