IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
“When Rafters Ruled”
The Career of Capt. Jerome E. Short
A graphic story of his 55 years of service on the Upper Mississippi. Edited and copyrighted, 1933 by Captain Fred A. Bill, St. Paul, Minnesota
A Profitable Contract
Early in the spring of 1874 Mr. Artemus Lamb called me to his office and asked my price to work for the company in the coming season. I told him I would like to sign up with them for three years at $1,000 per year, house rent and fuel to be furnished. That was all there was to it. Artemus said he would have the contract drawn and I could come in soon and sign it and get a copy, which I did.
My sister, Anna was married in 1873 and was living in Clinton. Her marriage left my mother alone during the summer and now that I had a job for a term of years we decided that she should come to Clinton and live with my sister, where I could see her every trip, and where she would be saved a lot of hard work and be at least partially paid for her many years of care and sacrifice. So the old home in Albany was broken up, much to our regret but it seemed for the best.
I was assigned to the Chancy Lamb and had a crew of my own choosing, mostly young men like myself. During my service with these people a good many things happened. The work was in most part very pleasant and we had little trouble. The related incidents may not be in the order in which they happened as they occurred many years ago, but they happened alright-or were caused by the various exigencies of the work.
(Note-A season of navigation for rafting was seldom over several months, so the wages per month for time of actual work were exceedingly good for those times. In fact this young man-then 25 years of age-had nearly reached the top, in abut eight years, as very few of the pilots of that day were receiving a larger salary. His was known as the “Kid crew”. And they were always ready for a “fight or a frolic” but when serious work was in front of them every man was on the job and they worked together nicely. F. A. B.)
The first work in 1874 was to finish delivery of the raft laid up in Dallas the fall before. The machinery of the Chancy had been overhauled, she had been nicely painted and looked as neat as a new pin and I was very proud of her. Lyman went with me and we left Dallas one morning with the intention of landing the raft in Louisiana the next day-but we had to reckon with the lower rapids and human weakness! At Montrose we sent out a skiff and picked up Capt. Sam Speakes as our rapids pilot. About the middle lock we landed one-half of the raft and went down with the other. There was a good stage of water and went down at terrific speed. What happened to Speakes I do not know. Perhaps he was deceived in the speed we were making, but any way if he had tried he could not have done a better job of cutting that piece from the left hand bow corner to the right hand stern corner than he did on the east draw pier. It looked as though he was going to take some of the new paint off the Chancy so I took the wheel from him and saved the boat.
We got the loose logs and the two broken pieces together as best we could and landed them at the foot of the island below Keokuk on the Illinois shore. The next morning we put the other piece through the span. I backed the Chancy away and put her through the draw and then Lyman took charge of her and I went to the office to get Speakes his money, told the clerk to pay him $10. Speakes said it was twenty. I said that he only put one piece through and that any one could bust up a raft on a bridge, and after giving a little piece of my mind he got his $20 and went ashore. The break cost us two days.
We left the island about 8:30 a. m. Brother Lyman suggested that I float one piece through the Quincy bridge on the Missouri shore side. Having in mind what had happened at this bridge some years before and what I had seen there I balked. He explained that if we double tripped it would take us another day and with the delay we had already it would make a bad showing for the trip. After some argument he won and we shipped up oars on the stern of the right hand piece and when about three-fourths of a mile above the bridge we split and I was on my own. I was so scared that I could hardly get to the bow of the raft and so weak in the knees that I cold not stand on one log but had to stand on two to keep from falling in between them. My brain was reeling and I was dizzy with old recollections. In my mind I saw a repetition of those disasters at this time. However, I was in for it and by a strong effort braced myself and determined to do the best I could and the result was that the trouble was all in my mind. Went through all right and the raft was duly delivered at Louisiana.
Soon after return from the Louisiana trip we commenced our summer’s work. Brother Lyman went on some other boat-I believe with P. S. Davidson, Albert Duncan was my partner and a fine man and good pilot. I was very fond of him. He made several trips with us. One trip in the early morning he went to sleep on watch and came near wrecking the Chancy on the rocks at Buena Vista, Isaac Bolman, head engineer, was sitting on the guard outside the engine room and when he saw what was going to happen he shut off steam and set her backing full force. She hit hard enough to send every one asleep out on deck to see what was the matter but not hard enough to do any damage. I rushed out and found the boat backing away from the shore as though she had landed to put some one off or to answer a hail and thought nothing about it. Later when no one said anything about it. I asked Isaac and he told me what had happened. Then on the same trip sometime in the after part of the night, above La Crosse, he got too close to the Minnesota shore and very nearly ran under a leaning tree and but for the same action on the part of the engineer the tree probably would have swept cabin and occupants, into the river. For all I considered him as good as the average and made no report. But somehow the company found it out and for that or some other reason, Mr. Lamb ordered me to discharge him and placed C. B. Roman in his place. I did not like this changing men and feared that in time I might not be able to get any one to run with me.
