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
On the River Again
After getting out of the Canton Mill company, the next thing was “what to do,” as I had to work, rafting was then on the wane and I thought best to try something else, so during the winter I wrote to Captain Walter Blair and asked him for a job. I was very much pleased to get word from him that he would put me on the Silver Crescent in the trade between Keokuk and Quincy, and the warm pot already in my heart for him got warmer, if possible.
It was a lively trade and in order to make it fully successful, time was very essential. Capt. Robert Dodds was in command and our schedule was to leave Keokuk every morning, except Sunday, at 6:30 a. m., arrive Quincy at 10:30 a. m.; leave Quincy, 3 p. m., and reach Keokuk at 9 p. m.
Of course there was not the chance for trouble was in rafting, yet there were some rather exciting episodes. We had a number of little races with the through packets of the Diamond Jo Line, chiefly the Dubuque and Sidney when they were running between St. Louis and Keokuk. Nothing like the old Robert E. Lee-Natchez race as the distance was short and nothing so very important, but yet enough to start the blood running through our veins a little stronger occasionally.
One mean little trick that was played on us was cured by a very simple remedy. A little boat named the Hock White was knocking around between Quincy and points above wherever could get a little towing and when not at work had a custom at lying about the middle of the canton levee. She was very frail and when the Crescent landed above her, as it was necessary to do, we would lap down on her and we were afraid of crushing her at every landing. So one down trip instead of rounding to make the landing in the usual way, we ran down past the levee and as close to the Hock White as was practicable at full speed and when below town rounded to and came up to the landing. The “two step” the little boat danced to the tune of our swells was a lively one and when we returned in the evening she had released the center of the Canton levee and we had no more trouble from her.
Captain Dodds was a good steamboat man and we got on nicely together and he paid me some fine compliments for keeping the boat on time and said that I never got aground nor stopped for fog. Going over same river twice every day there was little excuse for getting aground but running in a fog was a different thing.
One morning we left Keokuk in a heavy fog and there was an English sparrow on the pilot house, soon after we pulled out he left but was back again in almost no time. He cut his caper five times. Meantime we were down, as I thought, about opposite the brewery above Warsaw, but really I did not know where we were. Then he left again and did not return so I concluded we were near shore and pretty soon saw the big bluff ahead of us and made the landing in good shape. When ready to leave Warsaw I blew the whistle for Alexandria, just across the river, in the hope that here would be a noise of some kind there that would help me find the place. There was into a sound and everything on the boat was dead, so far as noise was concerned, until we were close to the bank on the Missouri side of the river. When I got my bearings I landed stern up so as not to have to turn around in the fog. After leaving Alexandria we had a dim sort of a view and I started out at good speed only to run into a heavy bank of fog and shortly to see immediately in front of the boat and dangerously near a big tree on the head of Fox Island. I stopped the boat, rang the backing bell and blew the emergency whistle with every hair in my head sticking into my scalp like a needle. I thought Mark twain’s appeal to the engineer when he said: “If you love me, Jimmie back her for god’s sake,” We left our mark in the mud but no damage was done. On arrival at Quincy a reporter for one of the papers came around, as usual for news and Capt. Dodds told him about the sparrow. He had a little squib about it that day and put the conundrum, “Why is the Silver Crescent like Noah’s Ark?.” Next day he answered it with the sparrow story, saying that Capt. Short knew he was near land when the bird did not return.
Now here is another fog story that has a mystery that I never have solved and cannot tell how it happened or why we did not get into trouble. The little Hock White was running between Keokuk and Warsaw and due to leave a little after us in the morning. It was another thick fog and the fogs around the mouth of the Des Moines river are probably worse than anything on the upper river, although those at the mouth of yellow river above McGregor are pretty hard to beat. Soon after leaving I began to blow thee whistle and pretty soon it was answered by the Hock White. Soon we met but could not see each other and the pilot called to me to look out for the dam just ahead of me. I could not understand how the Hock got there and knew there was no dam anywhere near where I supposed I was. Pretty soon we came to the dam and when I looked at the water running around the end of it found we were going up stream. I had not stopped the wheel since leaving Keokuk, just turning it over slowly so that in case we hit anything we would not do so much damage. Both boats continued to whistle and sometimes we would be close together and the next whistle farther apart. In a little while the Warsaw warehouse loomed up in front of us and there was one glad pilot when he got the crescent safely landed! The Hock was still out in the river but I gave her a signal and she was soon in shore. How in time we ever made two complete turns between Keokuk and Warsaw in a river that required a stopping and backing in good daylight to accomplish was a feat I never could figure out.
