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
Short Becomes an Owner
Captain Sam was with us as we delivered the last raft of the season to the Musser Lumber Company at Muscatine. After delivery we were visiting with Mr. Musser and in the conversation the ----happenings during the coming winter were mentioned and Capt. Van Sant said he did not know just what he would do. Mr. Musser spoke up at once and said: “Sam, I’ll tell you what to do! Go to writing school.
Having been two seasons with Capt. Van Sant and with no reason to think my services had not been satisfactory, I naturally expected to be engaged for 1883. In fact during the winter word came to me that he, Van Sant, would soon see me regarding work for the coming season. As time went by I began to get anxious, but still had no doubt as to the final outcome. One day Capt. Al Duncan-my very good friend and as white a man as ever lived-asked me if I expected to work for Capt. Van Sant the coming season. After I told him I did, he said that Van Sant asked him, Duncan, to go on the Silver Wave and that he had declined the offer. I thanked him for the information and told him he better take the job, he replied: “not on your life!” With this information my hopes of a job on the Silver Wave went in the air and I had to get busy.
Captain Horace Hollingshead had asked me to buy his interest in the Abner Gile but until this conversation with Al Duncan I had not given it very serious consideration. I then told him I would give him an answer in a few days. Went to my good and true friend, Lafayette Lamb, told him what had happened and of the offer made by Hollingshead and asked him to do me a favor. “Will you write to Abner Gile and Tom Withee and see if it will be all right with them if I buy Hollingshead’s interest in the Abner Gile?” he sat down at a desk and immediately wrote the letter, put it in an envelope, sealed it and gave it to me to mail, not letting me know its contents. When I thank him for the trouble he said for me to come in a couple of days for the answer. I mailed the letter but did not feel just right about it for it gave him a good chance to play even if he had any kind of a grudge against me. The situation began to worry me and I thought over all the mean things I had ever done and wondered if they would show up against me at this time, and what the result would be! No answer came for about four days and I was worrying all the time, and Mary Helen was fully as bad off as I was. When I received the letter said in effect they would be very glad to have me take over the Hollingshead interest and if I wanted any assistance they would be glad to give it. I was so overjoyed that I rushed home without even thanking Lafe for his trouble. Mary Helen and I were nearly new beings with all the load we had been carrying removed.
I met Hollingshead as agreed and first asked him if there were any unpaid bills or debts against the boat and he assured me that there was nothing against her. Then I told him I would take her, the price to be $2,000 cash for his one-third interest. Then went to the Fourth Street bank, of which George Haywood was president and his son, Murray-cashier and found that there was $1,930 to my credit-just $70 short, Mr. Haywood kindly consented to accept my note for this amount as I did not care to ask the people at La Cross to help out in so small a matter. The papers were made out and in due time Jerome E. Short was the owner of a one-third interest in the steamer Abner Gile.
The Abner Gile was built at Le Claire in 1872 and was then lying in Cat tail slough where she had been laid up the fall before with a raft, part lumber and part logs, for the Clinton sawmill company, Canton, Mo. One of the Babbit boys who lived nearby, was watching the boat and raft.
When the weather began to warm up and the ice in the slough to soften the watchman sent me the cheerful news that the boat had spring a leak and was sinking. I rushed to the rescue and found the water in the hull over the top of the hull. W immediately went at getting the water out and found the boat came out of the water as fast as the water was taken out of her and when both water and ice were out we could find no leak, for which I was very thankful.
That trouble over I went to La Cross to see my new partners and also to see what the prospects were for business. I had a welcome that made me feel that I had met some good friends. I found that Mr. Bright and Mr. Withee owned a third of the boat and Mr. Gile and Mr. Hixon the other third. When I asked what the prospect for work was they said that we could have all the island mill could saw, most of it going to Mr. Cruikshank, at Hannibal, the balance to Canton; several million feet of logs to the Canton Sawmill company, which with the raft then in. Cat Tail would be about all the boat could take care of that season. I came home very much encouraged.
Then another problem hit me. The question of supplies until the boat could make some money. Again I did not like t ask my partners for anything unless necessary so set to see what I could do. First I tackled our grocery man, Mr. William Kriem, on North Fourth Street. After I had told him of my purchase and spun my tale of woe he said: Just make out your bill and you can have anything you want in my line.” That statement cost him, for the time, over $150 and was a great relief to me. That being settled the next was that of fuel and having a little more courage I tackled the owner of the steamboat coal yard, whose name I do not recall at this time. I knew him slightly but did not have what might be called a close acquaintance. After introducing myself I told him what I needed in order to get a start. He told me to come and get all the coal necessary and I certainly was pleased. Really did not know I had such good friends and the knowledge was an incentive to me to continue to do my best and I was determined that they should lose nothing on account of the kindness to me. Incidentally I will say at this time-1932-I am still carrying the memory of many kind acts of old time and later day friends-but it is a pleasant load.
