IAGenWeb Project

 Iowa History

       An IAGenWeb Special Project


Join the IAGenWeb Team



River Men



Transcribed by Sue Rekkas


Steamboats and Steamboatmen of the Upper Mississippi

By George B. Merrick,

The Saturday Evening Post of Burlington, Iowa,

April 11, 1914, page 7.




In order that readers who are following the river records as they appear from week to week in the Post may not become surfeited with a too-prolonged and unbroken diet of steamboats, I am going to vary the menu and write this week of a steamboatman instead.  It gives me peculiar pleasure to do this, not only because the man whose name appears in the title of this chapter is a personal friend, but also because he began his steamboat career in the same decade with myself, and in the same packet line.  His service began in 1854 in the pilothouse. Mine began in 1856, in the pantry.  Unlike myself, Captains Tibbals stuck to his post and for more than fifty years piloted or commanded boats on the upper river, many of them the finest that ever floated on western waters.  After honorably rounding out his half century of service he retired to a well-earned rest, and is now living with his daughter, Mrs. Clewell, at 1060 Iowa Street, Dubuque, Iowa.  The lure of the river is still strong upon him, however, and he can often be found in the Federal Building, swapping stories with the river men who foregather there for business purposes.


Captain Tibbals was born in Bennington, Vermont, June 27, 1832—a Yankee of the Yankees.  He came to Galena in the winter of 1851, and made his first trip on the Mississippi as a passenger in the summer of 1852, making the trip from Galena to St. Paul and return because it was cheaper to travel at that particular time than it was to stay at home.  Daniel Smith Harris and Orrin Smith, Sr., were just then trying to see which one could run the other off the Galena and St. Louis trade.  Young Tibbals was entirely disinterested at that time and patronized both contestants, going up the river on the “West Newton,” with Captain Harris, and returning on the “Nominee.”  The fare, including meals and berth was $1.00 to St. Paul, or $1.50 for the round trip.  In order to give both boats a show for their money young Tibbals returned to Galena on the “Nominee,” paying seventy-five cents for the one-way, downstream trip.  This reduction in the fare of twenty-five for the down trip indicates that the rivermen were early dividing their profits with their patrons, a rule that held all the time that I was on the river, the idea being that passengers would not be on the boat as long, would not eat as many meals, and the boat would not consume as much fuel as on the up-trip, the four-mile current helping her along and saving coal bills.  Captain Tibbals remembers that John Pym was clerk of the “West Newton,” and John Brooks clerk of the “Nominee.”  Another thing that Captain Tibbals remembers is the peculiar characteristic by which Capt. Orrin Smith is remembered by all old-timers.  He would not run his boat on Sunday.  In coming down the river the “Nominee” got aground just below Wyalusing Saturday evening, and they were unable to get her off before midnight that night; and promptly at midnight all work stopped and was not resumed until after midnight Sunday night.  Captain Smith would not run his boat on Sunday, and would permit only the necessary work to be done on that day.


In the spring of 1854 young Tibbals stared out on the “Nominee” to “learn the river” as cub pilot.  Russell Blakesly was captain and John Arnold and Joseph Armstrong were pilots.  About the first of June the crew of the “Nominee” was transferred to the “Galena” that had just come out, new.  Just as this transfer was made the “Galena” was ordered to Rock Island, where, lashed to the “Golden Ear,” and accompanied by the “Lady Franklin,” the “War Eagle,” and the “G. W. Sparhawk,” she participated in what was without exception the most note worthy event and the greatest pageant ever occurring on the Upper Mississippi River (the first railroad to even contemplate such a thing) the contractors planned this excursion and carried it out on the grandest scale imaginable.  The “cub” Tibbals, being a likely appearing young fellow, and a Yankee withal, he was chosen to go to Chicago and lay in a stock of wines, fruits, confections and cigars, of which he returned with $3,000 worth.  The company was made up of congenial people high in political, business and literary circles in the east, among the notable being ex- President Millard Fillmore and Horace Greeley.  They came from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and other citizens of the Atlantic Seaboard.  That the excursionist might see all of the river and its beauties the boats ran only by day.  The people took their meals on the “Golden Era,” which had been specially prepared for catering and danced on the “Galena.”  The progress of the trip was a continual ovation, which, to the Captain’s knowledge has never been excelled, and seldom equaled.  There was great speech making at every landing, and as there were so many noted men on board the oratory was of a high order.  At St. Paul it was desired to go to St. Anthony Falls and as there were but few vehicles of any kind in St. Paul at that time. The committee of arrangements commandeered the Red River train, which happened to be in the city (or village) at that time and the party rode to the present site of Minneapolis in the Pembina carts, drawn by oxen, with not a particle of iron in the carts, nor a piece of leather in the harness—merely ropes, and the Captain adds that there was not a particle of oil on the axles, and the cavalcade could be heard at St. Anthony the minute it started from St. Paul—easily, as that was only ten or fifteen miles.  Captain Tibbals recalls the contrast between then and now as he saw an aeroplane in full flight over the river at Dubuque, on its way to New Orleans at the time of writing this sketch, the latter going at sixty miles an hour, noiselessly, with absolute success, and precision a wonderful advantage over primitive Pembina carts of 1854.


