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Collected and Transcribed

By Sue Rekkas




January 10, 1914


From Captain S. R. VanSant.


     St. Paul, December 13, 1913. – Mr. Geo. B. Merrick, Madison, Wis.  My dear Captain:--I am enjoying your articles very much and, in nearly every instance, during the past 60 years at least, I can recall to mind the name of every steamboat you mention.  Some of the others I remember very well hearing my father speak of.  He came up the Mississippi where he was located in 1837.  The name of the boat was the “Adventure,” with Chief Blackhawk as a passenger.  My brother and sister were children on the boat, and the old chief gave my sister a string of beads, and some of them are in the family yet.  For 65 years my father built, repaired and operated steamboats on the Mississippi river.  When I was a boy a year old, on the banks of the river at Burlington, he built the “Mary Blane”—quite a famous boat in her day.


     I note what you say about the “Asia.”  I remember that old boat very well.  I was just learning my A B C’s at school, and remember very distinctly spelling her name on her wheel house.  I never saw her but once, but she made an impression on my mind which has lasted sixty years or more.

                                                            Very Respectfully,

                                                             S. R. VANSANT


July 18, 1914


The “Cumberland Valley” Couldn’t Run Without Her Throttle.


      St. Paul, July 6.—Captain George B. Merrick, Madison, Wis.—my dear sir:  I read with much interest what you have to say about the “Cumberland Valley.”  I remember this old boat very well.  In the early days of navigation the sheriff could seize a boat for debt.


     The “Cumberland Valley” was repaired at my father’s boat yard in Rock Island about 1856 or ’57.  After the repairs were made Captain Haight wanted to leave without paying the bill.  This my father would not permit, so he had the sheriff tie the boat up, take the throttle valve and other indispensable parts of the machinery and put them in the county jail.  Captain Haight was furious, and as he did not belong to the Y. M. C. A., he swore long and loud but to no purpose.  My father was a very mild man but a very determined one.  He was a devout member of the Methodist church, and profane words had no effect upon him whatever.  The irate captain finally paid the bill and his boat was released, but with an oath he declared he would never come to the Rock Island boat yard again.


     The next morning he steamed up and his boat started over the rapids for St. Paul; but he only went a short distance before he struck a rock, badly damaging his boat.  As there was no other boatyard nearer than St. Louis, he returned to my father’s.  Most men in my father’s position would have told him to go to St. Louis or some other hot place, but not so with him.  He hauled the boat out again, repaired her, and the Captain went on his way rejoicing.  This was before the Civil War, but I remember it very well.


     I did not see the old Captain again until after the Civil War.  At this time he was captain of the “Countess,” running from Davenport to Clinton.  In some way the “Countess” damaged her rubber and needed a new one.  At that time I was connected with my father’s business at LeClaire and I took the measurements and promised to have a new rudder ready on his next trip.  As I went off the gang plank he asked somebody who that young man was, and when told that my name was Van Sant, he replied, “for heaven’s sake, aren’t the Van Sants all dead yet?”  Of course he did not use the word Heaven, but one that I would not want to put in print.


     Just a word about the “Countess.”  She was not, as Captain Thomas reports, a very fast boat, for several of the raft boats would pass her; nor did she have “six” tubular boilers.  My recollection is she had two boilers.  As a matter of fact the boat was not wide enough to have a battery of six boilers, unless they extended over the hull and on guards.  My idea is that Captain Davenport and other parties with Captain Haight were interested in the “Countess” when she ran in the trade mentioned.  She did not make any money and the trade soon abandoned. Yours, very truly,

                                               S. R. VAN SANT



December 26, 1914


Loss of the “Effie Alton”—Capt. Sam. Van Sant Saw Her Burn.


     Captain S. R. Van Sant, the veteran river man, now of Minneapolis, having volunteered to take a trick at the wheel.  The Post constituency will this week get some further particulars of the burning of the fine steamer “Effie Afton” from the pen of one of the few surviving witnesses of that memorable accident in the story that follows:


     MINNEAPOLIS, Dec. 10, 1914.—Captain Geo. B. Merrick, Madison, Wis.  Dear Captain:  I read with much interest your account of the steamer “Effie Afton.”  I remember this boat very well, and your article called to my mind the burning and sinking of this splendid steamer.  As I recollect, she was one, if not the largest and finest boat of that era.  She was powerful, as her large engines would indicate.  While I did not see the accident, I was on the river bank soon after and saw her burning before she sank.  The bells and whistles gave the alarm and both banks of the river at Rock Island and Davenport were lined with people.  Soon after she sank, boy-like in my skiff I visited the wreck and I remember quite well that a lot of cattle were burned and their carcasses were visible after the wreck had sunk.


     I think you are right in saying that no lives were lost; I agree with you that the boat was not burned purposely to destroy the bridge.  She was too valuable a craft to be used for such a purpose; and as she was heavily loaded with freight and quite a large list of passengers, no one, even to destroy so great an obstruction to navigation, would risk the lives of those people, and this valuable steamboat and her cargo, to accomplish such a purpose.


     The bridge was indeed, a great menace to navigation.  There was great rivalry between St. Louis and Chicago at that time.  The former city had immense river traffic and viewed with great alarm anything that endangered navigation.


     The people living in the upper Mississippi Valley were very much exercised, too, because the building of this bridge was so great an obstruction to navigation.  The bridge was burned once before by a combustible known as Greek fire.  The bridge was unfortunately located, really on the rapids, where the current was swift.  The piers were placed so that the current ran across rather than through them, requiring the greatest skill and experience to pass safely through the draw.  There were so many accidents that finally a new bridge was built at the foot of the island just below the rapids, and the piers places so that practically, there was no danger to boats passing up and down.


     I think you are mistaken about the boat waiting for a pilot in order to save money.  The two great pilots of that day were Capt. John F. Smith and Capt. Si Lancaster (either Silas or Josiah, I do not know which).  Both lived in LeClaire, Iowa.  These men, practically, were the only ones in those days that were recognized as first class steamboat pilots for the rapids, and while they operated together and largely divided the work.  They were very busy and I am sure neither cut the rate.


     It is quite probable that the boat had to wait for one or the other of these men, because they were engaged at the time.  This will explain why she did not at once start up river.  I remember both very well.  To my mind they never had superiors in the handling of the large crafts on the rapids, and that too, long before the channel was improved, by the government.  It required real pilots in those days.  Later there were raft pilots that were stars in their profession, but these two men stood in a class by themselves during the palmy days of steamboating as great pilots on the upper rapids.


     Undoubtedly, what sunk the “Effie Afton” was the stopping of the engine on the center as you mentioned.  Many boats have been sunk and damaged by just such mishaps as this.  As a matter of fact, very few accidents ever happened to boats going up stream: the danger came to descending boats.


     I remember very well the long drawn out law suits about the old bridge.  St. Louis fought in every way possible to have it removed, as it was such a great injury to the transportation of her goods to points up and down the river.  Chicago, on the other hand, was anxious to extend her trade to the West, and the bridge was built for the purpose of getting a railroad into the state of Iowa, which at that time did not have any.  Abraham Lincoln was the attorney for the railroad, (One of the attorneys, at least).  St. Louis, also, had first-class lawyers, and the fight was long drawn out and a bitter one.  It was a battle royal.  I think that Mr. Lincoln in one of his statements, or contentions, during this case, said something that practically settled the fight.  It was claimed by the river men that people had a right to go up and down the river, and any obstruction to navigation should not be permitted to prevent this or to render it extremely hazardous.  On the other hand, Mr. Lincoln contended that when people came to a river they had as much right to cross it as others had to go up and down it.  At any rate this view prevailed.  Bridges are a very common thing now, many cities having two or three.  They are built, however, under government supervision, and river crafts are protected in passing by booms and guard fences.


     I have made this article somewhat lengthy, but to my mind it was one of the events of my life, and one that having seen as a boy was vividly and lastingly impressed upon me.  Even though a boy I was loyal in the river interests and was opposed to the bridge.  I fear I was not very much distressed when fire twice destroyed the old bridge.  It was frequently said that the only man benefited by the old bridge was my father who owned the boat yard at Rock Island and repaired the damage caused by the bridge to passing steamers.  I have no doubt if you will look over the files of the Rock Island Argus and Davenport Democrat you can get a first-class report of that disaster, and also the name of the pilot who was in charge.

                                                                     S. R. VAN SANT




February 6, 1915




     “The steamer ‘Evansville’ was formerly an Ohio and Green river packet.  She was built for what was known as the Green River Trade, running from Bowling Green, Kentucky to Evansville, Indiana.  I am pretty sure this is correct, as her length, only one hundred feet, would permit her to go through the locks.  She had full cabin and Texas, and was very imposing, but of small power—sufficient, however, for the trade for which she was constructed.  Really, though, a fine little steamer.