Late in April we got a telegram from the Canton Sawmill Company to get the raft to them as soon as possible. I had already arranged for a crew and had the boat in shape for work at a minute’s notice so we were soon putting the raft in shape for travel and I left Cat Tail early one morning, everything working nicely and I was feeling mighty good. About noon we took on Wes Rambo as a rapids pilot at Le Claire. When we reached Duck Creek chain and no effort was being made to check the raft for splitting at the landing just below the chain I went to the pilot house and asked Wes. where he was going to split for the bridge and he said at Stub’s Eddy. I got everything ready to move the boat over to the outside piece and when we were where we should commence to land for the eddy I went to the pilot house again and asked him what he was going to do and he said as the wind had gone down he was going to put the raft through the wide span. I told him the raft would have to go through the bridge now as there was nothing else to do but that there would be plenty of logs and lumber to pick up after we get through. I had never known of any one trying to put a whole raft through that span. I stationed the crew at various places with axes with orders to cut lines when necessary and especially the head line from the boat at the tap of the bell. Well, if he had wanted to hit the bridge he could not have done a better job. I was on the roof and told him to stop the boat and back her away, gave the bell a tap and we were loose but one more turn of the wheel ahead would have meant the end of the Abner Gile. As it was we were dangerously near the bridge when she commenced to go back. Rambo seemed to have lost all sense of judgment but he managed to get through the draw and saved the boat.
The river was full of broken cribs of lumber and what made Rambo take such a desperate chance I never knew. He was as unconcerned as though it was an every day occurrence. My brother “H” came along with the Le Claire Belle and asked if there was anything he could do and I told him he might pull off the cribs of lumber that were still riding the pier, but that was all. After we had landed on the little island opposite to the Kahkle boat yard the crew had most of the lumber landed at Arfman’s island. We went down there and picked them up and then started for Rock Island to get some coal and put Captain Rambo ashore. Wes suggested that we land at Denckmann’s mill and see if they would not take the broken lumber and dispose of it. It seemed a good idea and we interviewed the young Denckmann and I told him of our accident and asked if he would take the broken cribs, haul the lumber out and later pa me whatever was right and he could get out of it. Well, what he said in reply would not look well in print, so we went back to the boat and on about our business!
By the time we got back to the wreck it was nearly dark and we cooled down, got our supper and all hit the hay. Next morning we were out bright and early. Sent men ahead to get the cribs of lumber out into the river so we could pick them up as we caught them and in time we had the raft together again, and the third day after this matinee at the bridge we landed at Canton. I had never met any of the people but they proved to be all right. The president’s name was Brooks and the secretary was named Cummings. They looked over the broken lumber as best they could and asked how much money I wanted. I told them of course we were responsible for the broken lumber; that the running of the raft was $800 and that if satisfactory I would like to have $600 and final settlement could be made later. They said that was agreeable and that I could have the entire $800 if I needed it, but I took only the $600. Got the money from the Canton Bank and started up river. Soon as we got under way I paid all the men. After we got over the upper rapids I told the men we would spend the night at Clinton, where we would clean boilers and any one who wanted to make another trip should be on board at 4 o’clock the next morning.
This was a rule as long as I was on the boat. Clinton was head quarters and where we did our layover whenever possible. I applied all the business principles I knew to the work in order to keep in touch with everything that was going on. Took an inventory of everything in the way of supplies on the boat at the end of every trip, I bought every thing that was needed and we lived well. I remember once the cook had bought a peck of dried currants out of which first he made some pies, but they were so full of sand and grit that we could not eat them. He would not throw them overboard as that would increase his expense so every trip for a long time he would drag out that bag of currants and I would give him credit for them! The discipline among the men was generally good. Occasionally I had to take a hand but there was nothing that required any drastic measures.
We left Clinton at 4 o’clock, as planned, and the following morning early we were at the mouth of Black River where there was a raft awaiting us. Half of it, logs for Canton and half lumber for Hannibal. We left about 8 a. m. and never put out a line until we reached Clinton. Next stop was the Rock Island bridge, through which De Forest Dorrance put us in good shape; then the Burlington bridge; then the lower rapids, and this time Sam Speakes did a good job; put the Canton logs in the boom before daylight one morning and went on to Hannibal, delivered the lumber, got $300 on account; came back to “Canton, got another $300 and a bill for the broken lumber, which was $240. In addition to this they still owed me a balance on the last raft. Got to Rock Island during the night and coaled up for a daylight start and reached Clinton about noon and laid up to clean boilers as usual. Had made one trip without trouble of any kind and felt much better than at the end of the first trip when it seemed that some kind of a “jinx” was after me. Got out the horse and buggy, took Mary Helen with me and paid the grocer and the coal man and all the debts I owed in Clinton, and life looked good to me. Although I felt the responsibility that was on me in handling a boat in which others than myself were interested. This trip is a fair sample of what happened during the season. With the exception of the time at Clinton necessary to put the boilers in shape the Abner Gile had mighty little time to rest at the bank.
When leaving time came the next morning the engineer was so “soused” that he was not fit to stand watch. Drinking with him was not an unusual ting but this was his first and last with me. I allowed him an additional day’s pay for cleaning the boilers and he went ashore. He made a strong plea to be kept but I thought this a good time to settle the booze racket once and for all and I did. The men all understood that I would not stand for it.
At Dubuque we stopped and I paid all we owed the boat stores there and the felt that the Abner was a little ahead in the world.
Our next trip was logs for the Camanche mill, this company being one of the three that we were to keep going. It was a nice trip; our contract was $1,000 a raft and we made the round trip in five days.
Transcribed by Georgeann McClure