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
Ends Rafting Career
If there was any one at the top of the upper rapids pilots, I gave that place to De Forrest Dorrance and was always glad to get him. They were an ambitious lot of men, going up the river some distance seeking business when it was a little slack, and the best of them were busy most of the time during the rafting season. Their run was only 18 miles and going over it as frequently as they did there was little excuse for their getting into trouble. Different stages of water created different currents at the various “chains” and at the bridge at the foot of the rapids, all of which had to be reckoned with. It is a fact, though, that these men got many a trip when their services were needed only at the bridge, where the currents were changeable and treacherous all the time, as when the water was at or over a certain stage it was impossible to hit anything with either boat or raft on the rapids proper.
Generally captains of the different boats had their preference among the different pilots and secured some one man when possible taking a second or third choice when the desired one was not available. As stated I preferred De Forrest and considered him the best all around man of them all. It may have been on account of my early experience on the rapids and at this bridge but I always dreaded them both and was glad when we were over; although cannot say that I had any special fear of them and they never got me excited.
De Forrest took us over one night with the Wanetta as a bow boat. We had eight strings of lumber 42 cribs long and he must have taken “40 winks” just at the wrong time! Going into the Moline chain there was a pier just above where the old water mill stood and the stern of the Wanetta just missed the sharp point of that pier and her wheel climbed up and made a crescent shaped mark on the outside of it that was very distinct for a number of years. The impact lifted the stern of the boat out of the water and when she dropped back she was out of commission, but it did not sink. Par of two strings of lumber went down the other side of the pier-all happening in less time than we can tell it- and Dorrance came to and began pushing the button for action by the bow boat but she could not respond. I rushed down to the Wanetta and loosened the lines and prepared to mover her as might be necessary in case we struck the bridge Meanwhile the crew secured the loosened cribs and we got them in fairly good shape and went through the bridge without any trouble.
(Note:-the writer remembers ell his first trip over this natural obstruction to navigation. It was in 1869 and I was a clerk on my father’s steamer Buckeye, one of the type of early day raft boats, small, geared, side wheeler, en route to St. Louis in charge of George Winans. The men were “on” that this kid was a tenderfoot and I heard all kinds of harrowing tales among them not, ostensibly, intended for my ears! Each man had a line that was attached to a coupling or a pin to hang on to when the raft went to pieces and I was furnished with one with instructions as to making it fact when we should enter the dangerous waters! I was about scared to death and saw myself in a watery grave! Well, the dread hour arrived and we went into the seething maeistrom. I expected to see rocks and rocks, many of them perhaps mountain high between which we would run at terrific speed, barely missing if we had good luck, the precipitous sides, in fact something more hair raising than the rapids shown in our district school geography that I had recently left!
It so happened that the water was at a good stage and all I could see on the famous “rapids” was several places where the current was considerably stronger than others not a rock in sight on the entire trip and at the end of the “rapids” there was one disgusted kid! Later we knew them better and wherein the danger was.
Running the rapids at night with a raft was not al all general. Daylight was deemed necessary at the bridge at the foot of the rapids, so at certain stages of water after the day of electric lights and bow boats it was not uncommon to leave le Claire at an hour which would bring the raft to the bridge at daylight- F. A.B.)
Being a younger brother Al did not seem to realize that I had become a man and had ideas of my own and frequently he would come to the pilot house and take the handling of the raft from me. While this was annoying I did not especially care as he was a master of the boat and any loss that might occur would be his own.
One trip we had an eight string raft of lumber 42 cribs long and I was putting it through the La Crosse bridge. Had it in good shape to go through the outside draw spa, in fact it would probably have floated through without any more effort on the part of either boat when he took the wheel from me an started the bow boat to towing toward the draw pier. She had not made two revolutions of the wheel until I said to him. “that will cost you at least $200.” He then started the Gardner backing but it was no use. The right hand corner crib began to cling the sheer of the draw pier and half of the right hand string was in splinters before the Gardner could pull her end of the raft clear of the draw pier. When we were through the bridge the raft was so badly broken and limber that the bow boat could not push her end of the raft out of the draft of water into the slough at the right hand side of Barron Island, so the lumber began to pile up on the head of the tow head just above the big island and there we were! Took us nearly two days to get fixed up and I never knew how much it cost him.
Another trip we were near Brownsville where the channel at the foot of the bluff was very narrow and heretofore the raft would get so close to shore that the ends of the buckets would be broken on the rocks. I was on watch and made p my mind that I would run the raft through this place this time regardless of the skipper. I had the boats working as I wanted hem and the raft in the right position when he come to me saying that I was all wrong and told me what to do. I told him that I was on watch, that I was going to run the raft through this piece of the river and if I touched the shore with either raft or wheel that I would work the balance of the season for my board, and that he might as well quit talking, unless he wanted to pay me off at that moment. Well, he let me alone and we went through the bend all right with the raft under perfect control. I told him the trouble with him was that he had never properly learned the river. I had had instructions from three of the best floating pilots on the river, Capt. Cyrus Bradley, Hiram Baise and Daniel Davison and that I had seen them run these places with oars on each end of the raft and what could be done with oars certainly could be done with a boat on each end.
We closed the season of 1902 at Stillwater and that was the last time I saw my brother Al. I had also run my last raft, but did not know it at the time.