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
Eventful Career Ends
The season 1916 and 1917 were put in on the Sidney under Capt. Roy Streckfus running the same kind of excursions. There was little that happened out of the general run of the business, except one very unpleasant experience during 1917. In August we had about 1,200 people from Lansing, De Soto, victory and Genoa to La Cross. My partner had trouble in trying to get around a new dam put in just below Brownsville and go hard aground in below the dam. The U. S. steamer Coal Bluff came along and tried to help us but was of no avail. Night coming on she took about 500 people on herself and one of the barges and returned them to the original point of shipment in pretty good shape, I going along at the request of the captain of the Coal Bluff. The rest of the people decided to get the worth of their money and stay by the Sidney and have her deliver them home in the proper way. On the return from Lansing we were fogged at Genoa for an hour and that hour was one of the best “sleeps of my life as I had been on watch practically 24 hours. On our return to Sidney after a pretty hard fight we succeeded in getting her loose and returned he people to their home. All having had plenty of excursion for the time.
One night I came on the midnight watch and it was getting foggy very fast. My partner said the light ahead was that of Sheep Prairie. About as soon as I took the wheel she bean to bump and I stopped and began to back but he said not to do that, but to come ahead and push her over the bar. Tried it, but we stuck good and hard and the fog settled down so thick we could not see anything. Captain Roy asked me where we were and what we had better do and I told him where my partner had said we were and that the only thing to do was to lie still until the fog lifted and we knew the situation. When it cleared up we found the Sidney practically on top of a dry bar and a long way from the channel. After some 12 hours of hard work we got off. We were billed to take a daylight excursion from the Mc Gregor and Prairie du Chien to Dubuque but it was so late e took out an evening tip instead and made more money out of it than the daylight trip would have brought. So the stick might have been a blessing in disguise but id did not like it!
At the close of the excursion season we went into the Calhoun trade until November1. When the Sidney laid up I was through working for the Streckfus people-but did not know it. On the whole it had been a very pleasant experience and the memories have been delightful.
On July 3, 1932 I was visiting relatives in Clinton and it so happened that the Streckfus steamer Capitol was there that day I went to the levee and was very much pleased to meet my good friend and former commander, Capt. Roy Streckfus, in charge of the boat-but was very sorry to miss that other staunch friend, Capt. Walter A. Blair one of the pilots. Captain Roy was the same old pal, with the some old smile and approachable manner. He gave a hearty invitation to get all my friends and make a trip with him but arrangements already made were such that we could not accept. Nothing would have given me more pleasure than to have felt the solid deck under my feet once more and to have a few hours view of the grand old river I knew so well and loved so much for many years-as well as perhaps to have felt the “feel of the wheel,” once more.
(Note:- that Captain Roy Streckfus had a high regard for “Lome” is shown by a quotation form a letter received by the writer: “I consider Captain Short one of the best pilots the upper river has turned out, as well as being a man of good character and fellowship.” F. A. B.)
After the Sidney laid up I went on the Bell of Calhoun, in the Calhoun county trade until December 5, making an exceptionally long season. At the invitation of Captain Sebastian, Mary Helen came down and spent most of the time on the boat and the home life added to the pleasure of a very fine berth. I have always held Captain Sebastian in high esteem.
Early in March, 1918, I had a letter from Capt. Joe Streckfus Lines. Outlining his plans for the season, wages, etc. and offering me a berth as pilot on the Sidney with a certain man as partner. I replied that all was satisfactory except that I could not work with the man he had named as a partner for me. I waited a reasonable time to hear from Capt. Joe again as I did not suppose there would be any trouble in assigning another partner for me if he really wanted my services. Not getting anything I went to Capt. James Robinson of the steamer East St. Louis, then wintering in Peoria, and arranged to go pilot with him on her in the excursion trade between La Salle Ill. and St. Louis. Some two weeks later I had word from Capt. Joe, that he would assign another partner with me but it was then too late.
Our start with the East St. Louis was not at all encouraging. We left for La Salle May 9, a terrific gale was blowing as we passed Chillicothe and when we got to Lacon the wind was blowing so hard they could not open the bridge and we landed. The wind continued and about 4 o’clock the next morning it blew so hard that every one was awakened and a bad storm was seen coming. Some went ashore and some went into the hull of the boat. When the storm struck us it parted every line and the boat was blown hard ashore. It was not until 3 o’clock that afternoon that they were able to open the bridge and let us through.
The start, however, was the worst of it and we had a very pleasant and fairly successful season. One day my partner, John Hipple, brought a lady into the pilot house and introduced her as Mrs. Mary Hulett and said she was a pilot. After a little while I asked her if she would take the wheel. She did and handled the boat for some time through some close pieces and as well as any one could. She was the only woman pilot I ever knew and a very pleasant person besides.