One trip we left Keokuk in a terrific wind coming from the northwest, and indications were that it would last all day. Capt. Dodds had his family on board and Mary Helen got on at canton. The wind got stronger all the time and was nearly a hurricane when we arrived at La Grange. After leaving La Grange we had nearly a straight shoot for Quincy bridge with the wind almost astern. Long before the usual distance for whistling for the bridge I began to whistle for them to open the draw. The wind was so strong that they seemed unable to open the draw so I stopped the boat and began to back meantime tooting the whistle frantically for the situation was getting serious. I found however, that the Crescent by backing hard could just about hold her own against the current and wind and that was some relief. The whistle was now s going all the time and the men on the draw were doing all they could and at last the draw swung open and the crescent went through like a shot out of a gun. In rounding to make the Quincy Landing she bagan to careen over to starboard. Capt. Dodds was in the pilot house with me, on the left hand side, clinging to the window sill to keep from slipping over to the other side. I yelled at him that we were going over but I do not think he made any reply. I t seemed hours before she quit careening and when she stopped we were not over 200 feet from the shore. She gradually righted but we dare not land head up stream so ran up into the bay, rounded to and came to the landing stern up. After discharging the passengers and freight Capt. Dodd said we must get away from the levee as the swells would pound her to pieces and so we backed out for a place below the shore pier of the bridge on the Missouri side. It took us an hour to get there but we were then in a safe harbor and there we remained until time to start up river the following day. Before she straightened up some people said they cold see under the port side of her hull and the water in the engine room was up to the platform at the throttle stand. In the cabin everything movable went over to the starboard side of the boat and Mary Helen said that those who did not appreciate danger were much amused to see the way things rolled around. It was the closest call I ever had from a capsize and has never been forgotten.
Most people think that a steamboat race is nothing but fun-and so it is to the majority of us. Every member of the crew becomes so enthused that there is no fear of what might happen, or rather, no thought of any danger. While usually there is little danger in a spurt of speed because at this time all the officials are on their mettle and closely watching what is going on. At the same time they are really violating laws they have sworn to support but are doing so without intention.
In 1898 the Crescent began running Sundays, which she had not been doing regularly before. By leaving a little later than on weekdays, she picked up quite a number of round trippers. Then some days she would take on an excursion. About this time we decided to move to Keokuk where I could be at home much more than living in canton. Rented a little house and convenient to the levee as we could, sold off a good deal of our house hold goods and prepared to move. One day Capt. Alf. Carpenter came to me at Quincy. He had come down from Clinton in a skiff and was looking badly and was much discouraged. Said he could get no work at Clinton and so got a skiff and started out but he did not know where. Hearing I was on the Crescent, he stopped to see me. I was glad to see him and asked Capt. Dodds to let him make a couple of trips with us, which he did. I then suggested to the captain that if Alf. Could handle the boat, I would like to get off for a trip or two and help get our goods ready for shipment to Keokuk. This was arranged and the poor old man got a couple of days pay. When I got back to the boat we went to see Tommy Adams in Quincy in the hope that he might have something Alf. Could do. Fortunately there was a vacancy on the Sherman ferry running between Quincy and the Missouri shore and Tom put him to work on that boat. He was there for some time, living in the meantime in a little house boat just below the ferry dock were one morning the levee police found him dead.
One little race in which perhaps I was not exactly square had a somewhat disastrous ending.
The stern wheel Flying Eagle was owned by Thomas Adams at Quincy and when not running excursions was engaged in any old job that came handy and just at that time was towing wood from Long Island slough. It seems they had been wanting a race with us, so one day when we left Quincy on our regular time they pulled out right after us. Soon after we went through the bridge I could see that she would soon pass us if we kept on the regular course, so I kept well over to the right hand side of the channel in the hope that the Eagle would drop in behind us before we got to hog island to the right of which she should go and we would go to the left. In event she did not do so we would have a good chance to crowd her past the channel she should take. But she kept on coming on the port side of us and pretty soon we were locked together and both boats doing their best to get up the river, the Crescent being just far enough ahead that the Eagle could not crowd us out of our course. I called to the pilot of the Eagle that I would stop and let him go ahead but he made no reply. He was “on” to my scheme to force him past the place he should turn to the right and was going to work a similar scheme on us as soon as we had to cross to the Missouri side to make our La Grange landing. I was determined not to g out of our way nor to be beaten out of our course, so when nearing the place where we should cross the river told the engineer what I was going to do and asked him to make the shift as quickly as possible when we gave the signal to stop and back for I was fearful we might do some damage to the Eagle in breaking loose. Soon as we stopped our engines, the Eagle shot ahead and in backing away we broke nearly every one of her stanchions from the front end of the boiler to the engines and barely missed taking a portion of the fan tail. While the race might be said to have been a draw, I figured we were ahead as we had not lost any time nor gone out of our way, whereas the Eagle had to turn around and go back a mile or so to get into her proper channel. I expected we would get a bill for damages on account of the wrecked stanchions but doubtless the Eagle people thought it a case of “pot and kettle” as no bill ever came. It was a fool stunt for both of us and I never ‘locked horns” with another boat.
Transcribed by Georgeann McClure