IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
E. H. Thomas
MISTAKES OF RIVER PILOTS
When the Bluff Loomed up in Front
Perils of High Water When River Slopes Both Ways From The Center
In the old days when there were no
lights to mark the crossings there were two stages of water when it was
difficult to navigate the big river in the night time.
When it was very low and when it was at flood stage and out of
its banks. One would think
that with 20 or 30 feet of water it would be easy, but this was not the
case, for several reasons. When
the banks were entirely submerged, they had a strange appearance to the
pilot in the night time. At
such times the water would cover a territory of from three to ten miles.
Then at such a stage, the surface of the river was high in the
center and formed a curve like a paved street.
The draft of water was from the center toward the submerged banks
and the low lands. It was
necessary to hold the boat against this outward draft of water, to keep
her from drifting out of the bottoms or low lands.
The old citizens will remember the Tishomingo, a passenger
boat which was operated between Rock Island and Montrose during the
Civil War. One dark stormy
night when the old river was having its spring rise, the Tishomingo
landed at Muscatine on her down trip.
There was a wind from the west and thick mist hanging over the
river. The pilot was a young
man, and in after years, one of my associates.
His better judgment told him that the Tishomingo should remain at
Muscatine until daylight, but he did not want to be called a
“quitter.” so he backed
away from Muscatine and turned the nose of the boat down stream.
Thirteen miles below Muscatine is, or was at that time, the
little town of Port Louisa, on the Iowa shore.
Just below is Turkey Island.
Just below Port Louisa was a large tract of stump land, the
timber had been cut away. Turkey
Island was covered with a heavy growth of timber, as was also the main
shore opposite. The usual crossing was above the head of Turkey Island
to the Illinois shore, but the pilot of the Tishamingo concluded to keep
down the Iowa shore through Turkey Island chute to avoid the
wind. He went clattering
along for some, when a bluff, 150 feet high, suddenly loomed up ahead of
the steamer. When the pilot
sighted this bluff, he knew that he was not in the Mississippi river,
but out in the country a distance of about 3 miles.
He rang no bells to alarm the crew and the passengers, but turned
the steamer square around and let her go at full speed on the back
track. When her bow was in
the river, her bottom hit the submerged bank and she went aground.
While ringing bells and backing and swinging to get the boat off,
the captain came out of his bed and asked the young pilot
where he had been with the steamer.
The latter promptly answered that he had been out in the country
getting acquainted with the farmers.
This quick and witty answer saved him from a severe reprimand.
The pilot, in the darkness, had taken the point of timber on the
mainland for that on Turkey Island, held his boat to the right of it and
sailed inland. The gruff old captain who lived in Keokuk, and who was
noted for his profanity when things went wrong, said that he was running
a steamboat along there at the time they hanged the Hodges in
Burlington, had been in the business ever since, and this was the best
thing he had ever heard on the river.
A pilot going out into the country with a steamboat to get
acquainted with the farmers.
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