Chapter VII

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  




Boiler Explosions and Storms and the Havoc Caused by Them


   Considering the large number of boats and men employed the loss of life was small during that period.  I shall always remember one of these explosions for I lacked about fifteen minutes of getting into it.

  The stern wheel Steamer Lansing was owned by Rambo & Son of Le Claire.  She made daily trips to Davenport, leaving Le Claire in the morning and returning in the evening.  I was in Le Claire and there met Robert Smith, a pilot, with whom I had a slight acquaintance.  I am not sure, but I think he was the son-in-law of the elder Rambo.  I was going down the river and he told me that he was to take the Sterling to Davenport on the following day for the Rambo’s, and invited me to ride with him.  I accepted the invitation and told him I would be on hand next morning at 7:30.  I was stopping at a hotel near the river and just opposite the steamboat landing.  I was up next morning in ample time, but the hotel-keeper was late with breakfast.  Myself and two other men missed the boat.  We crossed the river to take the train, and there learned that the Lansing had exploded one of her boilers while lying at the town of Hampton.  The Lansing left Le Claire that morning with 10 or 12 passengers.  When Smith landed her at Hampton the wind was hard on the shore.  When ready to leave there the wind held her to the bank, and she would not back out.  A spar was set at the stern of the boat to sparn out and the passengers were all back there assisting in the work.  Smith was at the wheel in the pilot house and the clerk in his office.  The Lansing had two boilers, and while the sparring was going on the shore, the boiler exploded, going high in the air.  Smith and the clerk, whose name, I think, was Vandyke , were killed. Van Dyke’s body was blown across the river, where it drifted across the river where it drifted up to the shore.  Pilot Smith was blown in the opposite direction-out into the town.  The shore at Hampton was flat, and the wind had driven the side of the boat upon it, and it was said that the explosion was caused, not by steam pressure, but from a lack of water in the shore boiler.  The hull of the boat laying on an incline, forced all the water out of one boiler and into the other.

   The D. A. McDonald, a stern wheel boat, with good power and fast, met with a similar accident, except that she was under way at the time.  This accident occurred just above the town of McGregor, Iowa.  She was a new boat and had two 22 foot steel boilers.  She was used as a raft boat and was on her upstream run, with the raft crew aboard.  Twenty-seven of these raftsmen were killed and drowned.  An investigation was made by the steamboat inspectors, but the cause of this disaster was not shown by the evidence.  The engineer was one of the best on the river, and he stated under oath that he had two gauges of water at the time of the accident, and his testimony was corroborated by another.  It was customary in those days for pilots and engineers to pass each other up and down the river, and they would frequently visit each other.  Mark Twain refers to this class of men as “visiting pilots.”  On board of the ill fated D. A. McDonald was W. N. Pierce of Rock Island a well known river engineer, and he was the guest of the engineer of the McDonald.  Pierce was blown high in the air, but lived to tell the story of the disaster, and this is the way he handed it out to us:  “Boys, do you want to know hot it felt to be blown up?  If so, I can tell you, for I went up ahead of the boilers of the D. A. McDonald.  I was lying down in her cabin reading a book.  I heard the noise, felt the force, of the concussion and knew what had happened.  I passed into a swoon, altho I knew what was going on.  Someone, or something appeared to be gently lifting me up toward the blue sky, and all around me I could see the wreckage of the boat.  It all occurred in a few moments, yet it appeared a long time to me.  Up and up I went, and I thought I would never stop.  But soon I was descending, going toward the river.  I was traveling faster than the boards and timber around me, and going head foremost.  Soon after starting downward one of my legs struck a timber and I turned a somersault.  The timber cut a great gash in my leg, but I was now going feet foremost, and being a good swimmer concluded that I was all right.  I took in a long breath and was ready for the plunge into the river-and I was soon there, for through the force of gravity, I was going some when I hit the water.  Down, down I went toward the bed of the river.  As when in the air, I thought I would never stop, but I did without hitting the bottom.  Then I came to the surface.  Seeing some of the wreckage near me, I seized it.  I was weak and exhausted, but with the assistance of the raft of wreckage, I soon reached the Iowa shore.  For a time, I was working one wheel.  My injured leg was numb, and I could not use it.  It was a close shave and, as I frequently tell the boys, I think I did a wonderful thing.  Made a round trip in the air, up and back, one in the water, turned a somersault and swam ashore, and all this in a few moments.  But say, boys, I don’t want any more of it.”  the pilot was killed, and the engineer was found in the woods on the Iowa shore with one leg and several ribs broken, but he was taken to the hospital and recovered.  One of the raftsmen was found upon an island  in such a crazed condition that he could not remember his name or tell how he came to be there.  

The upper works of a river steamer are built of thin lumber and small timbers in order to make them light draft.  Iron rods from the pilot house down hold the upper portion of the steamer to the hull.  It was part of a pilots education to study the clouds and if he saw a storm approaching it was a safe proposition to get his boat in under the bank.  Now and then a tornado would cross the river.  I encountered but two of these during my time on the boats-the first just below Muscatine.  The river was out of its banks, and I was going up stream.  I saw the storm approaching, but thought I could reach the city before it hit us.  The wind struck us when we were about two miles below the town, and at the first blast fire buckets, poles, tarpaulins, everything loose upon the decks were blown into the river.  It was very dark and the lightning was playing around the pilot house.  The tornado was blowing the trees down on the east shore, and I could not reach the Iowa shore.  The only thing to do was to head the boat to the wind, and hold her in that position, which I did for an hour.  When the wind ceased we had drifted two miles down the river, but had managed to keep out of the woods on the Illinois shore.