     “I bought this boat at Evansville, Ind., I think in the year 1882 or 1883—not for myself, but for a company known as the Rapids Transit Company, of which I was President and General Manager.  Owing to the difficulty and delays in getting over the rapids, some 12 lumber companies, together with myself, organized this company and bought this boat.  We had her upper works taken off, and fitted her for that trade.  She ran there two or three years I should judge.  Sometimes, when business was slack, she would run rafts for the lumber companies that were interested in her.


     “She was not a great success on the rapids.  Perhaps the fact of her having thirteen owners was a hoodoo.  Other boats were built with less draft and with more powerful machinery, and were better fitted for the business.  The company sold her to the Matt Clark Transportation Company, of Stillwater, who ran her three or four years in the rafting business until the company failed.  She was bought at United States marshal’s sale by John Robson, a lumberman of Lansing, Iowa, to secure a claim against the boat for wood.  As we towed his (Robson’s) logs, the LeClaire Navigation Company purchased the ‘Evansville’ of him.  After the Matt Clark Transportation Co. bought her she was fitted with larger engines, which made her a more powerful and better raft boat.  We ran her until she was dismantled at LeClaire, Iowa.


     “Her machinery was put into the steamer ‘Volunteer,’ one of the finest modeled and best raft boat of her class.  My father, who was 80 years old, built this boat, examining practically every plank, and he was very proud of her when she was launched and pronounced a success.  Later the “Volunteer’ was bought by the Carnival City Packet Company.


    “We owned the ‘Evansville” when she met with a bad accident.  She collapsed a flue near Homer, Minnesota, scalding six or seven of her crew.  Two died a few days afterwards, namely, John Scanlon, second engineer, and Mr. Babbitt, the mate.  George A. Galloway was chief engineer and Captain John O’Connor was captain and pilot of the boat at the time.  She was towed to Winona after the accident and her boiler repaired, and she continued to run in the rafting business until wrecked as stated.”

                                                             S. R. VAN SANT



June 26, 1915


William H. Laughton—

One of the Many Heroic Deeds Performed by Him, as Witnessed by Captain S. R. Van Sant.


  MINNEAPOLIS, Minn., June 16.—Capt. Geo. B. Merrick:  I can testify to the fact that Captain Laughton was a brave man.  It was no uncommon thing for him to risk his life to save others.  At LeClaire, Iowa, one spring, just before the break-up came, a party crossing the river on the ice broke in and his life was in great danger.  Captain Laughton was standing on the bank with the others.  He threw off his coat and vest and rushed to the rescue.  In doing so he broke thru the ice himself, but being a powerful man and one who would not give up, persevered and finally brought the man safe to shore.

  As I remember, in throwing off his vest, he lost his valuable gold watch in the river.  The captain was in LeClaire getting his boat ready for navigation.  The boat had been on the ways all winter.  There was no railroad in LeClaire so all passengers and freight had to cross the river and often late in the spring many desperate chances were taken in crossing the river when the ice was not safe.

  Very properly the gallant captain was heartily cheered for the rescue and for years was considered a hero for his brave act in LeClaire.

  We have heroes in time of peace as well as in time of war and Captain Laughton was one of them.

  I want to correct a statement relative to the steamer “G. M. Sibley.”  She was not built at Dubuque, but at LeClaire, Iowa by the firm of Van Sant & Edwards.  The machinery came out of the”James Fisk” that was wrecked the year before.  I sold this machinery to Captain Sibley for his new boat.

  The “James Fisk” was wrecked and the new steamer “Musser” took her place in the Van Sant Navigation Company.  Yours truly,

                                                             S. R. VAN SANT            



September 4, 1915



     To the forgoing Captain S. R. Van Sant, by request, adds the following interesting particulars, particularly regarding her sinking at LaCrosse in 1893:


     “Aside from the facts you have in your record I would say that the Van Sant Navigation Company bought the “Glenmont” from the Laird Norton Lumber Company of Winona, in 1892.  She had a most successful season, and paid for herself in the first year.  We had a fine stage of water during 1892.  Her officers were John O’Conner, master and pilot, Herman Anding, engineer, and M. J. Scandrett, clerk.  In attempting to get away from the bank at LaCrosse with the wind blowing hard on the shore, the captain endeavored to ‘Head Out,’ as steamboatmen say, but it was impossible to do so.  When he found this impossible he should have blown his whistle for the bridge to open the draw so that he could back down thru it—the bridge is very close to the LaCrosse levee.  Instead of doing this he tried to ‘turn a somersault’ with the boat above the bridge; but owing to the fact that a fuel barge was being towed ahead of the boat it was impossible to do this.  She struck the pier and before she could reach the shore she sank.


     I was on the bank at the time.  The “J W Van Sant” was landed at that point.  I was satisfied that the “Glenmont” was going to have a mishap, so we immediately backed the “Van Sant” out and got to the “Glenmont” just as she sank, and rescued all of the passengers and crew.  In sinking the boat turned on her side, and one of her chimneys was under water and the other above.


    “We cut away the hurricane deck and some of the bulkheads and rescued two or three women and children.  Fortunately no lives were lost, and this is very remarkable, as the boat sank in 22 to 24 feet of water.


    “It was a sorry looking sight to sight to see this boat in that condition.  It was said by old steamboatmen, and there were many of them present, that the boat was a total loss, and that she could not be righted up.  I had had a great deal of experience in raising steamboats and was not willing to give up without a trial.  We took large ropes, usually called check-lines, and hitched them to the “Glenmont’s” hog-chain braces, pilot-house, and other places in such a way as to give what is termed a ‘rolling hitch.’  We fastened the “Van Sant” securely to the shore, and also another boat.  The two boats had forward and aft niggers, and the lines were taken to these.  A large crowd on the bank also assisted by hauling on other ropes secured to the boat, and in a short time the “Glenmont” was righted up, and sank as a boat should sink.  A great cheer went up, for it had been considered, as stated above, that it would be impossible to do anything but wreck the boat as she lay.


  “With the aid of barges, one on each side, together with chain jackscrews and large levers, the boat was raised sufficiently to drag her into shallow water (just as at Honolulu the sunken submarine is being raised and dragged nearer the shore.)  Later the boat was bulk headed by the famous submarine diver, Joseph Jobin, of St. Louis.  This enabled us to pump her out, and the “Van Sant” then towed her to the ways at Wabasha where she was repaired. 

“The boat remained the “Glenmont” until 1906, when she was taken to the boatyard at Dubuque and had a new hull built for her.  This work was done by Captain John Killeen, and he did a fine job.  Captain Killeen is noted the whole length of the Mississippi River as a thorough steamboatmen, and took great pride in rebuilding this boat for us. When this was done she was owned by the Iowa & Minnesota Navigation Company. The stock holders of said company

were Captain Elmer McCraney, M. J. Scandrett and myself.  When the boat came out new from the boatyard many old timers pronounced her the very best raft boat in the business.  She certainly was a fine craft.  She was renamed the “North Star.”


     “The “North Star” was very successful, always making good money, and never meeting with any accidents.  She was sold at a good price when the rafting business ceased to the C. B. & Q. R. R., and is now (May, 1915) running on the Ohio River.  The last I heard of her she was being used in building a railroad bridge from Metropolis, Illinois, to the Kentucky shore.  When this company to which the boat belonged retired and sold their boats, the rafting business had practically ended.  As a matter of fact, this was the last steamboat company navigating vessels in the rafting business.  It is true a few individual boats, and others belonging to mill men, towed a few rafts to downriver points; but as a business it had practically ceased, and is now a thing of the past.  At one time at least a hundred steamboats were engaged in this line of work.  The last three or four years we were in business the Iowa & Minnesota Company and the Van Sant Navigation Company were consolidated under the later name.  In this company were the following boats: “J. W. Van Sant,’’ “Lydia Van Sant,’’ “North Star”, “Harriet,” “B. Hershey,” and “Everett.”

                                                                   Very respectfully yours,

                                                                               S. R. VAN SANT




 November 6, 1915


Capt. Van Sant Endorses Merrick’s Estimate of the “Grey Eagle.”


      MINNEAPOLIS, Minn., Oct 26.—Captain Geo. B. Merrick—Dear Captain:  I was very much interested in your account of the steamer “Grey Eagle.”  She was indeed a famous boat.  I remember her very well.  To the boys in Rock Island she always commanded a full complement on the river front to see her come in and go out.


      I was quite envied as a boy because I once had a trip on this famous boat.  It came about in this way.  The steamer “Jo Gales” was sent to the boatyard of my father at Rock Island to be repaired.  The engineer wanted a couple of firemen to go with the boat to Burlington.  If I remember she had a boiler on each side, and I was to fire one of these boilers.  I mention this simply to show you how I happened to have the trip on this boat.  I remember that I got $1.50 for the trip, and when I wanted to go home, along came the “Grey Eagle.”  My salary received for my services would not pay for cabin passage, so I took deck passage.  I had to part with a dollar of my hard earnings, and this left me fifty cents; but I sawed wood for the cook, which gave me my ‘grub,’ so that when I arrived home I was fifty cents ahead.  Not a large sum for two or three days’ work.