(Note:- The daily press carried the following from Beardstown, Ill., Jan 30, 1933: Mrs. Mary Hulett, 77 years old, one of the few licensed woman river pilots in the United States, died at her home here. F. A. B.)
The boat laid up quite early-we expected and hoped temporarily-and the advance agent and myself were told we could “watch the boat” if we choose-furnishing our own grub of course. We put the matter up to our respective wives and chose, by a vote of three to nothing I was elected as steward, purchasing agent and chef, I accepted the job but insisted that the others must wash the dishes, clean up and set the table. We established a mess room in the after end of the cabin and went at it. Well, we had the time of our lives and it was one continual picnic! I bought everything on the market that was good –the only galling thing was that we could only purchase one pound of sugar at a time and every blooming one had several sweet teeth! It was not long until we began to have company which embarrassed me considerably as we were not equipped for hotel work but we managed to let it seep out that we expected our company to bring something so soon we had an abundance of fruit, cake, ice cream and other accessories and everybody had a good time. Some even insisted on staying overnight with us and getting a make believe steamboat trip.
This went on for a couple of weeks when it was announced that would boat would not operate more this season so we broke camp, the advance man and his wife and Mary Helen and I remained until the boat was properly laid up for the winter.
About the last of October I was offered a job as day watchman at the Holt works manufacturers of tractors-which I was glad to accept and found it very pleasant employment. Could walk to and from work and was home every night and considered it a great improvement over a steamboat job even though it did not bring as large a pay check.
(Note:- We rarely knew a steamboat man who did not yearn for a shore job where he could work the year round and be at home. It was an ideal yearning all right but it seldom worked. About the time the ice moved in the spring the lure of the river came on and generally the shore job got a new occupant! F. A. B.)
In January, 1919, I had a letter from Capt. Joe Struckfus that he would like to have me on the Sidney the coming season. I was then so stuck on the Holt job that I declined saying that I preferred the shore job as I was at home. He replied expressing regret and saying that that feeling would not last long, but I did not change my mind at that time.
However, Capt. Joe was right! My system could not withstand the balmy breezes and towards the last of June I resigned the Holt job and went to St. Louis to go as pilot on the iron hull Majestic with Captain Wisherd. We ran excursions as far up as Rock Island and return, more or less successful, as the boat was not in the best of condition, and then we were to go into the Missouri river and I was scheduled to be her master. We gave an excursion from St. Charles and when we started up the river found that the smoke stacks and jack staff would not go under the upper high bridge. Capt. Wisherd then decided to lay the boat up until the water would fall sufficiently to allow the boat to go and finish our schedule. I arranged with him to go to St. Louis for a few days and he would advise me at the Merchants hotel when he would need me. On arrival at St. Louis discovered that the Merchants hotel was no longer in business so sought other quarters and failed to notify him.
When I returned to St. Charles a few days later I found the Majestic gone and with her the job, as I supposed, so I returned home made application for my old job with the Holt people, got it and went to work. It developed that Capt. Wisherd had written me at St. Louis to meet the boat at Washington, Mo., on a certain date as he was able to start out earlier than he expected. The hotel being closed the letter was returned to his office in Quincy and reached me too late to be of any service. As I was the only one to blame for the mix up the incident did not occasion any hard feelings.
Business with the Holt people was slacking up and they began laying off men and my turn came about the last of January 1920. I then wrote to Captain Wisherd and later arranged for a job. During the early spring I was quite ill with the flu but was able to go to Quincy early in May and take charge of the G. W. Hill. After some twelve days service in the excursion business I was sent to St. Louis to be pilot on the Majestic in company with J. H. Laycock, Capt. Hiner as master.
If I had known what was ahead of me when I left the Hill for the job on the Majestic I would have gone home instead. However, now that the experiences are only memories I do not regret them as they were certainly different from any in my long career.
We left St Louis at 6:30 a. m. May 26, and the first trouble was the taking off at about 18 inches from the ornamental work on top of the pilot house as we went under the Merchant’s bridge. I had not been on watch thirty minutes until I knew there was something radically wrong. She did not steer as she should and the steam steering gear was practically out of commission.
We had a moonlight excursion out of Alton that evening during which we laid up two hours to repair the fans to the furnace. Then we had electric light trouble; the tiller line broke; more trouble with the blowers and other things right along, practically all the time. In spite of all we ran a number of fairly successful excursions and worked our way up as far as Cassville, and after getting rid of our people at that place started down river at 9:30 p. m. Sunday, June 6, She had been getting more “independent” all the time and we were never sure that she would go where we wanted her to go- and no attention was paid to our reports of these troubles, except promises to have them remedied.
