WILLIAM R. TIBBALS
Transcribed by Sue Rekkas
Steamboats and Steamboatmen of
the Upper Mississippi
By George B. Merrick,
The Saturday Evening Post of
April 11, 1914, page 7.
WILLIAM R. TIBBALS
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
progress of the trip was a continual ovation, which, to the
Captain’s knowledge has never been excelled, and seldom
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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