     I have come from Burlington to Rock Island many times on very swift boats, but none that could make the run with the “Grey Eagle.”  As a boy, I saw her immediately after she sank, and with the skiff I always owned as a boy I soon rowed out to the wreck.  It was a sad sight to see this magnificent steamer a total loss.  For years and years at Rock Island part of her bottom and side plank were used as sidewalks.


     Those were indeed glorious days for steamboats, and they were a mighty factor in the settlement and development of the northwest.

                                                              Very respectfully yours,

                                                                         S. R. VAN SANT



December 25, 1915


Captain Van Sant Tells of the “Harford”


     ST. PAUL, December 18, 1915.—Captian Geo. B. Merrick, Wis.—My Dear Captain:  I read with much interest your short statement relative to the steamer “Hartford.”  I know all about the old boat.  We bought her of the United States Marshall in 1872, at Evansville, Indiana.


     The “Hartford” was built for the Green River trade, and was (?) feet long, 24 feet beam, 4 feet depth of hold.  She had a full cabin, and was built for Green River and was a lock-boat, which accounts for her being so short.


     The day we bought her the steamer “D. A. McDonald” blew up killing eighteen of the crew.  I took the old time engineer – (the peer of any that ever stood watch) – Uncle Henry Whitmore at the throttle of the “McDonald” off of the “McDonald” to the Ohio River with me to bring the new purchase to the upper Mississippi.  It was the mistake of my life.  The man who took his place was Bob Solomon of Rock Island.


     We put the “Hartford” in the rafting business the remainder of the season.  She was sunk at Savanna by the ice just before the holidays of the same year.  Pretty bad luck – one boat blown up and the other cut down by the ice, and that in the year following the great panic of 1873.  Most men would have quit right then and there: but I had faith in the rafting business, and determined to stick to it to the end, and I did, to make it worse both boats were chartered, and the contracts stated that they were to be delivered to the owners in as good condition as when taken, wear and tear expected.  We had to stand all loses.  This ended chartering of steamboats.  Ever afterwards we contracted for the towing of logs and lumber to down river points.


     We raised the “Hartford,” took off half her cabin, put the part taken off on the steamer “McDonald.”  In the spring of 1873 Captain William Whistler, afterward a famous raft pilot, was her captain.  It pays to have sand – not sand-bars.  Although it was a panic years, both our boats paid for themselves and then some.  It was the best year in our steamboat experience.


     In 1874 I. H. Short, also a famous pilot, was her master.  We sold the boat to C. Lamb & Sons, of Clinton, Iowa, and later she was bought by the Mississippi Logging Company, who used her until she was worn out, and dismantled, and her machinery was then put into the “E. Douglas.”

                                                              Yours very sincerely,

                                                               S. R. VAN SANT



March 4, 1916


The Finish of “Hudson” (Second).


      VALRICO, Fla., Feb 20.—River Editor Post:  The “Hudson” (second) ended her career as a rafter.  She was owned and operated by the Carpenter Brothers, all of whom were raft pilots.  She grounded or “got struck” – on what was known as Guttenberg bar.  The water fell rapidly, and she was so high and dry that you could walk around her dry shod.  My recollection is that she was so broken that it was deemed useless to try to save her, and she was dismantled where she lay.  I do not remember what became of her machinery.  I think that this was the “Hudson” that met her fate at Guttenberg, not the old one of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s.

                                                                 S. R. VAN SANT



April 15, 1916


‘Twas De Forest Dorrance Built The  ”Irene D,” Not Dana.


       VALRICO, Fla., April 1. – Capt. Geo. B. Merrick, Madison, Wis.—Dear Captain:  Just to make a correction about the “Irene D.”  Her builder and master was De Forest Dorrance and not his brother Dana.


      Capt. De Forest as for years a rapids pilot, sometime later his brother took up the work.


      The “Irene D” was built purposely for towing and running rafts over the upper rapids.  She was light draft and very powerful.  Also very successful and must have made money until the rafting business went into decline.  I cannot recall just how it came about but out company at one time had an interest in the boat.


      Her engines were new and if I am not mistaken were built by Charles Kattenbrocher, of LeClaire.  Her engines were 12 inch bore and 8 foot stroke.  She was very fast.  At last accounts, Capt. Dorrance who built the “Irene D” was still living.         

                                                                Very Respectfully,

                                                                S. R. VAN SANT



May 6, 1916


James McMurchy


      “I remember Captain McMurchy well.  Formed his acquaintance when he came to inspect our first boat, the “J. W. Van Sant” built at LeClaire, Iowa.  He was the boiler and machinery inspector and it was with some awe and misgivings that we met him.  I was a ship carpenter at that time and knew every piece of lumber that had gone into the boat and was satisfied that the wood work would pass muster but was not so sure of the boilers and machinery, being pretty green on those subjects.  You can image our pleasure when he pronounced them O.K. and complimented us on the very good boat we had built.  Captain McMurchy was one of the finest in his line, and his inspections were always there.  The honest steamboatman had nothing to fear from him and we were always glad to see him when he came on his annual tour of inspection.”


July 22, 1916


J. W. Van Sant—(First.)


     So many people assured me that there never was but one “J. W. Van Sant” that I began to believe that I had become badly mixed in my records, as I had a “J. W. Van Sant” and a “J. W. Van Sant Jr.” in my list.  The trouble was that the memory of my informants did not run back far enough into the vistas of the dim past.  The first “J. W. Van Sant” was built away back in 1869, one of the very first of the rafters and it is strange that she should have been forgotten, and that everyone should have had in mind the second of the name, built very much later.


     When I get down to the “J’s” a few weeks ago I wrote Captain Sam R. Van Sant for the facts in the case, and he has kindly furnished me the history of the first “Van Sant” in the form of a letter from his winter home in Valrico, Florida.  As it would spoil the story to attempt to translate it into language other than the Captain’s I will give it as received from his own hand:


     VALRICO, FLORIDA, Feb. 8, 1916.—Dear Captain:  Yours relative to the “J. W. Van Sant” (first) received.  This boat if you will let me tell it, was a famous one, and did more to revolutionize the rafting of logs and lumber than any other steamer ever built.  She was the first stern-wheel rafter with large power ever purposely built for rafting.  The little “LeClaire” was earlier, but her engines were so small that she soon abandoned the business.  My father and I built this boat at LeClaire, Iowa, in 1869, and she came out new in the spring of 1870.  The celebrated old-time engineer, Henry Whitmore, of Galena was her first engineer.  Her machinery was from the Niles Works, Cincinnati—at the same, by the same firm, the engines of the “Natchez” were built, but there was a difference in size.  The “Natchez’s” were 30 inches bore by 10 feet stroke, while those for our boat were 12 inches bore by 4 feet stroke.  Nearly everybody thought we were crazy to put in such large cylinders; but the boat was a success.  She could lower her chimneys and her pilot-house and easily pass under the old Rock Island Bridge.  On her first trip down with a raft was the lumber king, (his kingship came afterwards) Frederick Weyerhaeuser.  It was his raft that we were towing, and he was uneasy and curious to see the experiment tried.  Just before reaching the dangerous bridge the chimneys and pilot house were lowered and boat and raft easily and safely passed under, and the raft was then backed to the Illinois shore and landed in the mill boom.  This settled it!


     I was, of course, much pleased, thinking we would get a contact to run Mr. Weyerhaeuser’s logs; but he knew a  good thing when he saw it and soon built boats to do his own work—and so did C. Lamb & Sons, W. J. Young, Hersey Lumber Company, and others.  We built boats for them, but we did not get their towing.


     All have heard of the danger of navigating the draw, down-stream, of the old Rock Island bridge.  The “J. W. Van Sant” once had some trouble landing a raft just above the bridge and got so near the piers that Dana Dorrance, the rapids pilot, to save the boat, passed safely thru the draw backwards—a feat never accomplished before or since.  There was no time to even lower the chimneys.


     The first year,--1870—she was chartered to the (now) venerable Captain George Winans, now living at Waukesha, Wisconsin, who made a marked success.  She rafted the following year, 1871, and also engaged in the work of improving the upper rapids!  In 1872 she was sold to the Eau Claire Lumber Co., who used her a number of years in their business, during which time she was in charge of Captain Peter Kirns, of St. Louis.  He ran her as master until she was dismantled in 1882 and rebuilt as the “Peter Kirns,” so named in honor of her captain.


