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
Another New Job
In 1901 my brother Al was running the Lizzie Gardner, of which he had been owned for several years and was very anxious for me to go with him. Had several letters from him which I did not answer. I was doing nicely, although not getting as much salary as when rafting, and liked the people I was wit and the kind of work, and as my brother and I did not agree on a good many steamboat matters I felt that it was better that we keep apart. However, he became so insistent that about the middle of the summer I resigned and got aboard the Lizzie Gardner at Keokuk.
It had been twelve years since I ran a raft and in the mean time the styles of rafts had changed. I was used to running rafts say about 250 feet wide and 500 feet long. Now the style was to have them about 160 feet wide and some 1400 feet or more long. There was a good deal of difference in the handling of these two styles but as now every tow boat had a bow boat that simplified the matter a good deal. It was a little awkward at first but I soon got on to the various tricks and do not recall that we had any serious difficulty while I was learning and it was not long before my brother would trust me to stand a regular watch.
While my brother was a good pilot and knew the river perhaps as well as any of us at the same time, he was not an easy runner. By that I mean that he was not cool and collected all the time and when things were not going just right would “nigger” turn the boat to a certain angle as to the raft the boat a good deal more than necessary. Sometimes changing the position of the boat before the position in which she was could have its effect. I had learned from my years of experience to change the boat a little at a time and give that change time to affect the position of the raft as I desired. This was the main difference between us in the running of a raft.
One trip on arrival at the upper rapids there was no pilot available and no one knew when one would be there. The water was quite low Al. wanted to know if I would run the raft over. I told him that while I had never run a raft over the rapids I was satisfied I could do it and he asked me if I would. I told him I would provided he would take all the risk and in case of trouble he would not cuss anybody nor do any growling and that in no event was he to say a word to me on the trip nor make any suggestions whatever. He agreed and we went over as nicely as any raft ever did, landed at the tow head just above Arfman’s Island and went back to Le Claire for the second piece. Next morning Newt. Long, one of the rapids pilots, was there and when Al. asked me to run the other piece I said I would not as the regular pilot was there and it was his business and I would not do it except in a case of emergency. Will give Al. due credit though for telling Newt. That I took the other piece over as well as he ever saw a raft run.
During a part of the season we had a little side wheeler named Frank for a bow boat. She was a peculiar little craft of about 28 tons and built for P. S. Davidson, La Crosse, in 1878, and used for a number of years for his work in his harbor at the mouth of Black river where the boat yard of the Davidson’s was located.
She was a single engine geared boat with an arrangement for cutting out either wheel when desired. She had but one smoke stack and the pilot could handle the engines from the pilot house. In fact one man could attend to the duties of captain, mate, pilot, engineer and rouster; if ever there was a “one man boat” she was it! Her wheels were small with buckets about six feet long and some 12 inches wide and there were no guards aft of the wheels. Her towing fastening instead of the usual bitts was sort of a “Samson’s-post,” located practically in the center of the boat, about ten inches square that extended some five or six feet above the deck, with a hole in it through which was a grub pin as a fastening. She was a tow-boat in the regular sense and never pushed anything. In using her as a bow boat she ran ahead of the raft all the time pulling the raft around as desired by a line running from her post to the raft. I have taken, taken eight strings of lumber forty-two cribs long, around Bad Axe bend without backing a wheel on the Gardner. In going through Crooked slough with the same raft we would sort of “unhinge” the raft at the middle-where the two twenty-one-crib pieces would be coupled together-to assist in making the sharp turns. She was a handy little trick and I never knew another one like her.
The Gardner laid up at Stillwater, rather unexpectedly, and it was up to my brother Al. to get the Frank home to La Cross. So the two owners, whose names I have forgotten, Mary Helen-who happened to be making that trip with us-and myself got the job.
Between the lakes there were a good many wild ducks and we spent some time in chasing them and were quite successful. There was no cooking outfit on the boat and we had been provided with grub from the Gardner supposed to be sufficient to see us through but we did not get along as fast as planned so the evening meal we had after landing at Winona practically used up our supplies. There were no sleeping accommodations on the boat, not even bunks, but we were well supplied with blankets so Mary Helen and I took ourselves to the very small pilot house where there was limited floor space-both as to length and width-where we put in the night, but cannot say we slept very much. In the morning we were all out early and hungry! There was meat, potatoes, coffee and some bread that had been turned over to the owners of the boat by my brother, but how were we to cook any of it without tools? But with hunger and supplies on hand there is generally a way found to stop one at the other. We cleaned and scoured the scoop shovel, used for handling ashes, cleaned up a water bucket we had and with a good wood fire in the furnace began to see daylight. I cut some meat from the big piece with my pocket knife, got the coffee going in the bucket, some potatoes in the hot coals and ashes and soon we had a worth while breakfast that we hoped would stand us until we reached la Crosse. At Mary Helen’s suggestion we threw some water on he hot shovel after taking the meat off and that gave us some pretty good gravy. Then we pulled out all feeling pretty fine.
Just above La Mollie on a dry bar was a big flock of wild geese. I loaded up the blunder bus and slowed down the engine got all the people out of sight and worked our was over toward the bar as quietly as possible. It looked very much as though there were four dead geese on the bar and the live ones seemed to have no fear. I shut off steam and we drifted along until I could almost see their eyes and their necks stuck up like totem poles. I was never so close to a flock of geese in my life and when the proper time had come to make a killing I put the old gun to my shoulder and let go both barrels regardless. Well, there was one grand squawking, fluttering of wings and the supposedly dead geese flew away with the rest of the bunch!
We delivered the boat safely at La Crosse, divided the ducks we had with the owners and expressed our own to Keokuk and took the first train for home and the ducks arrived there with us.