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Chapter XX
Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas

Circus Gangs and Other Bad Men Who Were Beaten Up in the Attempt to Terrorize the Town.

During my time on the river the rapids at Rock Island and Keokuk were serious obstructions to navigation. But little work had ever been done to improve the channel. On a down stream run it was difficult to make all of the short angles and crooks with a boat, and we frequently bumped the rocks. At a low stage there was more water on the upper rapids than on the lower one. Before the war R.E. Lee, then a government engineer, did some work on the lower rapids. For the greater portion of the distance the channel was along the Illinois shore. Leeís plan to widen and deepen the channel appeared to have been to take the rock from the bed of the river and pile it on the west side, and near the channel. The rock piles were circular in shape and ran up to a peak. This work widened the channel but it did not increase the depth to any extent. The rock piles appeared to scatter the water. To throw a portion of it into the channel and a great deal of it to the west of the stone piles. At a low stage the boats could bring a fair load over the upper rapids but on the lower one there would be from 15 to 24 inches of water. At such times the freight from above was transferred to lighters and manned by oars, these boats were floated to Keokuk. The lighter was a long wide flat boat which would carry a good load on little water. When there was sufficient water these lighters were towed back to Montrose by the steamer Dan Hine. When the Hine could not make the trip the lighters were towed back along the shore by horses. The steamer Dan Hine was a light draft stern wheel boat, with good power. Her bottom was of six inch lumber and she could crack the rock without breaking the plank. However, she wore out three of such bottoms during the years she operated on the rapids. Capt. Patton was her commander and Robert Faris her pilot. It was conceded by all that Faris knew more about the lower rapids then any man.

The transfer of freight at the head of the lower rapids furnished employment to a large number of men and in those days Montrose was a live town. These freight handlers were a healthy, well developed bunch of fellows and thorough believers in the doctrine of home rule. Outsiders were not permitted to interfere with their ideas and customs. A raft crew landed there one day and after taking some drink, intimated that they could run the town and paint it bright red. In this they were mistaken. The war cry of the Montrose legion was heard and the men from the lumber regions of the north were thoroughly whipped, driven on to their raft and the raft cut loose and started over the rapids.

A circus gang under the management of one Grady arrived at Montrose one morning and after loading up with whiskey at Fred Greenís saloon announced that they were bold, bad men and that they were looking for some of the noted fighting men of that town. And a few hours later they found them. It so happened that the writer was present on this occasion and witnessed the entire contest. Tho. Burns of Montrose, was a trained fighter and had seen much service in the ring. He passed the word around that the Grady gang must be licked and he led the attach on the showmen. The tents were all torn down, the circus men severely punished, driven onto the ferry boat and forced to leave Montrose without giving a performance. The boss canvas man was so badly disfigured by Burns that he looked as though he had been run through a corn sheller.

At one time during the progress of the battle I discovered that the air around my head was full of tent stakes, stones and other missiles and in front of me I could see the glittering steel of knives and the business end of a number of guns. As I was not there to be either killed or wounded, I fell back. The line of battle was moving toward me, and I took a new position behind a tight board fence, where I could see just as well and be in less danger. I had learned this much in the Army that when a position could not be held, the thing to do was to retire or fall back. My reverse movement on this occasion was strictly in accordance with military science as we had it from Grant and Sherman. At least this was my defense in after years when Wm. Spain, Wm. Owens, Steve McBride, Charlie Patton and the rest of them accused me of showing the white leather on the day they gave the circus gang such a drubbing. These handlers of freight at the head of the rapids were good fellows when let alone. The steamboat men had no trouble with them. But it was not a safe proposition for a non-resident gang to come in there and attempt to run Montrose.

The passengers who congregate around the pilot house of a steamboat are usually loaded up with questions for the pilot. Among other things the travelers want to know are the following: The depth of the water? Does the pilot run by a compass? What is his object in crossing the river so many times? Why does he not take a straight course and keep it? Why does he toot his whistle when meeting another boat? Why does the boat go so slow at certain times, etc. On one occasion I heard an interesting conversation between a passenger and pilot O.M. Ruby. The pilot answered all the foregoing questions and then the passenger wanted to know if he would not rather work on a faster boat. (We were going against the current and a head wind and towing two barges.) Ruby answered this last question in the negative and said that he would prefer the slow boat for the reason that it gave him a better opportunity to get acquainted with the farmers along the


Collected and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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