     The “J. W. Van Sant” was 100.0 feet long, 20.0 feet beam, 4.0 feet hold: one 10-inch flue boiler.  Nearly all river men declared said boiler would not make steam, but Henry Whitmore said it would, and it did.  At first there was a little trouble owing to wrong kind of grate-bars.  I remember an amusing incident in this connection.  We got some good, dry wood, and it kept the old engineer busy hanging weights on the safely valve to keep her from blowing off.  Soon there was trouble—the “doctor” would not supply, and the water was getting low in the boiler; and when Henry Whitmore said: “Land the boat.” No time was lost in doing so.  Our first chance was the government island of Rock Island.  The boat had hardly touched the bank before the crew scrambled up the bank and ran for the woods—and I was in the lead.  A government guard tried to stop us, but I told him that I was an old soldier, and that I was more afraid of that boiler, which was surely going to explode that I was of a gun.  He saw the point and allowed us to seek safety until the danger was past.  It was discovered that the flat which we had in tow alongside had caused a recession of water just behind it, leaving the supply pipe to the “doctor” above the water line.  It turned out all right, and everybody on board was satisfied that the “J. W. Van Sant” would make steam.  She was one of the fastest boats on the upper river.  This boat was my first venture: and while we have owned 30 or more steamboats since that time, the original rafter was and a little the best boat we ever built or owned.  She was a success from the start.


     Our company remained in the rafting business until the logs ceased to come – 43 years in all.  I am still interested in the running of boats and expect to be as long as Captain Blair runs boats and needs a friend.  The “J. W. Van Sant” was named after my venerable father, who built and repaired boats on the upper Mississippi for more than sixty years.



September 2, 1916


Recollections Concerning Steamer “Jenny Lind.”


      ST, PAUL, August 24. – Editor Post:  Your account of the steamer Jenny Lind called to my mind some of my earliest recollections of boats navigating the upper Mississippi river.


     If there were only one boat of this name it must have been the one built for service on Lake Winnebago and I will give my reasons for this belief.  I never saw a boat constructed just like her.  She was narrower after the wheels than forward.  In other words, her hull forward was wide enough to protect her wheels from logs so that they actually were safe from any contact with logs or other obstructions.  I remember this so well because the “Jenny Lind” was lengthened at my father’s boat yard in Rock Island.


     It was after this that she went into the freight and passenger business.  She was not built for that purpose and had to be reconstructed.  My impression was that she was owned after this change, in part at least, by Captain Wm. Allen, an old pioneer steamboat man of LeClaire, Iowa.  It may have been that Capt. A. H. Davenport of the same place, was associated with him.


     While I was only a boy, I remember this boat very well and her peculiar construction, and I am quite sure she was built to run amongst the logs so as to protect her wheels.  This lengthening of the boat must have been in the year 1853 or 1854.

                                                                  Respectfully yours,

                                                                  S. R. VAN SANT.


September 9, 1916


Hon. John Lawler and the “Jenny Brown.”


     MINNEAPOLIS, Minn., Aug 25.—Capt. Geo. B. Merrick, Madison, Wisconsin.  Dear Capt:  The “Jenny Brown” at one time belonged to Honorable John Lawter of Prairie Du Chien.  I have reason to remember this boat and her owner.  Our steamer “D.M. McDonald” than sixty days old, blew up and sunk just below the Milwaukee Pontoon bridge at North McGregor.


     After overcoming a great many difficulties we raised the wreck by chains placed under the hull and swinging what was left of the old boat between two large barges.  The question then was what to do.  No boat yard nearer than Dubuque and our own still farther down at LeClaire, Iowa.


      I conceived the idea of taking the sunken craft to LeClaire.  It was thought to be a “crazy undertaking” by all the steamboatmen with whom I came in contact.  For the purpose mentioned, we wanted a side wheel steamer and a first class pilot.  I appealed to Mr. Lawter for the use of his steamer “Jenny Brown.”  He said, young man, (paying me quite a compliment), a steamboatman man with your grit, should be encouraged, take the boat.  Captain Joseph Gardapie was on one of our tow boats and we took him for our pilot.


     We made a bunting block by fastening a huge timber against the ends of the cylinder timbers, well shored against the wheel shaft and hitched the “Jenny Brown” into tow, raft boat fashion.  No one on the old Mississippi prior to this time ever saw or heard of such an undertaking.  To tell the truth, “my heart was in my mouth” most of the time – as the old saying was.


     We arrived safely at Dubuque where we tied up for the night.  Many of my friends advised me to leave the boat at Dubuque boat ways and not try to run the bridge, but I was in no financial condition to do this and felt that I must get to our own ways where I had credit and my friends believed in me.  I did not sleep very well that night.  At daybreak next morning it was calm and we passed the bridge safely.  With one of our greatest dangers behind us our next would be Clinton bridge, which had a much lower draw span and much more difficult to navigate, but our splendid pilot with the help of the “Jenny Brown” put the tow though safely.


      When we landed with our wreck at LeClaire a happier or more satisfied steamboat man could not be found the whole length of the Mighty Father of Waters.  We returned the “Jenny Brown” and when I asked for the bill, Mr. Lawter said, “No Charges.”  I was surprised and very happily disappointed, for I was going to ask him to take my note.  This late day I will admit that I was a “broken merchant” but would not then say so.  Mr. Lawter will always have a warm place in my memory and I shall always feel under the greatest obligation to him for his generous treatment.  He not only did this but let us have use of the chains, blocks, timbers and everything possible to encourage us and help us.


      Mr. Lawter was a big man, big beamed as well as big bodied and one seeing him for the first time would never forget him, but would be greatly impressed, not only with his manly proportions, but his kindly expression.  He was the owner of the Milwaukee Railroad Pontoon Bridge between McGregor and Prairie du Chein, as well as the owner of the ferries plying between these cities.


    He was a man of large affairs, at one time President of the Minnesota Packing Company.  A story about him while serving in that capacity was told me by my father more than a half a century ago, which shows his true character and the nobility of the man.  One of the finest and most successful steamers that his Company or any other company ever owned was the “Northern Light.”  She was sunk in Coon slough by the ice early one spring.  The loss of this magnificent boat was a sad blow to the Company.  When Mr. Lawter was informed of the disaster, his first question was, “were there any lives lost?” – when told no, his face brightened and he remarked,  “That’s good, money can replace the boat but could not restore life.”  Some one familiar with his life and his steamboat experience should write a history of this old time steamboatman, for he was connected with our early navigation and was the owner of several steamboats.


      His son Daniel Lawter, ex-mayor of St. Paul, is now the democratic candidate for United States Senator.  While “Dan” and I differ politically, I am pleased to say that we are good friends and to say further that he is a worthy son of a most worthy sire.


      I was advised by those who had had experience that it would have been cheaper to remove the machinery and build a new boat.  No doubt this was true, as a matter of fact the sequel proved it for it cost more to raise and rebuild the boat than her original cost.  However, I was satisfied that our only course was to keep “pegging away.”  We were heavily in debt for the building of the “McDonald” and she had not earned anything during her short life.  As long as we kept on the job our creditors did not have the heart to press their claims, whereas if we had commenced a new craft, “all hands and the cook” would have wanted their money.  The result was that the new boat came out in the spring and although it was the great panic year of 1873, she was most successful and when the season ended she paid every bill and then some.  Time fully demonstrated that I pursued the right course.

                                                             Yours truly,

                                                              S.R. VAN SANT



November 4, 1916


Anent the John McKee.

“There Ain’t No Such Boat.”


     MINNEAPOLIS, Minn., Oct. 26.—Dear Captain:  There was no “John McKee,” but there was a well-known steamer “Jas. McKee.”  She ran between Rock Island and Keokuk—perhaps part of the time only as far as Fort Madison.  She was very fast.  LeRoy Dodge, of Buffalo, Ia., was for a long time her master and I think owner as well, or part owner.  He has children living in Davenport, Iowa.  The well known attorney, Frank Dodge, is his son.


     The “McKee” was what was known as a “lock-boat,” similar to the “Luzerne,” “Tishomingo,” and many others brought around her from Pittsburg.  I think the “West Newton” was another, as well as the “Nominee.”  I have been on the “Jas. McKee” at Rock Island landing many times, and she was repaired at my father’s boat yard.  She was narrow, and a very sharp model forward, and probably 160 to 170 feet long.  She was as trim and handsome a little craft as could be found on the river in the ’50’s.


                                                                S. R. AN SANT.


  I would not let that the name of this boat is right now.  Captain Van Sant abbreviates the name all the time, and also makes his “a’s” and “o’s” so much alike that it raises the out.  It may have been the “Jos. McKee,” after all.  I have seen it “J McKee,” “John McKee,” “James McKee” and “Jos. McKee” in different papers.  Had I ever seen it plain “Jim McKee” it would have settled it.   

                                                               G. B. M.



January 20, 1917

Kit Carson


      Capt. San Van Sant contributes the following items, some of which may appear in the foregoing, but many which are additional to anything I had previously:


      The “Kit Carson” was built, owned and operated by Captain A. R. Young originally.  She succeeded and took the place of the “Minnesota,” a tow-boat used in towing great fleets of logs and lumber thru Lake Pepin.  She had the engines taken out of the old side-wheel packet “Hamburg” that sunk in the ‘50’s near where the “Minnesota” was built.  I remember the “Hamburg” as a boy.  At that time no boat scaped in the chinneys, and we boys could always tell her, as she scaped so loud that it was easy to tell her a mile away before she reached the landing.  The machinery of the “Hamburg” did service for 50 or 60 years.


