“When Rafters Ruled”
The Career of Capt. Jerome E. Short
A graphic story of his 55 years of
service on the
in 1903 I called on Major M. Meigs, in charge of the lower lock at Keokuk, to
talk to him about the chances for getting into government service. He
gave an application blank which I filled out giving as I now remember C.
Lamb & Sons, Capt. S. R. Van Sant and Captain Walter A. Blair as
references. This was sent to the government engineers office at
for the summer was in the
The duties of the government steamer were to “wait
One Sunday while lying in Dubuque harbor, Captain
Edwards told me they wanted to make a trial trip with the Oleander, a new
government boat then being completed there, to test out the machinery and that
they wished me to take her out, if I would do so. So I went on board for
that purpose. A Captain Knight was in charge and he took me to the pilot
house and showed me the new fangled scheme they had for signals between the
pilot house and her engine room, it being different from the simple one we had
used all the years, and after I had been instructed we backed out into the
river and headed down stream. She was a heavy boat and a larger one than
I had ever handled but we had no trouble. Went down to Royal Arch
The work was very pleasant, not exacting and the associations congenial. I put in a very satisfactory summer and was much pleased to be assigned to the same position for 1904; which summer passed without any unusual or unpleasant happenings.
In 1905 I was assigned to the Elinor, a new boat
constructed for government work and designed by the
In 1906 I was transferred to the Hannibal District
and made Captain on the Steamer Coal Bluff. The territory covered was
In 1907 I was back on the Elinor, a position I liked
very much. The most of the work was in the
The season of 1908 I was again on the Elinor.
During the period I was working in the service above
During the following winter captain Edwards wrote me
that the appropriation had been cut down so he could not give me employment the
coming season and suggested that I write Capt. John Killeen for a position on
the Diamond Jo Line Steamers. I did so and told Captain Killeen that I
had never handled as large a boat as those of his line but thought I could get
away with the work after a little practice. He replied that he had
room for another pilot and would give me a trial and if I could handle the
boats satisfactorily I would have the regular pilot wages. This was very
agreeable to me and I supposed the matter settled when along came another
letter from Captain Killeen saying that Captain Edwards told him that I was
needed on the Coal Bluff and as I was used to that work it might be better for
me to take that position, and if I desired to do so it would be all right with
him. So the result was that in 1909 I was master of the Coal Bluff and
held that position during the years 1910 and 1911, doing the same work in the
One day the boss in charge of the work told me to raise a barge that was sunk up in the harbor on the east side and at the foot of Portage Island, and when I got it raised to take it over to the north side and outer end of Portage dyke and sink it. For over thirty yards at the lower end of the harbor there was only form four to six inches of water and the barge was sunk well up in the harbor and not over an inch of her deck appeared above water. First I tried to pull her down with our big hawser and the nigger but could not move her. Then we got a bucket brigade at work and soon had the entire deck above water-apparently there being no hole in the barge that caused the sinking. Then tried pulling again and succeeded in moving her about one length. As we had to take care of the barges on which the rock and brush were placed and keep the crews at work our time on the barge was limited to odd hours and evenings. Finally we got her to where we could reach her with the siphon pipes. Meantime every one who knew anything about the conditions said we could not raise the barge and if we did we could not get her out of the harbor. This only made me more determined to get her out and carry out our orders. In course of time we got her up and down to the foot of the harbor ready to try to get her out over the shoal water at the foot. She drew more water than we had but I had faith in the pulling powers of the Coal Bluff so after using all the big lines we had in making the barge fast to the boat and with a good head of steam we started the boat backing and she come out all right. They took her over to the place of final burial, cut a large hole in each end of the barge and dropped her in proper position according to orders. It seemed a shame to destroy so good a barge as her timbers and bottom were perfectly sound and the barge must have cost at least $1,500. We were through early in the evening and then ran down to the fleet to get instructions for the next day. The boss wanted to know how we were getting along with the barge and I told him we had her out and sunk in the place he had told us to sink her. “My god,” he said, “ I had no idea you would ever get her out when I gave those orders! “Yes.” I said, but I must have better equipment as the holes we cut in her at each end are big as a barrel!” I never knew what the idea really was, but it looked as though he gave an order he thought could not be carried out, and wanted to keep us busy, and was very much surprised when he learned that a perfectly good barge had been well sunk!
Soon after reaching home after laying up the Coal bluff in 1911 I had a message from the sand and gravel company at Hannibal asking me to come there and take their steamer Margaret and fleet of sand barges to St. Louis. I left Peoria the afternoon of December 1. As we were crossing on the bridge at Quincy the river was full of floating ice and it looked foolhardy to attempt a trip to St. Louis and had I known how full the river was of ice before the train left Quincy I would probably have returned home. On arrival at Hannibal I hunted up the foreman of the fleet and tried to convince him that the trip should not be undertaken but he said he had orders to start the fleet for St. Louis and it was going to start even if it did not get out of sight of Hannibal. “All right, what time will the fleet be ready to move?’ “At 7 o’clock tomorrow morning.” He replied. “I’ll be here at that time,” I said.
The fleet consisted of five large sand and gravel barges and a big sand pump, I tow of the steamer Margaret, a very little tow boat. Captain Ed. Gilbert was in charge and he proved to be a very good help, always around looking out for the condition of the fleet. The river was full of floating ice and I called the attention of the foreman again to the hazard of the undertaking-but nothing doing! So we got away soon after 7 a. m. We could not make much headway by towing as the would pile up ahead of the barges as well as gather beneath them but we kept going and landed at Clarksville a little before 6 o’clock that evening having made thirty-eight miles. I was not very well pleased with the place where we had to land but it proved all right for soon after we landed the ice piled up behind the fleet to such an extent that soon the running ice was sheered off from the short and did the fleet no damage. It had been a hard day and we were ready for the good night’s rest we had.
The night was cold and I was quite uneasy fearing that in loosening up the wheel we might be disabled but we got it to working without much trouble and left Clarksville about 7:15 a. m. Dec. 3. The river was now full of running ice and there was a cold downstream wind, which helped us along a little. We went aground opposite Turner’s Landing, swung part way around and the ice came down in such quantities that it pushed us over the bar and we landed at the head of Sandy Island about 6:30 p. m. after another hard day, and something over thirty miles to our credit.
Next morning, the 4th we were up early and drifted slowly down to Turkey Island where we stuck hard and fast in ten feet of water, and I thought then it was all up with us but kept bumping and backing and pretty soon the ice came rolling out from under the barges and the fleet began to move and for a few minutes we had a very exciting time but finally straightened up and went on to Grafton, having made an elegant run during the day. In landing we had to run a check line ashore to help the oat on account of the great amount of ice under the fleet.
When we pulled out in the morning I noticed as we were backing out, that the boat was moving the fleet up stream. The warm water from the Illinois river had melted the ice from the bottom of the barges and that was a great relief.
The St. Louis foreman congratulated us on the trip but I told him that had I known the ice was running as it was I would not have started from home and that I would not make the trip again under the same circumstances.
Transcribed by Georgeann McClure