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
This period of my life can be expressed as, “One grand night-mare!” I had been continuously on the river for over twenty years and while I liked the life and had no reason to complain as to my success, like many another steamboatman I felt that it was not the ideal life for a man with a wife and a growing family-especially when that man like to be at home and for some time there had been a longing for a shore job. Our relations with the officials of he Canton Sawmill company had always been pleasant and I looked upon the organization as a conservatively managed one that had a good future. So when a proposition was made to me to join them it looked like the opening I ad desired and accepted and purchased stock in the company with the understanding that I was to be made foreman and vice president.
Our two main customers-the Anthony people at Camanche and Canton sawmill company, at Canton-were so well pleased with the service they were getting, and evidently the prospect of some good profit, that they each took the one-third interest in the Gile that was held by my La Crosse partners, during the winter of 1884-5. This change of ownership was very satisfactory to me as our interests were in common. Later, one low water season, when we were having trouble in keeping both mills going, as well as taking care of our other contracts, the Anthony people disposed of their interest in the boat to the Canton people and purchased a boat with the intention of running their own logs. This was also satisfactory to me as it placed the entire ownership with the Canton sawmill and myself.
So, in the spring of 1889 we had decided to move to Canton, Leaving our nice little home and Clinton was no easy mater. We had lived in the city fifteen years, ten of which had been in our own home, to which we were very much attached.
During this period we had made friends and while we did not figure in the “400” if such a thing existed there, we had a bunch of friends good enough for any one. At one time we had a “euchre club” of eleven young married couples meeting at our various homes. The we had a “dancing club” although I do not recall that it had any special name, and a number of us would drive out into the country and take charge of the home of some friend, have dancing, an oyster supper, and what ever other entertainment came handy and get home in the “wee sma’ hours”
Looking back at this period Mary Helen and I agree that it was, as a whole, the most pleasant of our entire lives.
One evening after we had most of our goods ready for shipment, and were in no shape to entertain, a bunch of people dropped in on us unannounced and came bear destroying the entire Short family! Each one of us told the other that it was unfair to allow a lot of people to come in without saying something and trouble was averted when it was shown that it was a surprise to each of us.
Fortunately they were all our near friends and did not come to be entertained but to wish us happiness and prosperity in our new home and to leave behind them a set of several silver pieces for our table as a token of their esteem and an expression of regret that our pleasant relations were to be severed. Mary Helen and I were both speechless for a time but finally managed to express in a very inadequate manner our thanks and appreciation.
After the preliminary arrangements for moving to Canton had been made, I opened the season wit the Gile by going to La Crosse for a half a raft of logs for canton and six strings of lumber for Hannibal, taking with me Capt John Wooders, who was to take charge of the Gile after I went into my short job at Canton.
On the down trip we loaded our household goods into a wood barge that we had used for some time put our horse and buggies on the lumber and headed for Canton. On arrival there the logs were delivered, the barge placed at the levee and my duties as master of the Abner Gile were over, and the worst move of my life was consummated-but I did not know it at the time. To the credit of the noble woman who has stood by me for nearly sixty years, be it said that his move was against her judgment and advice.
I soon found that the office of vice president was just honorary and that of foreman meant being a general all-around roustabout and not at all to my liking, so it was very fortunate that a steamboat scheme came into existence soon after my arrival in canoton.
A levee from Warsaw, down to a point called Bear Creek, opposite Canton was nearing completion. It looked to me that a ferry would be a good proposition and I suggested it to the officers of the company and they agreed to give it a trial. Franchises on each side of the river were successful; a barge we had decked over; the Nellie Bly, a little light raft stern wheeler owned by some Keokuk parties, chartered for three dollars per day and we commenced business over a run of about half a mile during ordinary water I was master, pilot, mate and roustabout and we made a success of it from the start. It was not, long before satisfactorily take care of the business and we decided to build a regular ferry with a capacity of five teams. She was built at Rock Island during the following winter and put in service in the spring of 1890; was 92 feet long, 20 feet beam and named Cantonia. We put up good docks and approaches on each side of the river and ferrying was my job so long as I was with the company. I soon got a man to run her day times and I looked after her at night and on Sundays we ran excursions to La Grange. Quincy, Warsaw and Keokuk. One high water season the C. B. & Q. Ry. paid us $80 per day to carry the mail between Quincy and Keokuk while their tracks were flooded. During this period we took a number of families, with cattle, hogs, and horses, off several of the islands that were overflowed-but of course no charge was ever made for this service.
The company got the steamer Warsaw, the ferry that ran between La Crosse and La crescent. I went up after her and we put her on the ways at Rock Island for repairs and changes. She was a big help in the ferry business but after one year the inspectors barred her from carrying passengers. We used her awhile carrying green corn, tomatoes, hay and straw and finally sold her for $500 to some St. Louis parties who used her for freighting purposes.
Meantime the company, owning two-thirds of the Gile, continued her in charge of Capt. John Wooders. He was a good pilot but somehow the management was not successful and she made just about enough each year to pay her repair bills. I was insistent that we lay her up or dispose of her, with the result that I traded my interesting her for more stock in the company. A little later the company sold her but as the promised payments did not materialize she came back on their hands and soon after was sold to my brother, Capt. Ira H. Short. This sale stuck and he successfully ran her for a number of years. She was burned at south Stillwater in 1908 after a much longer career than the average steamboat.
Soon after arrival in Canton we bought a large lot, well located and built thereon a home-just as Mary Helen wanted it-which we enjoyed very much during our stay there.
For about three years we did a very good business and while the outlook did not wholly satisfy me I still hoped the future would prove the soundness of my judgment and investment. But soon there came a change in relations between officers and stockholders. The secretary was the ruling executive and he was allowed to assume a sort of dictatorship and things went form bad to worse until in the late summer of 1896 the mill closed.
In the fall of 1896 as I had been doing ever since the mill quit sawing that year, the secretary met me and asked that I tell the men that it would be late in the spring before the mill would start and suggest to them that they look for work elsewhere. I told him that it was not my business and that he would do it himself or put a notice in the paper that the company was busted. We had a pretty hot conversation and I finally told him if he would agree to assume my liability as a stockholder and on the notes of the company which I had signed, I would make him a present of my stock. This was agreed to and I turned around and went home letting the ferry take care of herself. Later the arrangement was ratified by the company and my connection with the Canton Sawmill was ended and every dollar I had put into it went to the four winds!
A short time after when settling with the grocer, Eb. Sutton, for the two weeks supplies we had purchased, I told him that I was out of the sawmill, had no work and that if he trusted us any more it would be at his won risk. He said that I could have half interest in his store and got work at once! I did not accept the offer but did appreciate the kindly spirit in which it was made. He also said to tell Mrs. Short to come and get anything in the grocery line she needed.
Among our many friends in Canton, this good man and his excellent wife were the closest and we spent many pleasant hours together.
In 1932, some thirty-there years after we had left there in company with our son, Leslie and his family, Mary Helen and I were en route to Keokuk to visit friends, and in order to see some of the old-time river places we went from Peoria via Quincy. We stopped at Canton and there met our old-time best friend. He did not remember us and said he had no recollection of ever having seen us, but when I asked him if he remembered the old captain of the saw mill company and his wife, he grabbed hold of me and nearly pulled me out of the machine! His wife had passed away several years before but he had a housekeeper and the place was being kept just as his wife had left it. When we left him there were tears in his eyes-and our own were none too dry and the visit, short as it was, did us lots of good. Too bad we cannot associate more with the old-time friends but the country is too large or we roam around too much!
Transcribed by Georgeann McClure