      The “Kit Carson” was one of the top notch rafters,--both powerful and fast.  Her engines were 16 inches by 6 feet stroke.  I think she was owned by the Knapp, Stout & Co. for a time.  I am sure that McDonald Brothers bought and operated her practically until the rafting business ended.  She was then sold and went south.  I do not know what became of her.


      For a time at least Captain Sam Hitchcock was her master, and he was a first-class master, and pilot too, and had splendid success as master and pilot of several other No. 1 rafters.  He worked on our boats, and was captain of the “D. A. McDonald” in 1871.


     Captain A. R. Young was a long time on the river.  He had several brothers who were steamboat masters and engineers.  Too bad that so many of the old-timers have made their last landing on the other shore.  Too soon the last of us will have to cross the dark river.


     Just as I finished writing the above I find in the November 18 issue of the Waterways Journal the following additional data regarding the “Kit Carson:”  The Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works have received a contract to build a stern-wheel, steel-hull tow boat for the Patton-Tully Transportation Company, of Memphis, Penn.  She will be 1400 feet long, 30.0 feet beam, will have the “Kit Carson’s” machinery. 



January  20, 1917           

Capt. S. R. Van Sant on Sick List.


      VALRICO, Fla., Jan. 9.—Captain Merrick: I write to you a little article on the “Kentucky” No. 2 which you are at liberty to use if you desire.  I must explain why you have not heard from me.  I have been in Florida a month, but have been a very sick man and have been unable to write or do any kind business.  It is fortunate that now and then I can secure a party who helps me out.  I am getting better and hope soon to be myself again.

     Wishing you and yours a Happy New Year.


                                                                  S. R. VAN SANT



January 20, 1917

Burning of the Kentucky at Rock Island.


       VALRICO, Fla., Jan. 9.—My Dear Captain Merrick: Reading in the last issue of the Saturday Evening Post about so many boats named “Kentucky,” called to my mind vividly, an incident in my life that I shall never forget.


       The steamer “Prairie State” had just been repaired and tied up at the bank just above the Weyerhaeuser & Denckman mill, at Rock Island.  She was in charge of B. Howard, as mate.  The crew were expected in a day or so.  The “Kentucky” landed outside the “Prairie State.”  I was employed by Captain Ben Howard to watch while he went to breakfast.  It was a cold, raw day in July.  The officers of the “Kentucky” made a fire in the stove in the Texas, and from some cause the boat took fire.  The wind was hard on shore.  Every effort was made to separate the boats and save the “Prairie State,” but it was impossible to do so, and both were burned.


      Maybe I was not a scared boy.  Capt. Howard was away to breakfast and the boat is in my charge.  I knew that I was not to blame; but my father had not received his money, and I feared that he might lose it, or be blamed for the accident.  Not knowing fully what to do I ran up the bank to meet Captain Howard, who was hurrying to the burning steamers.   After explaining the cause of the fire he assured me that that I was in no way to blame, and was so kind to me in other ways that I have been proud to call him friend ever since.  Many times since, when Captain Howard commanded some of the finest boats on the Mississippi and Ohio, it was a genuine pleasure to take a trip now and then with him.  Captain Howard was a prince, and so popular that he always had command of the very finest boats.  I remember some of these trips were on the beautiful and speedy “Idlewild.”


      This “Kentucky” was a good sized stern-wheel boat.  While this article may not be particularly interesting, it at least locates the graveyard of one of your boats named “Kentucky.”


  The “Prairie State” belonged to the company Capt. J. S. McCune was president of—the St. Louis & Keokuk Packet Co.  Another thing that causes me to remember this fire is that my father bought the wrecks of both boats and I helped to haul them out and tear them to pieces.

                                                       Sincerely Yours,

                                                       S. R. VAN SANT.



January 27, 1917

L. W. CRANE      

  Captain Sam Van Sant adds the following “The “L. W. Crane” was for some time engaged in towing logs and lumber.  John Seating had her under charter and was her master for a time.  I first knew that splendid comrade and Boss pilot, Captain George Rutherford, when he was employed on this boat.  No man stood higher on the river than Captain Rutherford.  He was in our employ for many years, and at one time was a stockholder in the LeClaire Navigation Company.  I do not know what became of the “L. W. Crane.”



January 27, 1917

LACLEDGE (second).


  Captain Van Sant, who knew of every boat on the upper river, from the ‘50’s down, says of the Laclede:

     “She was repaired at my father’s boatyard at Rock Island in 1856 or ’57.  I do not know anything about her captain or the owners, but I remember she had a full cabin, and was a passenger and freight boat.  She was in service during the Civil War, and I remember this because when a soldier at Helena, Arkansas, I went to Dogstown, below Helena, where I met him and stayed with him a day or two.  I enjoyed the steamer’s grub as a change from the hard track and side meat.  In this connection I want to say that Ben Wilson was a first-class engineer and popular, and always had first-class positions.  I do not know what became of the “Laclede,” but presume she sank somewhere in the lower Mississippi.”


January 27, 1917

Lady Franklin

  In a letter recently received from Captain Sam Van Sant he says:

      “The “Lady Franklin” is one of the first boats that I can remember.  She was on the ways at Rock Island when my father was superintendent in 1851 or 1852.  Tock Island at that time was a small town, and I remember that my mother took the engineers and some of the men who worked on the boats as boarders, and amongst those boarders were Henry Whitmore and William Meyers, both famous engineers in their day and generation. I think that the “Nominee” was on the ways the same winter.  At that time Bailey & Boyle owned the boatyard, and it was situated at the upper end of town.  The “Lady Franklin” ran in the upper Mississippi trade for some time, and she finally sank in Coon Slough, near Britt’s Landing.  I was too young to give you the names of the captain and other officers of the boat, but I look back with pleasure to the old days when the Mississippi was a mighty factor in developing the great northwest.”



February 24, 1917


  Captain Van Sant says:

       “This boat was built as a rafter in the middle or late ‘60’s,--but never did much work in that line, I think that she was owned and built by Captain Thomas Doughty and others and later, was sold to Joseph Parkins, who owned the famous LeClaire stone quarries. She was for a long time engaged in towing stone to Rock Island, Davenport, and Moline.  She delivered in flat boats, the stone for the first Rock Island Arsenal on the foot of the Island.


      “She was sold to C. G. Case & Co., the upper rapids contractors soon after the Civil War, and was used for towing in deepening and improving the channel between LeClaire and Davenport.  One winter she sunk opposite Hampton about the middle of the river.  J. W. Van Sant & Company were asked to make a bid for raising and repairing the boat.  We did so, offering to perform the work for $1,500.  The owners were horrified at the price, and stated they would sell the boat as she lay for that amount.  We immediately accepted the offer.  We raised and repaired the boat and sold her back to the former owners for $4,000—not a bad bargain.


      “The little LeClaire was known as a successful boat and did good service as a tow-boat.  Really she was one of the very first, if not the first raft boat ever built specially for that business.  The trouble was she did not have power enough.


      “Capt. Doughty was engineer of this boat for several years.  He was a fine engineer, well-educated man and was long and well-known in the city of LeClaire where he lived so long.  He was chief engineer on a Mississippi River gun-boat during the civil war, and is said to have been the inventor of the periscope now in such general use on all submarines.  He died in St. Louis.  The LeClaire ran until she was worn out and then dismantled.”



March 3, 1917



  In the LaCrosse Chronicle in the early spring of 1882 the LeClaire Belle is mentioned, with two other rafters, under the heading “A New Tow Boat Company,” as follows:


     “A new company has been recently organized in Davenport which bears the name of the Van Sant & Musser Towing and Transportation Company.  The company will run three boats this season, namely, the “James Fiske, Jr.,” “ LeClaire Belle” and “Silver Wave.”  The genial Sam Van Sant, who is known all along the river, is general superintendent of the new company, and will look closely after all outside interests.  The “Fiske” is now on the ways at Dubuque, undergoing extensive repairs.  She will have three new balance rudders, will be repainted and her cabin fitted up in fine style.  The “Silver Wave” is on the ways in LeClaire, and is being rebuilt.  She will come out on the opening of navigation as bright as a brand new craft.  The “LeClaire Belle” is on the Rock Island ways and is also undergoing repairs from stem to stern, and from keel to pilot house.”


     Since writing the forgoing I have received from Captain Sam Van Sant, Valrico, Florida, the following very full and interesting history of the “LeClaire :”


     “This well known and successful rafter was built at the Van Sant boat yard during the Fall and Winter of 1872-1873.  She entered the rafting business in the early Spring of 1873.  At this time, and just before, was the great era of raft-boat building at LeClaire.  First came the “J. W. Van Sant” (original) 1870; next the “Bro. Jonathan,” 1871, then the “Abner Gil,” “D. A. McDonald” and “James Malborn,” 1872.


