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 Successful Season
We had now met the heads of the three institutions that we were to take care of during the season. From this on we went through the season in very good shape, having no more than ordinary trouble.
Just as I was ready to lay up the Gile at Clinton, we had a phone call from Weyerhaeuser & Denkmannn at Rock Island, wanting to know our price to bring a raft for them from Stillwater to Rock Island, I told them the water was pretty low and it was late in the season and I could not guarantee anything, but if they wanted to pay me $90 per day for boat and crew, I would make the attempt and get as far as we could. They said to go ahead so I got the Abner in shape and the crew was very much pleased and we started.
At the foot of Lake Pepin we met the Nina, Capt. Horace Hollingshead, with the second half of a raft. It was a Weyerhaeuser & Denkman raft but I did not know it at the time. Outside of the Gile she was the only raft boat out and I certainly wished I was as far down the river as she was, and the Abner Gile could not go too fast for me.
The raft was ready for us and we hooked into the bow and backed down the lake until we got it lined up, which was just before we had to split for the Hudson Bridge. Lake Pepin was a dream, scarcely a ripple on its smooth surface, and looking its best with the various colored foliage on the trees on its banks. From now on the crew was the boss and not I. They said: Skipper, just keep going, we want to get out of this cold country.” Double tripping to La Crosse from the foot of the lake was slow work; the lines were all frozen; the wheel covered with ice; the dead sloughs were all skimmed over with ice; the nights extremely cold and that gave the shores a white line that was in great contrast with the blue-black of the water when the bright morning sun came upon it, but there was no ice as yet in the river. We had to keep check lines around the boilers to keep them dry and ready for use. But everything went nicely and one bright Sunday morning we delivered the raft in the mill boom, Seventeen days, $1,530 and a satisfied customer, was a nice ending of the first season with the Abner Gile. We went back to Clinton at once and laid her up for the winter in Beaver Slough.
Do not remember where we passed the Nina on the down trip, but she laid up her raft in Cat Tail slough.
After a few days in which to get acquainted with my family and gather things together, I went to La Cross, taking with me all the bills and books of the boat pertaining to the season’s business. Every bill was numbered and had also on it the number and had also it the number of the page on which it had been entered in the books. Gave the whole business to the bookkeeper in the Gile and Withee office and told him if there was anything not perfectly clear to ask me. After a couple of days, he said he had a report prepared and we went to the office to hear it. The books showed that we had dome something over $20,000 worth of business and the net profit was about $7,500. My, but I did feel good! Of course the money was not all there as a good deal was still coming from our customers, as I had drawn only about enough to keep us going during the season.
When it came to a division of the profits, I suggested that we set aside $1,000 for repairs to the boat. They agreed, except that Mr. Withee suggested it be made $1,500 in order that I might do a good job and not be hampered in putting her in good shape for another season. This was a surprise and indicated a confidence in me that certainly was appreciated. After matters were satisfactorily settled, I went home, taking all the books and bills with me.
A few days after my return home a letter come from the la Cross office telling me to get the best suit of clothes I could find in Clinton and send them the bill; the letter also said that his was the first year the boat had ever turned in a dollar since she was built. Maybe I did not get a thrill out of that letter! I went to John Hart, our best tailor, and was measured for a dandy suit of clothes and when I got it on had my picture taken and the picture went with the bill, and the season was then really closed. *
Of course I was pleased at the result of the season. The investment had come back to me as well as some additional money and a fair salary. But what pleased me most, and which I felt was more valuable, was the confidence that had been placed in me! It was an incentive to better efforts on my part.
Remembering what Mr. Lamb had told me about a boat not making any money tied to the bank, I began to look around to put the little money we had saved to work. The result was that though the efforts of a brother-in-law who had married Mary Helen’s sister-we bought 120 acres of land near grand Mound, which we rented for $300 per year. That was my first real estate investment-outside of our home.
I was then ready to settle down for the winter and enjoy the company of my wife and boys who were then at an interesting age and getting along nicely in their school work.
My mother passed away at the home of my sister, Anna Williams, at Davenport Oct. 5, 1883. In accordance with her wish we laid her body away in the garden Plain cemetery, Albany near which had been her home and the scene of much toll and almost unendurable hardship for so many years. A large number of old time friends were in attendance as well as eight of her nine children. It was a great satisfaction to me to have been able to contribute in making her later years pleasant and free from worry and so partially repay for the countless hours of devotion she had given to her family.
When we had the boilers tested in the spring of 1884 the inspectors cut down the steam allowance, on account of the age I suppose. It was too late to put in new ones so we had to get through the season with them although I knew we would be hampered in our work.
This inspection was made in the harbor at Dubuque and at that time the B. Hershey, Capt. Cyp Buisson was there on the same business and lying just above us.
A couple of men who appeared to be a little too full of John Barleycorn juice were in a sort of clamboat coming from the upper end of the harbor working their way out. All at once the fellow in the rear came over to the chap who was rowing and apparently wanted to take the oars. The rower did not want to give them up, and it looked for a few minutes like a fight, but the rower finally gave in and in making the exchange the boat was capsized and both men went into the river. One man was drowned and the other was able to cling to the overturned boat. In almost less time than it takes to tell it, Captain Cyp. was out in a skiff with tow of his crew and grappling irons and in less than 20 minutes he rescued one man and recovered the body of the other. There was a man always ready for emergencies!
