LETTERS TO CAPTAIN GEORGE B. MERRICK
PUBLISHED IN THE SATURDAY EVENING POST OF BURLINGTON, IOWA
CAPTAIN S. R. VAN SANT
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.
July 18, 1914
The “Cumberland Valley” Couldn’t Run Without
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”
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.
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
“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
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.
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
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.”
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.
R. VAN SANT
April 15, 1916
‘Twas De Forest Dorrance Built The
”Irene D,” Not Dana.
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
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.
S. R. VAN SANT
May 6, 1916
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
September 9, 1916
Hon. John Lawler and the “Jenny
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
January 20, 1917
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
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
S. R. VAN SANT
January 20, 1917
Burning of the Kentucky at Rock
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
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
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.
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
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
January 27, 1917
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
“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
“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
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
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.
S. R. VAN SANT
August 18, 1917
The “Mary C.” and her owners, the
Some Good Letters from an Old-time
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,
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
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
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.
S. R. VAN SANT.
January 12, 1918
Captain Van Sant Adds Details.
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.)
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
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.
R. VAN SANT
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.)
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.”
(Stedman) was chief engineer in 1882. John Burns was mate 1881 and
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.
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.
S. R. VAN SANT
The Engines of the Steamer
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
S. R. VAN SANT
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
S. R. VAN SANT