One trip we got a raft out of Beef Slough for the Artemus and landed it at the foot of Twin Islands and then got out our own raft and started down the river. We soon met the Artemus and I told the engineer to carry all the steam he could with safety as the Artemus would give us a race. When we were at Argo, just above Winona, she came in sight at the Stone house only a few miles behind.. I intended to put the raft through the wide span at the left of the draw, instead of double tripping as usual custom, but I was not sure the raft would go through. Sent a man ahead in a skiff to get the actual width of the span and found the span about ten feet widen than the raft. Log rafts then were made up in brails instead of the old time way of poles, lock downs and pins. Talked the matter over with the mate and he was game, saying, “Cap, if you want to put her through whole we will pick up the logs!’ that settled it, we got all the brail lines we had handy, stationed the men at different places with pike poles to keep the boom logs outside the logs as much as possible if they climbed the piers. We hit the span squarely but as the raft was not perfectly true with the opening and the current different at the bow of the raft than at the stern-and of course we had to let the boat go from the raft before the danger point was reached-some of the boom logs climbed the piers and fell over on the raft but the mate and the me were busy and quietly doing their work and when we got through there were about fifty loose logs which soon were gathered up and we went on our way. The men were as anxious to win this race as I was and much credit is due to them. When I had half of the raft in the Clinton bridge the Artemus was just behind us. She was a much more powerful boat than the Chancy and then commanded by Captain Cornelius Knapp. In winning this race I felt we were about even for his paying me off at Sycamore chain. And we were good friends ever after.
On one down trip we were caught in a “Jimmy cane” in Richmond slough., a little above the village, about six or seven o’clock in the morning. It came over the bluff and mowed a swath down the side to the river laying everything flat. When it struck the oat I tried to back into it, but no go. Then the rain began to pour and it became so dark we could not see a thing; then it began to hail and such chunks of ice I never saw before nor since. Some of them were three or four inches long and an inch thick. There was not a regular hail stone to be seen and when these chunks hit the roof they ripped the canvas and filled it so full of holes that we had to put on a new one. Toliver McDonald was my partner and when the wind struck us he came rushing to the pilot house and got alongside but could not get any further. The windows were broken, sash and all, and went hurtling over his head into the river. When the storm was over we were opposite the upper branch of black river going down the river stern first.
The steamer Jim Fisk and one other boat, the name of which I did not know, both with rafts, were just on the crossing going into the slough. They were blown among the islands below Trempealeau and the rafts went to pieces. For no raft could live over there, although I never knew the particulars.
I finally got the Chancy and raft headed down stream and when we landed to split for the La Cross bridge, one of our skiffs, which we had missed, rolled out from under the raft uninjured. When we came back for the second piece we met logs by the hundreds coming down the river with neither boat nor men looking after them. They were marked W. J. Y., which was the mark of W. J. Young & Co., Clinton, and were from the rafts of the Fisk and the other boat, but I never knew the full extent of the disaster.
As soon as the storm began to calm down a little my partner, Toll, got into the pilot house and as usual when excited began to stutter, His lower jaw worked up and down so fast that I feared he was going to lose his breath and I said: “Toll, for god’s sake say it !” He stopped stuttering at once and said: “Wasn’t that a terrible storm.!”
McDonald was a very nervous man and I used to kid him a good deal for which I have since been sorry. Rafting was frequently serious business and I had to have a little fun occasionally. I would say, “Toll, that is a bad looking cloud coming up over the bluff and there is no good place to land,” and then go out of the pilot house. He would begin to stutter, trying to call me back so he could tell me what was on his mind. Then I would stop, study the situation and finally go back to the pilot house and after a little time would say, “It is looking better now, don’t you think so, toll?” to which he would agree and all the time the trouble was only in his mind.
He was several years my senior but many years before when I was 10 or 11 years old we were together most of our idle hours as we both lived in Albany. He was a man from head to foot, always ready to do a kind act for any one and I was very fond of him. He was a good second pilot but never had a captain’s nor first pilot’s position that I know of as he did not want the responsibility.
One time when we were boys we went to a county fair on a half mile race course between Clinton and Lyons. We had one dollar between us and after paying admission the sum of 25c each. Toll decided to try his luck on a “chuck-a-luck” board at 5c a throw and his 25c did not last long. Then thinking I might have better luck I took some chances but was wise enough to hold on to the last nickel! We were getting enough of the fair and also mighty hungry. As we walked to the gate to go out we invested this last nickel in a quarter section of ginger bread at a lemonade stand and that saved our lives. Toll said to me “Lome you sure had brains when you saved five cents.”
Transcribed by Georgeann McClure