     “The promoters and builders of the “LeClaire Belle” were Van Sant & Son, Captain John McCaffrey, and Mr. Robert Isherwood, and Mr. Jonathan Zebley.  As she was built after all the others mentioned above, it was reported that she was a “clean up,” built from the scraps and leavings of the other boats, and as the owners could not, or did not, agree on a name, she was carried on the books of the builders as, “Poverty.”  As a matter of fact she was inspected when I was absent and the name was to be wired to Galena for registry; but as I did not return as expected the United States inspectors wired that they must have a name at once, and to wire immediately.  Under the circumstances something had to be done, and as Mrs. Van Sant was equal to the occasion, she telegraphed the name “LeClaire Belle.”


     “She was a most successful craft and always ”brought home the bacon” for her owners.  By the time the boat was completed her owners had been reduced to Van Sant and McCaffrey.  Her engines and doctor came out of the sunken ferry boat “Benton,” at Alton.  Two boilers with two flues 24 feet long, 40 inches in diameter, with cylinders 14 inches by 4 feet stroke.  A little story connected with the purchase of her boilers may be interesting.  The McDonald was blown up the year before and was repaired, but without boilers, so we needed a battery for each boat.  I made a contract with Joseph Wangler for them; but when it came to terms of settlement, there was the rub.  He wanted his money, or the assurance that it would be forthcoming, while I wanted the boilers on “space’—a serious difference—but I thought if I could get the Northern Line Packet Company to go my security I could get the boilers, to which Wangler agreed.  Rather a cheeky thing to ask; but we had several of their steamers on the boat ways for winter and our company had bought, the year before, the old steamer “James Means” from them, and had converted her into a raft boat, and I presumed, because we had paid for the boat, and had money coming in the Spring from work on their steamers, that they would help me out; but I was told that it could not be done, as it was contrary to their articles of incorporation.  The expressed sympathy for me; but it was not sympathy that I wanted, but boilers.  I was leaving the office a sad hearted and disappointed man, when Captain James Ward, then president of the Northern Line, said, “Wait a moment in the ante room.”  Later I was called back and told that while they could not go our security that perhaps they could help me out by accepting drafts payable in the future.  This was satisfactory to Mr. Wangler, and both boats started out in the Spring with the opening of navigation.


     “As Captain McCaffrey managed the “LeClaire Belle” I cannot speak of her first season’s profits; but I know when Fall came she owed no man a dollar.  The McDonald’s first trip with the new boilers was the most successful trip, financially, ever made by her or any other boat we ever owned.  She made enough to pay for both boilers and a handsome surplus left over.  In view of these things I can never forget the officers of the Northern Line Packet Company.  By their generous act they gave me another chance and a new start in life.  The drafts were paid before falling due from the earnings of the boats.


     “I spoke of the fact that the “LeClaire Belle” was a successful boat; but I believe that I am safe in saying that she practically paid for herself every season she ran.  She was dismantled at LeClaire after seven teen years of active service.  Her machinery, engines, etc. were in operation fully fifty years, and perhaps more.  Her engines were broken up for old iron, but her hull was in such a sate it was converted into a coal barge, and a few years later sank on the Illinois shore, near Rapids City coal mines.   


     “Our company in connection with Captain McCaffrey used the LeClaire Belle in the towing rafts until 1877 or1879, when the S. & J. C. Atlee Co. bought Captain McCaffrey’s half.  The boat made such a good season running Atlee’s logs that he wanted the entire boat, so the only thing we could do was to let her go.  A year or so later Atlee & Co. built the Sam Altee.  They soon found that they had too many boats, and our company again purchased the “LeClaire Belle” and kept her until she was dismantled as stated.  Most of the time Captain J. H. Short, usually known as “H” Short, commanded while we owned her.  She was one of the first boats to have electric light and as Capt. Short was a first class pilot, and did not want to be surpassed by any pilot on the river, he kept her going day and night.  She was affectionately called by captain and crew the “Midnight Belle.”  At the time of the Francis Murphy Blue Ribbon movement the “Belle” had a Blue Ribbon crew, and after that she was nicknamed the “Blue Ribbon Belle.”   Perhaps this boat made the most marvelous record on seven consecutive trips from Beef Sough to Muscatine.  When the “McDonald" sank at Keokuk the Belle took her place on the Muscatine run, with Captain Rutherford at the wheel.  The seven trips were made in forty-two days.  Captain George Rutherford was second to no other raft pilot. “One of the most pleasant memories of this boat is that Captain Walter A. Blair became associated with me in river work.  The year that she belonged to Altee and our company jointly, Captain Blair went as clerk and nigger runner.  His job was far from a pleasant one but he filled the bill so well that from the time to the present we have intimately associated, as employer and employee, and later as partners in the steamboat business.  We organized the LeClaire Navigation Company, starting with a capital of $3,000 and the old steamer “Last Chance.”  The company prospered owing to the skill, perseverance and good judgment of Captain Blair.  Today he is to my mind, par excellence, the captain of captains on the upper Mississippi River.


     “The LeClaire Navigation Company owned several first class rafters, such as the “Tenbroeck,” “Silver

Crescent,” “J. W. Mills” and others, and the outgrowth of this insignificant beginning is the Carnival

City Packet Company and the Northern Steamboat Company, with such steamers “The Morning Star,”

“Helen Blair, Keokuk, and Black Hawk.”  Captain Blair is good at holding on, and as long as he sticks I am

 going to stick with him, for I am interested in both of his companies, and while river business is not

what it used to be, if anyone can win out Captain Blair can.


     “Henry Bingham was engineer on the LeClarie Belle for many years.  He has answered his last bell and

made his last landing on the other shore.  No man ever steamboated with him who did not always have

 unbounded praise for his work as an engineer, and also as a good all round man.


     “I have written at length, but this boat brings to mind so many pleasant associations that I trust I will

not be judged too harshly for it.  The so-termed Poverty turned out one of the best and most successful

raft steamers ever built for that business, and was by no means constructed of the scraps and leavings

as her record shows.”   

                                               S.R. VAN SANT                      



March 3, 1917


On Steamer Lamartine.


     VALRICO, FLORIDA, Feb. 23, 1917.—Dear Captain: Your account of the old steamer “Lamartine” interested me for my first work on the river was on that boat.  I was about third or fourth cook.—“slush” cook, sure enough.  My duties consisted in cutting wood, peeling potatoes, scaling fish, and washing dishes.  I could give the boat “grub” to the deck passengers in return for their labor with saw and buck, and I cut little wood you may believe.  It was no snap, however, and I did not remain on that boat long.


     This steamer at that time connected with the old Chicago & Rock Island Railway, carrying passengers and freight from Muscatine and on her return trip brought passengers and freight to Muscatine and on her return trip brought passengers and freight from Muscatine to the railroad.  At that time there was no bridge across the Mississippi.  The railway came into Rock Island, and the first to reach the big river, in September 1851.  After the building of the bridge the “Lamartine’s” occupation in that trade ended.  She did a fine business while it lasted.  She was owned then by Captain William Phelps of Muscatine.


     I remember when she sank.  It was in shallow water and she was soon raised, and she was repaired at father’s boat yard.  It was on this account that I made the acquaintance of the cook and hired out to him as stated.


     You are right: she was slow—a blunt model and small power.  Captain Phelps later owned a boat called the “Pretender.”  He put her in the rafting business.  She was a failure.  I remember she had an immense fly-wheel in the center.  I presume she was a single-engine side-wheel boat. 

                                                       Yours Truly,

                                                        S. R. VAN SANT




August 18, 1917


The “Mary C.” and her owners, the Colemans—

Some Good Letters from an Old-time Muscatine Editor.


      MADISON, Wis., August 17, 1917.—“When the Lights Went Out,” about the middle of May last, I had just received three communications for the steamboat column,--one from Capt. Sam Van Sant, and two from Mr. John Mahin, of 3944 Pine Grove Avenue, Chicago.  Now that I have so recovered the use of my eyes as to permit an hour’s work at the typewriter it is with pleasure that I transmit these letters after a delay of three months en route.  Captain Van Sant, writing from Valrico, Florida, says:


      My Dear Merrick: Just an addenda about the “Mary C.”  AS I lived at Rock Island, near, Rockingham, I knew the Colemans well, and recollect the “Mary C.” and the old “Caleb Cope.”


      The Mary C.” was built by Capt. Coleman at Rockingham.  She was named in honor of his daughter, Mary.


      Captain Coleman was the father of Andrew and Jas. Coleman, St. Louis and St. Paul pilots on packets during and after civil war.  Captain Jas. Coleman was on raft boats, ours included, for several years, and later was part owner of the “Golden Gate.”  Captain George Rutherford also was part owner, commander and first pilot of that boat for several seasons.  This boat had the machinery of the steamer “Jas Means,” dismantled on account of old age.


     The original Captain Coleman at one time owned the “Caleb Cope,” a boat noted for her tremendous exhaust that could be heard for miles.


     As I remember, the “Mary C.” was a single-engine, stern-wheel boat.  She was, as stated, employed at one time in towing rafts through Lakes St. Croix and Pepin.


