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River Men



Steamboats and Steamboatmen of the Upper Mississippi

 by George B. Merrick

The Saturday Evening Post of Burlington, Iowa,

October 20, 1917.






In the several cases of the Minnie (as well as many other boats) Captain E. E. Heerman, who built, owned and operated them, has personally written their histories, thus relieving me of a great deal of work, but what is of more importance, has contributed more than I possibly could have gained from other sources.  I thereby tender my thanks to the Captain for his assistance, and take pleasure in presenting his history of the Minnie H., the Captain speaking in the first person singular, as follows:


“The steamer Minnie H. was built at my boatyard at Reeds Landing and finished in the spring of 1880, she being inspected at St. Paul April 17, 1880.  She was 133.0 feet long, 25.0 foot beam. And 3.0 feet hold; measuring 130.24 tons.  She was built out of the steamer Minnietta, having that steamer’s machinery but was a larger boat.


“I had contracted to take a colony of settlers from St. Paul to the upper Missouri, the destination of the colony being the Judith Basin, in Montana.


“We left St. Paul in the afternoon, arriving at the head of Lake Pepin in the evening, where a very severe wind storm caught us and put us to the bank near Maiden Rock, and I got her into a cove at the mouth of the little creek that empties into the lake at that point, and we had fairly good protection for a while. 


The wind soon changed slightly on to the shore.  The engine room bells fro that time rang almost continuously until break of day.  The crew put in a full night cutting trees and making spars to keep her from being wrecked.  The excursionists, to a man or woman, had deserted the boat, climbed the bluff, and put in the full night in a cabin on the hillside.  At the break of day the wind lulled and everyone was soon on board and we were able to get out in time, as the wind now shifted on to the shore, and blew with great velocity.  However, we made the Minnesota shore where we got some protection, and got out of the lake safely.


“We loaded at Dubuque with baled hay, potatoes and beans for St. Louis, unloading there, and proceeded to reload for ort Benton, Montana.  It developed that the cargo that I had anticipated was not ready, and I either had to wait or take a cargo of kerosene oil in 10 gallon, uncased cans. I choose the latter and commenced to load.  It now transpired that the underwriters had been negligent in doing their work, and after an examination I was advised that I would have to dock the Minnie H. and four furlocking strakes between the bulkheads before she would pass the examination.  I may add that I did not go on the dry dock nor add the strakes—but I got the insurance.


“Commodore Davidson had advised me to take for pilots Captain James L. Bissell and another by the name of Davis.  I soon found the men.  I had for chief engineer Al  Stokes with Orval Smith, then of Reed’s Landing for second; Harvey York was mate, George Bee watchman, C. C. Burger was steward, Mrs. C. C. Burger was cook and Miss Burger cabin girl.  We left St. Louis the evening after loading.  We reached  Sioux City in safety where we took o a number of delayed colonists, together with a good passenger list, and arrived at Bismarck without a mishap.  At Popular Grove agency I was taken very sick.  The boat laid there one day waiting for the agency doctor who was absent.  He did not return the next morning  so we pulled but had to return to the agency to find the doctor.  The only squabble we had on the trip came in just there, the foundation for the difference being the conclusion that I could not possibly live, hence the contention as to who should be master after I was laid out.  I certainly knew that I was a very sick man to put it mildly.


“The doctor came, the boat over one day more, and then I took the doctor with me for several days until I recovered.  I then sent him back on a steamer bound down, and this broke up the muss over a prospective master for the Minnie H.  With the exception of this mishap there was no trouble.  It was a nice clean trip as ever could be on the raging Missouri.  There was a boat behind us that had trouble with an outbreak of smallpox, and that was worse than my trouble.  We had a continuous trip to Buffalo Shoals as it was called, because it was the only place on the river, nearby, where the river could be forded.  Here we ran into a small herd of buffalo fording the river.  There was plenty of guns on board and plenty of en to use them and every man was sure of a buffalo.  One man said that if I could land him he was sure that he could get one.  I put him on shore, but he was very glad to get on board again without unnecessary delay.  If he had not been quick about it the buffalo would have helped him on board.


“There appearing to be no show of getting a buffalo with guns, the handy man on board got a four hundred line on a reel, and the boat was so managed that one could be lassoed from the boat, and this was done successfully.  Then all hands and the passengers thought they could pull him on board by hand, and everybody tailed onto the line for that purpose; but the buffalo got where he could touch bottom and he scrambled for shore.  It was necessary to back the boat so that she might not ground, and the buffalo and boat were separating rapidly.   This caused the line to run though their hands so fast that it became so hot for them, and they were letting go of the line, and it looked as though the buffalo would take the whole four hundred feet with him; but the linesman stepped behind them all threw a turn around the steam nigger, and the buffalo was soon alongside, hoisted up, and his throat cut and then lowered into the water until  he was bled, and then hoisted up by the derrick until he was in front of the cabin.  At this every man, woman and child rent the air with cheers.  The buffalo was soon dressed and we had fresh meat in plenty the balance of the trip to Fort Benton.


“On our return trip our first landing  was at Coal Banks, where we took on a good passenger list, among them General Louis Riel, who kicked up a little rebellion of his own in Manitoba in 1870, and got himself hung by the Canadian government about 1884.  He had a number of aides with him, and tons of pemmican for his troops.  He was landed some miles above Bismarck where he was met by many half breeds  with carts to carry away his stores.  The General was rather an intelligent man, I had many talks with him while he was aboard. 


“Another notable taken on at Coal Shoals was a practicing physician from Montreal.  His daughter had married a lieutenant in the Canadian frontier police.  The Indians had stolen his daughter’s child, and he had gone to her assistance and recovered the child.


“About 250 miles below Fort Benson we ran into a large herd of buffalo, lying down on both sides of the river just at daybreak.  The passengers were soon wakened and when all were ready we came ahead on a  slow bell and blew the whistle, stampeding the whole herd down both banks of the river—a most inspiring sight.  I should at a conservative guess, that there were five thousand animals in sight.  I think that there were more than double that number.


“We were out seventy-seven days on this trip, and finished all the business we had planned.  I left the boat and came home from Bismarck, leaving it in charge of Capt. Bissell.  In October of that year I brought her to Sioux City and laid her up at that point.  In March 1881 I sold her to the United States and she was named the Little  Missouri.  She was used on government work on the Missouri, and some years later I was told that she was wrecked in an ice gorge but the machinery was saved.


“After a trip of this distance, about four thousand miles, thirty-two hundred of it in a very hard river to navigate, I must say I felt grateful that I had been free from accidents, especially from the nature of the cargos of baled hay and kerosene oil in uncased tin cans of ten gallons each.  One experience that I had, was sufficiently  startling.  On the upper part of the Missouri,  at a wood yard just above Hell’s Half Acre we picked up a tramp,--a very unusual occurrence in that part of the river.  He possessed nothing but a dirty face, an old pipe and a jack knife.  He said he came there on one of the Benton boats, and he wanted to go onto to Fort Benton, and out of pure charity I took him on board.  I soon became suspicious of him and placed a close watch over him, and on the next morning found he had punctured two caps of the oil on the boiler deck, and it had run through the deck, and down onto the main deck.  Had he not been discovered he would soon have been on the lower deck,  and a lighted match thrown in the oil after lighting his pipe would have finished the job—and it would all have been an “accident.”  He was put ashore at the next wood yard.”


And so ends the story of the Minnie H.


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