Chapter VIII

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas  



Most dangerous obstructions in the river  

Serious Work for the Pilots in Taking Boats Through the Bridges at Davenport, Burlington, Quincy and Hannibal.


   Although there were but few of them at that time, the bridges were most dangerous obstructions we had to contend with.  There were but four of them between Davenport and St. Louis.  The old Rock Island bridge, one at Keokuk, one at Quincy and one at Hannibal.  The C.B. & Q. bridge at Burlington was in course of construction and was completed before I left there.  When the weather was calm they were easily run, but when the wind was blowing it was a difficult and very doubtful proposition.  At that time there were no guards or booms above them, and in wind, the pilot was never certain whether he would go thro the open draw or under the adjacent span.  We had to be reckless and take the chances.  The old Rock Island bridge, the first one built there, was a bad one, and sunk quite a number of boats.  It spanned the river on the lower end of the rapids, where the current was very swift, and the piers were set crosswise of the current, so that a boat would be drawn against them.  It was finally condemned by the Government.  The Burlington bridge was another bad place, especially when the wind was from the west.  A boat would go along all right until she was within 100 yards of the draw, when the wind, coming down Bogus Hollow, would give her a broadside and slide her toward the Illinois shore.  There she must be backed up and given another trial.  Then to make it worse, there was an old stone dyke just above the draw, which created a cross current, pushed the water away from the shore.  An incident: One dark, stormy night we reached Burlington on the down stream at 12 o’clock.  There was a strong wind from the west.  Our captain was of  an excitable temperament and his hair was red.  He had been a freight agent of one of the towns along there and what he did not know about a steamboat if printed would have made many large volumes.  But he had a pull with the company and was transferred from the freight house to the boat, and given the rank of captain.  On this bad night we backed away from the Burlington levee, and pointed the boat toward the draw of the bridge.  My partner, Mills Ruby was at the wheel, and I was out on the roof with one eye on the bridge light and the other on a light on the North hill.  This for the purpose of aligning the light on the draw and the light on the hill and by such alignment I could tell when the wind was flanking or sliding the boat toward the Illinois shore, and away from the draw.  When we were opposite Bogus Hollow the wind hit us and the boat made a slide on the water.  As we were going she would have missed the draw and went under the next span of the bridge.  I yelled at Mills and he stopped the engines and backed her up stream.  We then went some distance above the landing and made the second run for the bridge, but with the same result.  The wind flanked us away from the draw.  Then for the third time we steamed up the river, turned around and went at it again, this time holding the boat more into the wind, or closer to the Iowa shore.  In fooling around there the engineer had accumulated big steam.  The safety valves were jumping up and he had reached the limit allowed by law, but we used it all.  We had resolved to get thro that bridge on this third run.  Mills held her close up to the wind and I watched the lights.  When near the bridge she was sliding but little.  I yelled at Mills to let her go and then jumped into the pilot house and took one side of the wheel.  We got her more into the draw, and as we passed through it we were going some.  We had told the engineer to give us all the steam he had, and he did it.  We barely missed the draw pier, but were through the bridge and plowing ahead for the “Lime Kiln” crossing.  Then came our red haired captain to the roof.  He was excited, badly frightened, away up in the air and proceeded to hand us a few packages.  “Great God” said he, “never do such a think as that again.  You should have worked her slow through that place, but instead you were going at the speed of an express train.  From where I stood on the guard I could have touched the draw pier.  You are the most reckless men I ever saw.”

  Mills Ruby was one of he best pilots on the river.  He was also a man of but few words, but what he said was always to the point and he gave it back to the captain this way:

  “Say, old man, you are now in no danger, for we are at least one mile below the bridge.  But you lost the opportunity of your life.  Why in the devil didn’t you touch that pier when you were so close to it?”

    The Keokuk and Quincy bridges were not so bad, but the Hannibal structure was a dangerous place.  The reef of a high, shoal bar had moved down toward this bridge.  Unless the river was up, the pilot was compelled to hold his boat over toward the island, get under this sand reef and then follow it back to the span.  Here there was not sufficient room between the reef and the bridge to get the boat straightened before she entered the draw.  As a result, many boats hit the piers, and one of them, owned by the White Collar Company was sunk.

   Pilot Peter Hall, who was an old man when I went to the boats, and had navigated the Mississippi river, and about all of its tributaries, had a peculiar notion as to these bridges.  He insisted that as the Lord had made, the river for the use of the boats, that he would eventually entirely remove and destroy these bridges.  Some of the boys told Peter there was nothing in it, but a cyclone came along one day and hit the land bridge.  The draw span was lifted up into the air and thrown into the river and the man who had been running it went along, and was drowned.  Peter regarded this a very good starter on the bridge movement.

   There are perhaps many people in your city who do not know that the first rocks put into the piers of the C. B.& Q. company were brought there by boat from Le Claire, at the head of the upper rapids. C. B.& Q. company owned a big stone quarry a short distance from the river over about Sagetown, and had trains running to it.  I have never understood how or why the Burlington officials went into the steamboat business and attempted to transport their rock from Le Claire to Burlington.  But they did, the project failed and lost them a pile of money.  Their first investment was in the little steamboat, Hiram Price, and two big, clumsy flat boats.  The steamboat had some sort of a patent upright boiler.  When completed she was run up to Oquawka on her trial trip.  The crew there went out in town for dinner and let her steam as they said, to test the boiler.  When the returned the Hiram Price was a wreck.  The head of the boiler and the upper works of the steamer were gone.  The boiler had exploded while they were taking dinner.  She was brought back to Burlington repaired and put at the work.  It was found that she had not sufficient power to tow the flat boats.  I think that John Smith was captain and pilot of this boat.  The company sold the Price and then purchased the Sterling.  Deck Dickerson was on this one.  The Sterling had come out of Rock River, was a stern wheeler and a clipper to run when loose.  But when she got the two big flats in tow the pilot could not hold her in the river.  She appeared to be unevenly balanced in the water.  After sinking several of the flats the Sterling was disposed of.

   Their next investment was in The Miner, a large side wheel steamer, with good power.  She came from St. Louis and Milo Pruden was made captain and pilot, but she soon came to grief.  The company was building a bridge across Skunk river and they sent Milo and the Miner up there with a load of bridge material.  The up trip was a success, but coming down the Skunk, she ran on to a snag which punched a hole in her bottom.  She commenced sinking, and finally rolled over on her side.  The crew and the machinery of the Miner were saved, but the hull was left on the muddy bottom of the Skunk.  The C.B.&Q. officials then went out of the water transportation business and thereafter hauled the rock with their trains from the quarry in Illinois.  I remember that Col. Follett, the diver was employed on the bridge work, laying rock in the bottom of the river. There was one thing I soon learned after going on to the river.  That to run a bridge or other close place, the pilot must have steam, plenty of it, and use it at the critical moment.  The boat, when going at good speed handles a great deal better, then when working slow.  Of course the pilot should use his best judgment in such places, but not to be too cautious.  He must take chances, it is part of his business.

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