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
Starts on New Job
During the last days of 1880 Capt. Sam Van Sant came to Clinton and offered me a position as master and pilot on the Silver Wave at a salary of $2,000 for the season.
I told him I did not want to take any man’s job and asked him what was the matter with Capt. George Rutherford. He said he was going with the Coleman Brothers so I would not be taking another man’s place or rather getting another man out of a job. This changed he situation, as I would not take another man’s position, and I accepted.
The offer came as a surprise as well as a pleasure. It showed that others had been watching my work and while I had no special reason for leaving the Lambs at the same time I realized that working for some one else would give me a different slant in the business and I would get pointers as to how others conducted the same business that might be valuable.
When I went to the Lamb office to tell them what I had done Lafe took me into the “sweat room” and wanted to know what was the idea in quitting them. I told him that I had been with them for nine years; that I had given my whole soul, body and brains to their work; that since I began work for them they had built the Artemus Lamb and than the Chancy; that I had been all puffed up in the hope that I would get one of these boats, but that I had been kept on the oldest of the boats, and while I had no fault to find with the chancy she being as good a boat for her inches as any- I did feel that I had not received what was fairly coming to me or what I had earned, so I thought it was about time I made a change. Another thing was that I was told at the close of the first year I was master of the chancy that she had cleared $11,000 that season, but that I never knew the result of another season not that the information was in any sense due to me, but that having started it, it seemed only reasonable that I should know. All Lafe could say in reply was that his father had always insisted that he did not want any other man master of the Chancy than myself. That helped some, but still I had a notion that in spite of the associations that had prevailed in all these years that I did not get quite all that was due me for the hard work I had put in. We parted with good feeling and Lafe said that if I would come back to them at he end of the year I could have any boat I desired.
There were a good many peeves” in my system that I did not let out in my interview with Lafe. Generally the chancy was the first boat out in the spring and after the rafting season was over there was coal towing, ferry running, slough dredging, and other things to which I was assigned that kept me busy, usually, until the ice began to run. I got no additional pay for this and the duties of the other season men were over with the closing of the rafting season.
(Note the useful handy, good natured man frequently finds himself in this same situation. The Lamb people knew this man could be trusted and always accomplished what he was set to do. Who knows but that he might have had some compensation for this extra work if he had ”kicked” for it? F.A.B.)
The crew of the Silver Wave was not of my choosing and were, of course, “Van Sant” men, having been in his employ for some time. All were competent and I had no complaint as to the way they did their work but it did not take long to see that I was regarded as an “outsider” and that he good feeling that had always existed between myself and crew was not there. One exception should be made to this statement and that is as to Walter Blair who was clerk and watchman. He was a man from the ground up and but for him I might have jumped the job for some of the others made it mighty uncomfortable sometimes.
One trip we had a special matinee for Capt. Van Sant’s benefit, although it was not arranged for by us at the time he came onboard. We had a strong south wind which became a gale abut Worth’s Island and the swells rolled so high that the logs almost stood on end and the men had to come on board the boat for safety. We tried to land but when I niggered the boat around to back the raft into shore the swells came up through the raft so strong that the boat was in danger of being swamped and I had to straighten her up. We dare not push the raft ahead as that would have wrecked it and let the logs go loose down the river. When the wind went down we had about two thirds of the raft fast to the boat and we succeeded in making a landing just above Yellow river where we put in the night.
After a short night’s rest we started out with the logs still attached to the boat, fixing up the raft as best we could under way. It was impossible to much more than float as towing would force the loose logs out of or under the raft. Before leaving I sent one of the linemen and two deck hands down the Prairie du Chien side to locate lost logs if there were any. They found none on the east side of the island nor did we find any on the Westside as e went down. Captain Van Sant left us at McGregor and I was mighty glad he was along and saw the situation himself. He was a great comfort, too, as he had several funny stories to tell and from his actions you would not think anything out of the ordinary was going on, as he was perfectly cool and apparently unconcerned.
We landed on the Wisconsin side about half a mile above the mouth of the Wisconsin river and put in the balance of the day getting the raft we had in shape, and gathering such logs as were near by and all hit the hay early. I had learned that in cases like this it paid to give the men plenty of rest, so on the next morning they were full of pep and at it in earnest.
The loosened logs went down the Prairie du Chien side of the big island. About half a mile below old Fort Crawford, there was a deep cut and into this ran a very swift current that took the logs through it. This cut opened what in ordinary water was assort of swamp but now in high water was more of a lake filled with willow bushes and small trees-an ideal place to catch the logs, as there was practically no current.
We combed the sloughs and swamps among the many islands in that locality, gathering the logs as found by putting them side by side with pike poles, driving a wedge or brail pin into each log and putting a couple of half hitches on each pin with a three-eighths brail line and when we had enough for a mess towed them with a skiff to the raft and put them in the proper place. This is disagreeable work at best. Many times the logs hae to be ridden, which means wet feet, if not wet all over, and so it paid to give the workers plenty of rest and good hot grub.
We were three days getting the raft together and by that time I was satisfied that we were not many logs short, but I never did know just what the final scale showed.
We left our forced harbor about 10 o’clock at night as I figured we could make the Dubuque Bridge the next morning easily. The water was over the banks everywhere and by the way the trees were going up past us I thought we would meet the bridge coming at us before daylight and I did not want to see that obstruction in the dark! We were at the head of Maquoketa slough about 3 o’clock, some seven miles above he bridge and I started backing the boat in order to land at Eagle island. We backed for nearly an hour and when we got to the island found nothing to tie to, but the water under the bar was a little slack and I backed the raft over the willows and sent the linemen out to find something to hold us. We split the raft, went through the bridge in good shape and had no more trouble on that trip.
I think it was the next trip we had a raft from Stillwater and rather than lay at the bank to line up I hitched the boat to the bow and backed it down the lake while the work was going on. Had made up my mind to try for a record trip and everything went nicely until we got to Lake Pepin. Found the wind blowing a gale but kept going until we reached the last place to land before entering the lake. The swells came rolling in by the millions and I feared we would go to pieces here we lay because the dead swells were of such force. The white caps were rolling high and when they would break the wind would carry the foam, and the entire lake was covered with a thick mist. We were there for 72 hours and all my plans for a quick trip were “busted” the only boat that came through the lake during that time was the Cyclone. We had no further trouble on the trip and made fairly good time in spite of the unusual delay.
Transcribed by Georgeann McClure