Incidentally I may say that I regard Cyp. Buisson as king of all upper Mississippi river pilots. There may have been others as good but there are none better. The boat on which he had his home for so many years-the B. Hershey was to my notion the best raft boat of them all. There were stronger and heavier boats but do not know of any combination that would get a raft as far down the river in 24 hours as Cyp. and the Hershey.
(Note: We have other authority as to Capt. Cyp. And on the other and we have a number of good witnesses as to the ability of Capt. Jerome E. short. We quote one, verbatim: “He ran a raft easier and with less fuss than any pilot I ever saw.” There is no doubt but that these two men were at the top-but it is not our province to settle as to who stood at the head of the large number of number one pilots in the hey-day of the rafting trade.- F. A. B.
Our first work was a fourteen string raft of lumber from La Cross to St. louis. As I was not well posted on the river below Hannibal I got Tom Forbush for second pilot. Tom was an old floating pilot and knew the entire river well. The first spill we had was near Lansing. He almost covered the little island at the left at the head of the first bend with cribs of lumber. We got them off without much damage and our next difficulty was just below Muscatine. We changed watches at supper time, Tom coming on watch and as the river was good for some distance I told tom we would run that night. I went to bed after supper and thought tomorrow would see us through the Burlington Bridge and the next day over the lower rapids and was getting along in my mind in fine shape. About 10 o’clock there was a jolt that woke me up. It felt as though the boat had hit something, then bounced back and then hit it again. I was up in the pilot house quicker than it takes to tell it and without stopping for clothes! I said, “Tom where are you?” He said he really did not know, that he turned around to light his pipe when she hit. I thought right away that he had been asleep and the kind of an accident it was bore out in that conclusion. He had hit a little island just above Illinois slough squarely in the head about the middle of the raft with the Gile towing as hard as she could. I took the wheel backed the lumber that was hanging to the boat over to the foot of the island at Muscatine Prairie, then went down to the foot of Illinois slough and up the slough to get the lumber that had gone down that way. Met it about three miles up pulled it down and landed it at the foot of the slough. Then went up to the head of the island that had caught us and there was a funny sight-if it had not been so expensive. There were some big trees right on the head of the island and one crib stood almost on end, the or still in place with a dip that looked as though it was ready to do something-but there was no man at the business end! The island was so narrow that only a few cribs could land on it and we soon had them off. The crib that climbed the tree had some grub plank broken and was badly shattered at the upper end. We lost one day in getting fixed up as thee were a good many couplings and grub pins broken and it took a good deal of patching to make the raft hold together. Then and there I decided no more night running on this trip!
We were to put one half of the raft in Alton slough and when near there I asked Tom where he would land to split. He said that was easy that there was a good eddy and slack water at Hop Hollow where there would be an easy landing. Well, what he called slack water I found to be like Moline chain! We commenced to land at the proper time and I was doing the checking. It did not take me a minute to know that we could not stop with any one line so sent out another one and with both lines and the boat we succeeded in putting the raft o shore so hard that about ten cribs went nearly half way on the bank, which had as much to do with stopping of the raft as all our other efforts. We lay there all night and next day put the half in Alton slough and started down with the other for St. Louis. I wired Capt. Parker to come up with his boat and meet us, which he did. Getting us about where the Merchants bridge now is. When we came to the pilot house he asked what I wanted of him and I told him to help me land this raft at East St. Louis. He said he would be ashamed to be seen doing that as the Gile could easily land the raft there without help and he was going back to St. Louis. I would not have it but want him to stay, having had too much experience trying to land in water about which I knew so little. Well, it proved that Parker was right and we had no trouble in landing the raft just below the big elevator. When I went to pay Parker he would not take anything and I asked him what he charged for landing a raft. He said he got plenty for landing a raft but would never make a charge for landing a little dinkie like the one we had! I did force a small payment on him as he was entitled to something.
When we got back to La Crosse Forbush left us and I never saw him again. He was a good pilot and a good man but his days of piloting were about over. As a rule the old floating pilots did not make a success at running a raft with a boat, probably on account of their age. My opinion is that they could have made the best pilots going for they thoroughly understood the draft of water and knew how to tell the depth of water by its action and looks. But the shoving the raft through the water changed the action of the water on the raft and the “flanking” of the raft with a boat was much different than in floating. At a medium and low stage of water we were continually sounding at all close places and by keeping in touch wit the rise and fall of the water we knew pretty closely how much water there was on every close place.
(Note: - to run a floating raft and keep out of trouble the pilot must be a good one! He must know the stage of water all the time and know the force and course of the current at different places at different stages of water. When approaching a close place he must plan just how the raft should be run through it and this plan must be correct and properly executed for having started o a curse there was no stopping the raft and the course itself could be only slightly changed by the oars. With the advent of even the small tow boats the situation was very much modified. While they could not stop a raft they could check it and so hold it that frequently the action of the current could take it out of trouble. Then along came the strong tow boats able to stop an ordinary raft at many places and while a pilot must “Know the river” it was not so absolutely necessary that he know the various currents as in the floating days. F. A. B.)
When we returned to La Cross there was lots of business ready for us and we went right at it. Trip after trip went along without trouble until the water got low and then I had hard work keeping the mills going but we did the best we could. The regular running time, in ordinary water was nine days for the round trip La Cross to Hannibal.
Transcribed by Georgeann McClure