IAGenWeb Project

 Iowa History

       An IAGenWeb Special Project

Join the IAGenWeb Team





Collected and Transcribed by

Sue Rekkas


Steamboats and Steamboatmen of the Upper Mississippi,

Descriptive, Personal and Historical,

The Saturday Evening Post of Burlington, Iowa,

October 9, 1918, page 6.




       Like the War Eagles the Spread Eagles were a numerous family, there having been five of the name on the upper river between 1857 and 1918.  The first of the name was a side wheeler, built in 1857.  She was 210.0 feet long, 36.0 feet beam, and 6.0 feet hold, with three boilers, 40 inches in diameter by 24 feet, and cylinder 22 inches by 7 feet stroke.  Do not know who owned her originally, but in 1882 she was owned by the American Fur Company, St. Louis, under whose management she made at least one trip to St. Paul.  Her regular trade, however, was on the Missouri.    Captain Thomas K. Vorheis, a sketch of whose life appeared in these columns, was chief clerk in 1863, with Thomas Gibbons as second.  In 1862 Mr. Robert Bailey, of St. Louis was pilot.


      Major H. M. Chittenden, in his life of Captain Joseph La Barge relates an incident in which the Spread Eagle and Capt. Bailey were the principle actors.  Speaking of the first trip of Captain La Barge’s steamer Emilie up the Missouri in the spring of 1862 he says:


      “An exciting accident of the trip was the passing of the American Fur Company’s boat, the Spread Eagle.  The new opposition of La Barge Harkness and Company was a formulaic one, and it bestirred itself with unusual vigor to be first on the ground with its annual outfit.  The Spread Eagle left St. Louis with three days the start of the Emilie, but was overtaken by that boat near Fort Berthold.  For the next two days the boats were near each other most of the time.  The day after leaving Berthold the Emilie passed her rival for good.  When the officers of the Spread Eagle saw that they were beaten they played a desperate game, which showed to what lengths the Company’s servants would go when it was a matter of rivalry in trade.


      “At the point where the race took place there was a towhead which at the stage of the river then prevailing was covered with water.  The main channel, and at ordinary stages of water the only channel, passed on the right hand side going up and this channel the Spread Eagle took,  But the water was now high enough to give a good channel on the other side of the towhead.  As the distance by this channel was somewhat shorter, and as the Emilie was the faster boat anyway, it was a good chance to shoot well ahead and get out of the way.  La Barge promptly seized the opportunity.  The pilot of the Spread Eagle with quick eye realized that he had been out maneuvered, and seeing no other way to prevent the Emilie’s passage, determined upon wrecking her.  He accordingly left the main channel and made for the chute that the Emilie was entering.  He steamed alongside her for a moment, but found that he was loosing ground.  The boats were scarcely fifty feet apart, when the pilot of the Spread Eagle seeing that he could not make it, deliberately put his rudder to port and plunged the bow of his boat into the Emilie immediately opposite her boilers.  Several of the guards were broken and the danger of wreck was imminent.  La Barge was in the pilot house at the time and was not looking for such a move, for he did not believe that even the American Fur Company would play so desperate a game when human life was at stake.  He instantly called out to Bailey, the pilot of the Spread Eagle, to stop his engines and drop his boat back or he would put a bullet thru him.  The passengers likewise became thoroughly aroused, some of them got their arms and threatened to use them if the Spread Eagle did not withdraw.  These treats were effective;  the Spread Eagle fell to the rear and was seen no more.”


      Captain Bailey’s license was revoked for this piece of business, but later on, on recommendation of Capt. La barge, he was reinstated.


      The Spread Eagle was snagged and sunk in 1863 at Pickney Bend, near Miller’s Landing, Missouri River.  The scene of the accident has been commemorated in the name Spread Eagle Camp, where the survivors of the wreck made their temporary habitation after the loss of their boat.  Captain Vorheis was chief clerk of the Spread Eagle at the time.  His son, Dr. H. G. Vorheis, is in the army, and the last communication I had from him he was at Ft. Leavenworth, but expected soon to be on his way to France.



Collected and Transcribed by

Sue Rekkas

back to History Index