In October of 1854 Captain Tibbals piloted the “Alice” from Galena to St. Paul—his first independent work—under a permit if the collector of the port of Galena, Mr. Daniel Wann, and in the spring 1855 he obtained a permit to pilot steamboats between Galena and St. Paul, from the same collector of the port, until such a time as he could secure his license.  He secured employment on the steamer “Resolute,” running from St. Louis to St. Paul, he taking her from Galena to St. Paul and return, her regular pilots knowing the river only between St. Louis and Galena.  Going through to St. Louis Mr. Tibbals secured his first license as pilot, in the summer of 1855.  After making one more trip on the “Resolute” he went on the “Minnesota Belle,” Captain George Humbertson, owner and master, and acting as one pilot.  This boat was running in opposition to the regular packets, and continued in the trade only a short time.  (This was the boat that the writer rode from Rock Island to Prescott in the earlier spring of 1854).  Captain Tibbals then hired to go in the packet line (the Minnesota Packet Co.) and finished the season on the “Golden Era,” Captain Pierce Atchison, master, finishing the season on her.  In the spring of 1856 he was detailed on the “Lady Franklin,” Captain James Conners master, with Frank Tesson as his partner.  The “Lady Franklin” was sunk by striking a snag below Britt’s Landing on October 17th, 1856, Mr. Tesson being at the wheel at the time.  The boat was a total loss, but fortunately no lives were lost.  The crew were transferred to the “Flora,” and finished the season on her.  W. Farnham was master.  The “Flora,” belonged to the Dubuque & St. Paul Packet, Co., of which Jesse P. Farley, of Dubuque, was president.


In the spring of 1857 Captain Tibbals was assigned to the “Golden Era,” Captain John Scott, of Cincinnati, master, running from Dubuque to St. Paul as the evening packet from Dubuque and Dunleith, the evening packet out of Galena making the morning boat from Dubuque and Dunleith.  Hard times struck the country in that summer and the evening boat from Dubuque was withdrawn, but the Company found work for Captain Tibbals on other boats.  In 1858 steamboating like every other business felt the depression, and was very quiet, and boats usually  operated at a loss when they ran at all; but he managed to keep busy most of the time the greater part of the season on the “Hamburg,” which boat he, as well as other old timers will remember because of a peculiarity which she had, in that she ‘scraped louder than she whistled—very much like the boat that Captain Joseph Brown told of, whose escape could be heard fifteen miles (“on a still night,” as the captain modestly modifies).  In 1859 business picked up, and he went on the “Key City,” Captain Jones Worden, master, with John P. Arnold as partner where he remained during the seasons of 1860 and 1861.  In 1862, after the consolidation with the Davidson interest he was on the “Moses McLellan.”  In 1863 on the “Northern Belle,” and 1864 on the “Key City” and the “Damsel,” with Captain William H. Laughton.  That was the season of extreme low water, and the larger packets were sent to the bank while the smaller boats did what business they could under the most discouraging of conditions.  For the next three seasons he was pilot on the “Milwaukee,” Captain E. V. Holcombe master and acting as one pilot.  In the fall of 1867 he was appointed master of the “Ocean Wave,” and with her took two barges of bulk wheat from Winona, the cargo approximating 14,000 bushels, to New Orleans in ballast, and had never before had a pound in her.  The contract price from New Orleans to Liverpool was 19 pence (38 cents) per bushel.  The wheat arrived in Liverpool in perfect condition, and sold at a high price, making a mint of money for the owner, Mr. Charles Merry.  On the down trip Captain Tibbals built a temporary elevator on one of the barges, by which the wheat was loaded directly into the ship without passing through the stationary elevator at New Orleans, there being no floating elevators at that port, as in New York and all other eastern ports, thus effecting a great saving to the owners, and incidentally demonstrating the captain’s ingenuity.  The “Ocean Wave,” on her return to the upper river in the spring of 1868 took a circus up the river, and while in this service caught fire and burned at Frontenac, Minnesota, on Lake Pepin.  I have heard that Captain Tibbals, as well as Captain Knapp, went fishing for the “Ocean Wave’s” bell, which was the most beautifully toned bell I have ever heard, a judgment fully confirmed by the fact that two veteran captains were anxious to secure it, just as I have wished that I could get hold of it.  I hope to give the story of the bell sometime, if I can get Captains Tibbals and Knapp to divulge their experience in fishing for it.  Incidentally I may say that Captain Knapp got the bell, but I do not at this time know the particulars of the quest.


