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 Hazardous Undertaking
Early in the spring of 1875 we had a pretty fair stage of water and we were lying at the Clinton levee waiting for the wind, which had been blowing a gale from the northwest for several days, to go down so we could drop some logs into the mills, which were nearly out of logs. Mr. Chancy Lamb came up from his office and aboard the Chancy and said, “Loman, it is pretty rough weather!” I was very much afraid he was going to spring something on me but after a few minutes he went away. In about a half hour he was back again called me ashore and said “Loman, it does not let up much” “Let up,” I said, “It is blowing harder all the time. We have to keep the men on the raft to keep it together. They are all wet and cold and I am as bad off as the men.” He went back to the office again but soon returned. In getting out of his carriage his plug hat blew off and into the carriage. He put it on and when he faced the wind, away it went again but he caught it and viciously pulled it down over his ears holding on to the rims with both hands and he certainly did look funny! I could see that he was worked up and in bad humor, but just what he had in mind I could not get through my head until he said “Loman, I will take all the chances if you will try to put the logs through the bridge.” I agreed to make the trial, although I knew, as well as he, that it was a hazardous undertaking.
With a good head of steam we backed the raft out into the river got shaped up and I put the raft into the left hand side of the draw as nicely as ever I put one there before or since, but when I “niggered” the boat around to hold the stern of the raft off the draw pier and had stopped the “nigger” the port guy line parted, and at the same moment the bunting blocks gave way and before I could get the boat stopped she was nearly through the raft crosswise and almost hit the pier at the east end of the draw. I set the boat backing to lift her stern off the draw pier but the wind was so strong that she would not answer the rudder and we hit the corner of the pier so hard that I thought it was an earthquake and that my good friend and home the Chancy Lamb, was in for a watery grave. She hit the pier just a few feet in front of the engine room on the star board side and it went through the guard on the hull. I expected a report from below that she was sinking but she kept on going, straightened up a little, went on through the bridge and brought up in the boom at the mills. We got our kit off the raft and ran down to the landing in Clinton slough. Here we gave her an inspection and found only two planks on top of the hull where she was hit pretty badly shattered, but the damage was very slight to what it might have been and what I had good reason to suspect had been done.
After we were landed Mr. Lamb called me ashore and with a broad smile on his face said: “Loman, if you had sunk the chancy I would have built you another one! I told him I was very glad he was not on board when she struck for he certainly would have heard the crashing and smashing of his life. Hog chains and guy rods rattled, crockery and kitchen utensils went on a rampage, the big bell gave one tap, as though to say good bye-but it was all over in almost a minute. In fact from the time we backed out into the river until we were in boom at the mills was not over twenty minutes. If I had attempted such a feat without orders and had sunk the boat, I would have been called a bullheaded fool by all river men who heard of it.
A raft of eight strings had been landed up for some time at Hosford’s mill and Mr. Lamb wanted the logs at the mills. Many of the poles and lock downs and plugs were rotten and the raft in such shape that it could not be split and put through the draw in the usual way, so the only way to handle it was to drop it through the span at the left of the draw which I did and had three men in a skiff with a line to check it just as soon as it passed under the bridge. Then I was going to put the boat on the lower end and above the logs over to the mills. In checking to the shore the men tried to stop too soon or the line got foul. Anyway the tree to which the line was fastened pulled out by the roots and Mr. Raft kept right on going. There was no chance to put out another line so I caught the raft and put it in Cat Tail slough, some two or three miles below Clinton. When we got there, behold, who was there to greet us but my best friend and employer, Chancy Lamb! He had crossed on the ferry and driven down on the Illinois side and was there ahead of us. When we had everything fast I went out to where he was sitting in his carriage, thinking he might want to see me gut I guess he did not for all he said was: “You’re here, are you? And whirled his horse and buggy around and lit out for Clinton. I whirled the Chancy around and lit out for the same place hoping that if the ferry happened to be on the Clinton side that we would best him to it. This we did, landed at the regular place, gave the crew their orders for the night and lit out for home feeling that if Mr. Lamb was a little upset in the upper story that he would have time to cool off before morning.