     Captain Andrew Coleman died at his wheel, taking a steamboat over the upper rapids.  For several years he was engaged in rapids work.  He was an A No. 1 pilot.


                                                             S. R. VAN SANT.


November 24, 1917


It Was The Active—Sam Says So.


     ST. Paul, Nov. 21.—Captain G. B Merrick, Madison, Wisconsin.  Dear Captain G. B. Merrick:  I believe I can help settle the question as to the name of the first boat to run a raft down the Mississippi River.  Most all authorities agree that the first raft so run was to W. J. Young, Clinton, Iowa.  This being true I remember distinctly discussing this very question with Mr. Young and he told me he received the first raft by boat and the name of the steamer was the “Active,” and that Cyrus G. Bradley was the pilot and contracted to run the raft from Stillwater.  I had the same information from Capt. Bradley who chartered the steamer “Jas. Means,” from us in 1871.  I am satisfied that the “Active” was the pioneer rafter, and I think that all agree that Captain Bradley was the master pilot.


     Captain Bradley may well be termed the Dean, the very first in rafting by a steam-boat.  He also built the first side-wheel steamer the “Minnie Will” for raft and towing.  There were several boats of this character, such as the “Union,” “Tiger” or “Tigress,”” L. W. Bardon,” “L. W. Crane” and others similarly constructed.  They were geared and usually called Coffee Mill Boats.  Others were built later, same style, the “Clyde” (original) later made into a stern wheel boat.  “Buckeye,”“Pete Wilson” and still others.


     At this time, soon after returning from the war, I was engaged with my father in the building and repairing of steam boats at LeClaire, Iowa.  We repaired many of these boats and as LeClaire was the head of the rapids I came in contact with many pilots running these small boats as well as floating pilots, and after much consideration we concluded to build a stern wheel rafter which we proceeded to do in 1869.  We named her the “J. W. Van Sant” after the senior member of our firm.  She was the first stern wheel rafter ever built purposely for the business with large power. (Having 12 inch cylinder 4 foot stroke.)  Many said this was too much power; it proved the contrary for she was a decided success and other boats followed rapidly with equal power and many with greater.


     I was early in the business and followed the towing of logs and lumber to its decline, but there never was a more successful rafter than our steam-boat line that operated on the river for more than forty years.


     It is true that a stern-wheel boat, “Little LeClaire,” built by Captain G. Trombly and Thomas Doughty, was built before the original “J. W. Van Sant,” but she did not have power enough.  (Having 8 inch cylinder 22 inch stroke), and went into other line of work.


     My long experience on the river bought to me more or less information along a line of business in which practically a life time I have been engaged.  I want to go on record as stating that the first raft boat was the “Active” and her pilot was Captain C. G. Bradley.


     It was soon demonstrated that the stern-wheel boat was the best tow-boat for rafting and as a matter of fact, the best ever constructed for that purpose or towing of any kind on the Mississippi or its tributaries.

                                                                        Yours Truly,

                                                                        S. R. VAN SANT.



January 12, 1918


Captain Van Sant Adds Details.

Niota Belle


      The “Niota Belle” was a ferry boat that was employed at Fort Madison or some point down the river in that vicinity until the Mississippi Bridge was built.  The last work of this boat was under the command of the old engineer, James B. (always called him Jim) Hunt, who bought her and ran her as a ferry between Savanna and Sabula.  She was pretty old, and while at LeClaire waiting to go on the ways for the winter, sank, being cut down by ice.  She was raised and repaired, and ended her days in the service mentioned.


     Captain Hunt was a famous, well known engineer; and in the balmy days of steamboating always commanded a good berth on the best packets.  All of those old time engineers have passed away except Captain William McCraney, of Winona.  There were engineers as were engineers in the ‘50’s. ‘60’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s.


     (Captain Jas. B. Hunt was in the Minnesota Packet Company when I was cubing in that famous line, and he and his brother, Hiram, were among the “hot ones” of the line.  He was chief of Galena when she burned at Red Wing in July 1858.  My one time chief, Billy Hamilton, was one time second with Hunt at that time. G. B. M.)


North Star


     This boat was as fine a rafter as ever pushed a raft down the big creek.  She was built at Dubuque, replacing the steamer Glenmont, having her machinery.  She was 140 feet long, 30 feet beam, 4 ˝ feet hold.  Big power.  She was one of the last boats to run rafts.  Captain Elmer McCraney built and was part owner.  She belonged to the Van Sant Navigation co., and was commanded by Captain Joseph Buisson, Captain W. Hunter, and others.  After the rafting business closed she was purchased by the CB&Q.R.R., and was used in bridge building on the Ohio River.  She is still running.  Captain John Killeen had the contact for construction of the hull, and he certainly did a good job.  After several years in the rafting business, making good money for her owners, she sold for considerably more than she cost.

                                                                       S.R. VAN SANT.



February 19, 1918

 Bun Hersey vs. B. Hershey.

—Sam Van Sant Referee.


     VALRICO, Fla., Jan 31.—Capt. G. B. Merrick:  I think I can clear your mind about the Bun Hersey and the B. Hershey.


    The Bun Hersey belonged to C. August Staples, of Stillwater, and was used in towing logs from Stillwater boom to his rafting works.  He also towed logs rafted at St. Paul boom from Prescott to Stillwater and Hudson.  The Bun Hersey was a small side-wheeler, and named after one of the Hersey children.  Her owner died some years ago.  He was known by all river men as he rafted and fitted up the tows for down river point.


     The “B. Hershey” was a powerful stern-wheel tow boat built by the Hershey Lumber Company at Rock Island.  She was for years commanded by that splendid prince of pilots, Cyprian Buisson of Wabasha, now of St. Paul.  Later she was owned by Buisson Brothers, who towed the logs for the Hershey Lumber Company, and did a general rafting business.  The “B. Hershey” and her captain made a proud record and no boat or pilot ever surpassed the first class work done by this boat and her gallant captain.


     Quite late in the rafting of logs and lumber the B. Hershey was bought by the Van Sant Navigation Co., who sold a half interest to Captain Albert Day, of Davenport.  When rafting ended she went south and has likely gone to the steamboat bone-yard before this.


     She had the engines out of the big ferry boat Northern Illinois which after the Sabula bridge was built, was sold and wrecked.  I think this statement will clear up the doubt in your mind about the two boats.


     Captain Cyp. Buisson is still on the river and was pilot on the Morning Star last year.  All steamboatmen wish him a long and happy life.

                                                                      Sincerely Yours,

                                                                       S. R. VAN SANT



April 27, 1918


Pilot (Third) At Miami, Florida.


      MINNEAPOLIS, Minn.,  April 12, 1918--My Dear Captain Merrick:  Just a word about the Pilot (third).  This boat was built by Captain D. F. Dorrance, the noted rapids pilot, and not by D. F. Duncan, as you have it.  Her machinery was taken out of the steamer Wild Boy, wrecked (dismantled) at LeClaire.  At one time the Van Sant Navigation Company, with others, were owners.  She was sold to Ohio River parties and her name was changed to Peerless.


      The last time I saw her she was at Miami, Florida.  Mr. Flagler, the builder of the ocean railway to Key West, bought this boat and some eight others and took them via New Orleans, though the Gulf of Mexico, to Florida, and there used them in building the above railway.


      We sold him two boats, the Virginia and the Phil Scheckel.  The trip though the Gulf of Mexico was a perilous one, and two of the fleet were sunk.  I presume that the Countess, one of the number, and all the others, have gone to the steamboat wreckers long before this.


                                                               S. R. VAN SANT




May 4, 1918




     “Maybe I was not a scared boy, Captain Howard was away to breakfast, and the boat was in my charge.  I knew that I was not to blame; but my father had not received his money for the repairs, and I feared that he might lose it, or be blamed for the accident.  Not knowing fully what to do I ran up the bank to meet Captain Howard, who was hurrying to the burning steamers.  After I explained the cause of the fire he assured me that I was in no way to blame, and he was so kind to me in other ways, that I have been proud to call him friend ever since.


     The Prairie State belonged to the company of which John S. McClune was president (the St. Louis & Keokuk Packet Co.)  Another thing that makes me remember this fire is that my father bought the wrecks of both boats.”




September 21, 1918

SILVER WAVE (second)


     Stern wheel rafter formerly the D. McDonald, built at LeClaire, Iowa, 1872; 120.0 feet long, 24.0 feet beam, 4.0 ft hold; 168.38 tons.  The McDonald was an unlucky boat, as the saying goes; Captain Van Sant puts it another way.  He says that it was no fault in her construction; but the accidents were either the result of gross carelessness or error in judgment in handling her, the latter liable to occur at any time and to the most capable officers.  These accidents took place while she was called the McDonald the first being the explosion of her boilers resulting in the killing of 18 men of her crew, including Capt. Martin, who was at the wheel at the time.  It was the accident that Captain Van Sant refers to as gross carelessness, the mixture of too much fire under the boilers and too little water in the boilers.  She was repaired and back on her job in a short time.  Later she hit the Keokuk Bridge and sank, but was raised and again repaired.  To escape the obloquy of the term ill-fated, Captain Van Sant, about 1876-7, changed her name to Silver Wave, and he writes me that under this name she ran for several years successfully and made money for her owners.  Many will also remember her as a popular excursion boat from Dubuque, Clinton, LeClaire, Moline, Davenport  and Rock Island.