   One of the worst of that time occurred on the 4th day of July 1872.  It crossed the river from the northwest to the southeast.  It was a hurricane, a straight blow and lasted from about 6 p.m. to 12.  It just touched the lower end of Keokuk and the upper portion of Quincy.  I was on the up trip from St. Louis and acting as captain and pilot.  The boat was new and staunch.  My cargo, taken on at St. Louis, consisted of but two kinds of freight.  The hold was full of salt in sacks and the decks covered with furniture in the knock down shape.  As I came around the bluff below La Grange, Mo. I saw a black, heavy, rolling cloud approaching, and through it was a streak of red, the latter being a sure indication of a heavy wind.  I was but a short distance below the town, but the storm was approaching so rapidly that I saw that I could not reach the boat landing so I put my steamer to the shore and with ropes and chains tied her to the shore solid to some trees.  The storm, in all its fury, hit us.  The roof of a brick block was picked up, carried 100 yards and thrown into the river, and the trees below us were twisted and hurled into the stream.  We had big steam and was working both engines ahead to make it easy on the lines, but we could not get any slack in them.  The wind was terrific, the thunder roared and the lightning flashed, and to make matters worse, my crew of 14 men became demoralized and left the boat.  They ran to the shore and there laid down in the mud and water holding on to shrubs or anything they could get hold of.  They were so badly frightened that I could do nothing with them.  I was expecting the boat to be blown loose from the shore, and wanted the crew on board.  I tried persuasion and then used some river profanity, but all to no purpose.  One of the men declared that the end of all things had arrived.  As I was making fast to the bank, the steamer Spread Eagle passed  us, with 600 Keokuk people on board of her.  The Spread Eagle was owned by the Leyhe’s or Eagle Packet Co. and on this occasion, the youngest member of the Leyhe family was at the wheel. I think his name was Albert.  As he passed us he wanted to know if I thought it would be much of a blow.  The Spread Eagle was the fastest boat on that part of the river, was loaded with heavy machinery and had very tall chimneys.  As I saw the storm approaching and looked at the Spread Eagle and 600 passengers it almost made the hair raise on my head.  I expected to see her turn turtle and drown all of the excursionists.  But Albert sailed on, telling me that he would go to the rings at the landing and I suggested that he get there as quickly as possible.  The Eagle reached the landing but just as Leyhe was turning her nose toward the shore, the tornado hit her a broadside blast and the steamer went over on her side.  The larboard wheel was spinning around in the air, and the other was buried deep in the water.  The larboard chimney was lifted off the beeching, and I could see Leyhe, the pilot, with his wheel hand down and holding on to one side of his little glass home.  He was staying right with it, and finally got the nose of his boat to the wind.  As she straightened up the larboard chimney, which had been hanging high in the air, came crashing down, making a complete wreck of the forward portion of the roof and cabin.  Fortunately no one was drowned or injured.  I have thought of this incident many times, and have always admired the nerve and coolness played by the young pilot on this occasion.  On the following morning the river was so full of trees, lumber, logs, boats and other stuff that we were compelled to lay at La Grange until it ran below us.

   There was another twister crossed the river above the upper rapids.  The City of Comanche was the storm center Many buildings were blown down there.

   Another one hit the river just below Buffalo, Iowa.  A passing steamer was stopped in its tracks and was roughly handled.  Both chimneys were blown off into the river, and with them went the pilot house and a portion of the cabin and the two pilots.  Both pilots were saved, but one of them had his arm broken by coming in contact with some of the wreckage..  I remember that one of these pilots was David Tipton.

   All will remember the sinking of the steamer Everett, above Burlington.  It was owned by Vincent and Thomas Peel of Burlington.  Captain Vince Peel and  his sister, who was clerk of the boat, were lost.  This disaster brought grief and sadness to many Burlington homes, who those people were so well and favorite known, and no one not related, regretted the death of Captain Peel more than myself, for in the years gone by he has been one of my valued friends.  Captain Peel had spent his entire life on the boat but this was a peculiar accident, one that gave him no warning.  There came a driving rain and Capt. Peel and his sister went into the cabin.  Then came a sudden squall, the boat went over, the cabin was at once filled with water and there was no escape.

   I was at one time caught in a storm near this place where the Everett capsized.  I was going upstream.  The surface of the river was perfectly smooth but I heard a loud roar behind me.  Looking down the river I saw a big swell or wave following me.  It was 3 miles away, was seven or eight feet high and was throwing a spray ahead of it. It was something I had never seen before and for a moment I was at a loss to know how to handle it.  But I finally turned the steamer square around and put the head to the coming wave.  We hit and went through it nicely and then turned the boat again and followed it.  It soon was out of sight.  A wind storm had come from the west and hit Burlington, pretty hard. After the storm had passed through the city it changed its course, going up the river and throwing waves ahead of it.

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