It was storming when we left Cassville and during one of these “independent spells’ she went on the rocks at Waupeton, despite the efforts of my partner, and put one rudder out of commission. This damage, as well as previous damage to the wheel in another ‘tantrum” was repaired at Dubuque and we went along a little better.
Our last excursion was scheduled out of Muscatine and we left there at 10:55 p.m. on June 9th, headed for St. Louis. She seemed more ‘cantankerous” than ever and just about midnight below the island at the foot of Muscatine prairie her head hit the bar and we swung around and there we were when I went off watch. Next morning I wet on a little voyage of discovery and found the two center rudders standing practically straight with the boat and broken at the front end and under the stem. The starboard rudder was loose in the rudder post band was standing well over to the larboard. The larboard rudder was also loose and standing well over to starboard so that when they worked at all they worked against each other. We straightened them up, put in wedges as best we could and that helped some.
We were aground until 4:45 pm m. on the 12th. The rest of the trip was no fund but we got along without serious trouble. The boat was drawing about six feet and in water eight to ten feet deep we could not tell what she would do but in deep water she went fairly well. It was with great relief that I saw her safely landed at St. Louis on June 17, at 8:15 p.m.
While the responsibility was not mine I could not but feel that had there been an accident that resulted in loss of life I would have been at least censured with other officers had conditions been fully known.
The next morning the steamer James Moran arrived in St. Louis from the south with three big barges loaded with molasses and drawing six feet. They wanted two Illinois river pilots so borrowed Capt. John Hipple and myself. We made the trip to Peoria, delivered the cargo to the great Western distillery and returned, arriving at Carbondale at 3 p. m. on June 24. I then went back to the Majestic and remained on her until August 9, running excursions out of St. Lois.
I did not care much for the Majestic job so when there was an opportunity to go on the Eisha Wood as pilot, I took it in. She was working on the Illinois river towing the “Cotton Blossom” opera house and making all the towns of importance. The job was easy, the experience different I was glad to make the change. We got on nicely for about a month when four of the best actors took a notion to quit and Captain Hitner was obliged to lay up and go to Chicago for anew force and I went home.
Sept. 12, 1920, I went aboard the U. S. submarine chaser Dixie for a trip down the Illinois river. We left Peoria at 6:45 a. m. and laid up for the night at Montezuma at 6:50 p.m. . Left next morning at 5:30 o’clock and landed at Rowen’s boat yard at Carondolet at 3:05 p.m. the water was not high, in fact we were unable to go over the Copperas dam and going through the three locks spoiled the best part of an hour, so that the running time for the entire trip of some 220 miles was something less than 20 hours. Had he water been high we would have clipped off a good bit from that time. She was the fastest thing in the shape of a boat that I was ever on and went down the river so fast that her swells in many instances turned the fisherman’s skiffs bottom side up on the bank. She was also the last boat on which I have put foot from that day to this, Jan 1 1933. On my return home my wife, Mary Helen, and our son, Leslie Dean, insisted that I must quit and reluctantly I yielded to their judgment.
Have had a number of opportunities to work again and really I would like to make at least one more trip on the “old gutter” if only to see the changes that have taken place during the last 12 years.
Before the pen which my memory has guided over the many pages of this rambling record of over fifty-five years of river service is laid aside, I want to pay tribute to some of the many men to whom I am under obligation for many kindnesses and from all of whom I have learned something during this pretty strenuous career. They are not attempting to give their proper titles as to river services: Hiram Baise, Walter A. Blair, Isaac Bollman, Cyrus Bradley, Norman Burns, George Carpenter, Daniel Davison, Horatio Dexter, Robert Dodds, Dick Dixon, A. E. Duncan, Samuel Edwards, David and Stephan B. Hanks, Al. Hollingshead, J. B. Jenks, Cornelius Knapp, John Killeen, Artemus, Chancy and Lafayette Lamb, Andy Lambert, Perry Langford, D. C. Law, Con Mages, Pat. Maines, M. Meigs, Ed. Nowlen, Gus Paine, John Pemberton, William Savage, Captain Sebastian, my brothers, Goerge L., Ira H., Allen M. and Charles M. Short, the Streckfus family, John, John Jr. Joseph and Roy-especially Samuel R. Van Sant, Aaron and George Winans.
Many a good story could be told in connection with my association with the most of these men, as well as with many others whose name do not come to me at this moment. Many of them have made the last landing and those remaining are, like myself, well along and liable to be called at any time.
After all these strenuous years with many ups and downs, I am thankful to be in a safe harbor with the faithful wife of many years by my side and one loving son within call at Peoria and another not far away-Paducah, Ky-both of whom having creditably passed through boy and young manhood stages of life, have been reasonably successful in their chosen careers.
What more can one ask when on the last lap of life? The lord has been good to me and wishing continued years to all, and with malice towards none, I am calmly waiting the ringing of the bell indicating that the last tie-up is about to be made.