     Capt. Van Sant continues: “She was commanded by many of the best pilots, Sam Hitchcock, J. Hugunin, Geo. Rutherford, I. H. Short, Lome Short, Jas. Whistler, Stephen Withrow, Wm. M. Smith, and last by Captain George Trombley, who landed her for the last time after one of the best seasons for profit she ever made she ended her days where she started at LeClaire at the end of the 1889 season and was replaced in the Van Sant Navigation Company by the J. W. Van Sant (second.)


     Captain Van Sant continues:  “Captain W. A. Blair, well known steamboatman and steamboat owner very early got his first lessons in navigation on the Silver Wave, lessons that have made him one of the present most successful and experienced navigators of inland waters.  This boat during the winter of 1877-78 ran every month in the year, taking out excursions, Christmas Day, New Year, Washington’s Birthday, and St. Patrick’s Day.  She was dismantled at LeClaire and her machinery put into the Vernie Mac, and her hull was built over into a coal barge.”


     James Steadman (Stedman) was chief engineer in 1882.  John Burns was mate 1881 and 1882.



August 23, 1919

Tribute to the late Capt. George Trombley, Jr.


     MINNEAPOLIS, Minn., Aug. 19.—Editor Post:  Capt. George Trombley, Jr., was one of the best known up the Mississippi River steamboat men  who commenced at the bottom and by that  attention to business reached the very top.  He had no superior as master and pilot and he always commanded the best and the highest salary.


      I knew him long and intimately, knew him to respect and honor him not only for his ability but as a man.  He was very early in our employ starting on the deck of the Silver Wave, as he was the last master and pilot on that boat.  And it was rapid promotion from the lower deck to roof and pilot house.  After ringing the last bill and making the last landing on the Silver Wave in the spring of 1890, he took command of the new “J. W. Van Sant.”  Under his management, this boat made a record for quick trips, running big rafts and it is to his skill and success that the “J. W.” never made a losing trip while he was in charge.


     Capt. Trombley was universally liked by the crew and while he kept the boat going day and night, his men stood by him season after season.  One reason was that he was so skilful that he never, as the saying is, broke up but kept his raft and boat always in the deep water—that is, knew the channel and knew how to keep his steamboat and tow in it, thus missing bars and river banks.  I used to think that Captain Trombley took to the river naturely.  His father before him, as well as several of his uncles were not only steamboat masters and pilots, but were on the Old Mississippi during floating days when rafts were run without the use of steamboats.


     The men in charge of the steamers during that time were most skillful and have never been surpassed for their work.  These men whom I think stood in a class by themselves during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, when one hundred or more boats were engaged in towing logs and lumber to down river points, are passing away—their work has been done and will done.


     Captain Trombley has departed.  We will meet and greet him no more, but we are sure he has safely made his last landing and is safe on the other shore of Death’s dark river.

                                                                Yours Truly,

                                                                      S. R. VAN SANT


October 25, 1919


The Engines of the Steamer Vernie Mac.

  ST. Paul, Oct. 25.—Editor Post:  I read with much interest the account of the steamer “Vernie Mac” and desire to make a correction as to the engines of said boat.  The engines came out of the steamer “Silver Wave” and not the “Brother Jonathan.”  We wrecked the “Silver Wave” and not the “Brother Jonathan.”  We wrecked the “Silver Wave” and built in her place the steamer “J. W. Van Sant,” but as the old engines were not large enough and we sold them to Duncan McKenzie.

  These engines originally came out of the steamer “Guildon,” sunk very many years ago in the Arkansas.  Cut off so that the engines were in three different steam boats that I know of and were in constant use for a term of 50 or 60 years.

                                                              Yours Truly,

                                                                   S. R. VAN SANT



November 1, 1919

The Second Virginia—Built at Wabasha in 1910.


     ST. PAUL, Oct. 25.—Editor Post:  There was another Virginia besides the boat of that name that was the first steamer to come to Fort Snelling in 1823.  This boat was owned by the LeClaire Navigation Company and was built at Wabasha about 1910 by Capt. Peters & Son.  She was 4 feet depth of hull and 100 ft long, 24 ft. beam.  She replaced the steamer Rambo having her engines, boiler, doctor, and other machinery.  She was constructed for a bow boat but only made one trip from Wabasha to Keokuk.  She was sold at completion of the trip to Henry Flagler who was building the Ocean Railroad over the Florida Keys from Miami to Key West.  This will explain why her name does not appear in Captain Merrick’s list.  Our company also sold another boat, the “Phil Scheckel,” formerly owned by Knapp Stout & Company for use on the Chippewa River.  We used her several years for towing rafts.  She was very strongly built and certainly was a staunch craft for it was said that in running over the logs which would destroy an ordinary boat the logs would get the worst of it.


      Mr. Flagler also bought six other small boats, took them down to the mouth of the Mississippi river and by way of the Gulf of Mexico to Miami, Fla.  It must have been a perilous voyage as two of the boats were lost on the trip but the “Virginia” and “Phil Scheckel” with four others arrived in good condition and were used until the railroad to Key West was completed.


     It is said that the Phil Scheckel in a storm was blown away but safely landed in Havana, Cuba.  She must have been strongly built to stand the ocean’s storms.


     The “Virginia” was named after my granddaughter, Virginia Van Sant.  These two boats were not disposed of until the rafting business was practically over and we could dispense with them on account of the scarcity of logs which was closing down the saw mills all along the Mississippi river.


     After the building of the railroad mentioned, I understand all the of the six boats were dismantled and the machines stored at Miami.

                                                                 Yours truly,

                                                                       S. R. VAN SANT




November 29, 1919

(The article referred to below is included in the Recollections of Adam Clarke Van Sant.)

A Boy’s Story of Old Times on the Mississippi—Soon to Appear.


      VALRICA, Florida, Nov. 26 – Editor Post:  As our old Friend Capt. Merrick is incapacitated from writing his interesting stories of river life I am sending you “A Boy’s Story of Old Times on the Mississippi.”


     Recently I visited my brother A. C. Van Sant, who is in his 88th year and lives in Omaha.  Often listening to his early river experiences, I asked him to jot down a few words of his early life way back in the forties.


     The “War Eagle” and the gallant Capt. Smith Harris appealed to his young mind.  My brother has lived in a most wonderful age and has seen lots of the world.  He was during the Civil War the private secretary of the celebrated Owen Lovejoy, a member of Congress from Illinois; and a great friend of Abraham Lincoln.  He was also for several sessions a reporter for the Illinois Legislature, and has in his time met and conversed with many presidents, senators, governors, and many other big men, but no doubt in the days of youth, Capt. Harris was bigger to him than any president of the United States has seemed since.  Capt. Harris must have been a very kind hearted man too have been so considerate of this young cabin boy.  Too soon the great men who ran on the river in the olden days will have passed away but the old river remains; and again in my judgment will become a mighty artery of commerce.  We may not live to see it, but it is the logic of the situation.  With a dense population in the Mississippi Valley in the years to come, we will turn to the old river to carry our products to the mouth of the Mississippi to be transported by ships to all the markets of the world.

                                        Yours Truly,

                                        S. R. VAN SANT



January 10, 1920

      WILD BOY (2nd)

      At one time owned by LeClaire parties and used as a bow boat on Upper Rapids.  Later her machinery was put in the “Pilot” built at LeClaire owned by Capt. D. Dorrance.  Later owned by Capt. Orrin Smith, who sold her to down river parties, who changed her name to “Peerless” and at last she was bought by Mr. Flagler, and was used in the construction of the Ocean Railroad from Miami to Key West.


      The boat was wrecked and her machinery is at Miami.  The “Pilot,” later “Peerless,” made the memorable and perilous trip form New Orleans to Miami by Gulf of Mexico—Quite a record.

                                       Yours Truly,

                                       S. R. VAN SANT




February 7, 1920

     Wisconsin (second).

     VALRICA, Florida, Feb. 3.—Editor Post:  There seems to be some doubt about the “Wisconsin” 2nd as to where she was built.  She was built in Rock Island when the boat yard was owned by Messes  Bailey and Boyle.  My father J. W. Van Sant was foreman.  He made the model, all the patterns and superintended the entire construction of the boat.  This was one of the first steamboats he built.  Later he bought the boat yard and moved to the Iowa end of Rock Island.  During the war he united his boat building plant with the one at LeClaire.  For 65 years he was employed in building and repairing steamboats on the upper Mississippi river.  In 1845 he built the “Mary Blaine” on the levee at Burlington.

                                                            Yours Truly,

                                                             S. R. VAN SANT



Collected and Transcribed by

Sue Rekkas

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