In 1868 Captains Tibbals was on the “Phil. Sheridan,” Judson T. West, master, with Jas. Carrow as his partner.  In 1869 he was on the “Milwaukee,” in 1870 on the “Hawk Eye State” and “Minneapolis.”  From 1871 to 1876 inclusive he was with the Diamond Jo Line Steamers continuously.  In 1877 he was on the “Clinton,” Captain Moses Hall.  In 1878 and 1879 he was in the Davidson Line, on various boats.  In the fall of the latter year he was a witness of the accident that happened to the big, new “War Eagle,” (fourth).  She came down over the Keokuk rapids—the canal being under water, the river being very high—and in approaching the Keokuk Bridge she was caught between the eddy inside the canal wall and the swift current outside, and was carried broadside down on to the bridge; and this seemingly, light, airy, graceful steamboat; “built” they say, “of blue tacks and putty,” struck and knocked out into the river an entire span of this iron railroad bridge without material injury to herself; but being too long to go through the opening she had made she jammed against the little pier, knocking a hole in her hull that eventually sunk her, but not until she gained the shore and was in shoal water.  The only life lost was that of a man who first lost his head and jumped overboard with a barrel for a life-preserver to which he couldn’t hold, and was drowned.  In speaking of this boat the Captain says:  “The boats that I have captained and piloted would practically be a list of the first class boats of my day; but take her “full and by” the new “War Eagle” was the peer of them all.  Unquestionably she was the grandest steamboat that ever ploughed the waters of the Upper Mississippi—she and her sister-boat, the “Golden Eagle.”


From 1880 to 1885 he was again in the Diamond Jo Line.  In 1886, 1887 and 1888 was on the “St. Paul,” built and owned by the Davidson Line and in 1889 was on t6he “Sidney,” of the Diamond Jo Line.  In 1890 he was appointed by Major Alex MacKenzie to take command of the steamer, “J. G. Parke,” and outfit, in the government service in which work he remained until 1895, when he was appointed Supervising Inspector of Steam Vessels, by President Grover Cleveland and held that office until President McKinley had been in office two years, when he was relieved.  While master of the “J. G. Parke” he had rather an unusual experience—that of removing the wreck of the “Lady Franklin” which he had been aboard of when she sank in 1856, and he also removed the wreck of the “Nominee” sunk by the same snag that sunk the “Lady Franklin,”—the “Nominee” having been the boat he started out on the spring of 1851 to “learn the river.”  The last steamboating Captain Tibbals did was master of the “Quincy” in 1901, running from St. Paul to St. Louis the year of the World’s Fair, thus completing fifty-one years of continuous service as master and pilot on the Upper Mississippi, and his license was still in full force and effect in 1911.  It is with pardonable pride that the captain closes the story of his river service with the words:


“After all these years of labor, through storms and floods and seasons of low-water, mostly done before the government had spent a dollar for improving or lighting the river, it is, perhaps, permissible for me to add that the only steamboat that was ever injured while in my care was the side-wheel packet “Keokuk,” she struck a boulder that had rolled from the bluff at Chimney Rock and lodged in the channel without anyone knowing it.  It took three steamboats to pull the “Keokuk” off the boulder, but the injury to her bottom was patched by her crew, and she proceeded to the ways at LeClaire under her own steam.”


Such is the story of the veteran Captain William R. Tibbals, a record equaled by few and excelled by none.  His immunity from accident was wonderful, the result, largely, of his knowledge and watchfulness, tinctured of course with the greatest of good fortune, for many of the most skilled and careful pilots have met with accidents that were simply unavoidable from a human standpoint. It is a record of which he may well be proud—of which every pilot and master who reads these words may also be proud: as illustrating the perfection to which the art of piloting and handling steamboats has been brought by western river men.  I do not know just what the conditions will be over on the other side of the river over which no return tickets are issued; but I hope that when we are all gathered there I shall have the pleasure of listening to the story of Captain Tibbals’ fifty years on the upper river in a more extended form than I am able to give it to the readers of The Post at this time.  Certainly, unless our preconceived notions of the hereafter are at fault, we will have plenty of time there, at all events.


back to History Index