When Mr. Lamb came down to the landing in the morning he was in pretty good humor and said that was not where he wanted the logs. I said it was not my choice either but it was the best that could be done under the circumstances. In answer to the question as how to get them back I suggested that in the fall, when the current would not be so strong and the boats ready to lay up we could take the Chancy and Artemus and Emma down there, line up half of the logs so they could be towed, put a boat on each side of the logs, near the upper end, use the Emma as a rudder and thus ring the logs back in a coupled of trips in one day. That seemed all right and so the matter was settled for the time being. Later in the season the scheme was successfully tried and we got the logs back to the mills in one day.
During the summer Lyman got hold of a pair of game chickens –male and female. He had no place to put them so he took them to my home. Mary Helen did not want them but we fixed a coop for them to roost and left them. A good many of the neighbors kept chickens and when Mr. Game bird heard a rooster crow he never stopped until there was a scrap and the other rooster was put off the map. He delighted to go from one neighbor to another until practically all the hens in the neighborhood were mourning for the untimely departure of their leaders, and complaints came in to Mary Helen and with the help of the neighbors he was caught and boxed up. I got the sad news on arrival home and decided to take him on the boat and treat him like any other pugilist! We started down with the raft from Beef slough and the men had the rooster out on the raft. They had become quite fond of him and made a pet of him as much as he would allow. About Minneiska we were near the shore when some very indiscreet fowl sent out a challenge to our John L. He did not take time to answer it but immediately, flew ashore to accept. Some of the men went out at once in a skiff but before they could get there our unconquerable John had put a left hook to the challengers cone and the gore was flowing freely. That incident started something with the men and the first thing I knew they had
another rooster and thought they would have some fun, but it was short lived as John L. rooster and the others soon laid out.
Early the next morning after delivering our raft when we were ready to start up river I was much surprised to see Mr. Lamb sitting in his carriage, as big as life, as I came to the landing, and I wondered what was up. I was not long in doubt for he says: “Loman, I want you to take that rooster off the boat!” “Which one,” Mr. Lamb,” I said, thinking he meant one of the crew. Just then, John L. let out a resounding cock-a-doo-dle-do and Mr. Lamb said, “That’s the rooster I want put on shore and, Loman, I want this d—d boy play on the boat stopped!” I could hardly keep from laughing out-right but said, “all right, Mr. Lamb, and I with you would make a trip on the boat and help civilize these wild men!” How Mr. Lamb knew what had been going on, or why it should interest him so much, I never knew. Well, we put our bird loose on shore trusting to his good luck and sharp spurs that he would make his own way in this cold and heartless world, as we had no time to make any arrangement for some one to look after him, and considered that incident closed.
(Note: - While the chancy was the oldest boat belonging to the lamb people the crew-was the youngest in years and was known as the “kid crew,” Probably the entire crew averaged less in years than that of any other boat then engaged in the rafting business. They were genial boyish fellows always looking for the funny side of any incident or work in which they were engaged and a unit in any amusement that came along. At the same time their work was a serious matter and was never neglected, as the results of their trips showed. Mr. Lamb knew this and while he felt it necessary to assume a severe demeanor sometimes we believe this crew was closer to him than any other. F. A. B.
About this time “The Chanchy” had a contract to deliver logs to the mill of Flemming brothers at North McGregor. It fell to the chancy to do this work. We had delivered several rafts on the contract and one day, while the crew was putting our kit on the boat, Mr. William Flemming came to the pilot house and said he wanted to make me a proposition. It was substantially this: We would like to have you work for us. We will
build any kind of a boat you wish: give you any interest in the boat you wish up to one-half: make a five year contract for running our logs at the rat of $750 per raft, which is what we are now paying the Lamb people, from beef Slough, And more, pay the same price for running any raft to any place where it has to be laid up and additional moving the same raft later on. To say that I was pleased and proud to have this type of man make me such a liberal proposition-hardly expresses my feelings. But I had to tell Mr. Flemming that I was under a three year contract with the lamb company and did not feel this offer really spurred e on to continue to do the best possible work, feeling that perhaps a good offer might come along some time when I could accept it. Then, too, I could look back only a few years when I was trying to be a man and working for 25c a day and the $11 a month. Really this offer did me a world of good and I felt like getting a new lease on life.
In after years as I remembered this offer I often wondered at my lack of fore sight or good sense. At the time my only thought was loyalty to my employers and the knowledge that I did not have money enough to take much of an interest in a new boat. It never occurred to me that the Lamb Company might release me at the end of the season or pay me a larger salary, and that I might arrange with the Flemmings to pay for my share of the boat out of the earnings. While I knew the channel of the river pretty well I was a “green guy” in many respects.
We were coming down the river one nice day in July, 1875, and everything working well. Fine bright day, no wind, water at a good stage, and nothing better could be asked for. But some way I was worried and uneasy. I tried to throw it off but could not and about two or three o’clock in the afternoon it had so taken possession of me that I called the mate and told him to et ready to land at French town, and was ashamed of myself when I said it. Soon after we landed the Natrona passed down with a bi raft of logs and in a little while up came the Artemus, with Artemus himself on board. She landed on the raft and Artemus came on board the Chancy and with no social greeting for me, he said, “Lome, what are you lying here for?” I said, “Mr. Lamb I do not know!” While we were discussing the situation the wind came up and in less time than it takes to tell it was blowing a hurricane. It blew one of the metal life boats away- it was recovered later in Caseville slough-and came so hard from the Iowa shore that our raft was pointed almost straight across the river.
The Chancy was sheltered by a grove of large trees but if we had been in the open no check works would have held us to the bank. After the blow the Artemus went on up the river, waving us a good bye, as much as to say. “We found out what you tied up for.” I never could account for the feeling of unrest that I had. Perhaps I was a sort of human barometer, although it never worked that way on me before or after.
We laid there all night and pulled out the next morning at 4:30 o’clock. Down at the foot of McMullen Island we found the Natrona and a raft that looked as though it had hit something. There was no life around the boat and the hand spikes and pike poles sticking in the logs were mute evidence that the had worked at least most of the night repairing the damage caused by the wind and had turned in worn out. Captain David Lamb, of Albany, was one of the pilots on the Natrona, a good friend of mine and we were both graduates from the ash pan association of pilots at Albany in the early days.
(Note:-The expression “ash-pan association” will take real old timers a long way back but others will need some explanation. In the early rafting days the means of heating stores and most public buildings, especially the offices of the ordinary hotel usually called a “bar-room” whether or not the place contained a bar-was by the use of a large cast iron box stove, sometimes long enough to take in a four foot stick of wood. At the front was the hearth, an extension of the bottom plate of the stove that caught the ashes, coals, etc., as they fell out of the end of the stove when the door was open. There were many young pilots who had no special home and if they did not want, or could not get, any work during he winter would put in the time at a hotel in some village where older pilots had their homes. There were frequent gatherings of the clans in these hotels and when arguments arose as to how a certain place should be run it was an easy matter to diagram the place in the ashes on the hearth-hence the expression. Albany was the home of many pilots and one of the chief pilots of such gatherings and arguments. Read’s Landing was the home of many Mississippi pilots and a popular wintering place for many of the younger pilots whose home was “where the night overtook them,” and the American House-run by James Pauly, known to all his guests as “Jim-one of the most cheerful and homelike places on the river. The writer recalls many an ash pan argument as to how certain close places should be run in this place. Islands, tow-heads, dead trees, rocks and all kinds of marks would be laid out in the ash-pan, or on the floor, and imaginary rafts would be steered around points. “Jim was a close observer, had a good memory and frequently entered into the discussion, telling how the raft should be held n a dead cottonwood o the Wisconsin shore” or “just miss the head of the little island on the second crossing below” some particular point, and he was generally right even though he had never seen the places. Just how many “ash-pan schools” there were we do not know but the ones at Albany and Read’s Landing were entitled to be classed as High schools! F. A. B.)
Transcribed by Georgeann McClure