Sketch of Capt. S. R. Van Sant

From cabin boy to governor
A long, honorable and successful career as a boat owner and operator on the Upper Mississippi  

Saturday Evening Post Burlington Iowa
Sept. 2, 1916  

Transcribed by Georgeann McClure  


Marion Junction, Alabama Aug 20—editor Post:  I have never been in favor of the very common failing of ignoring a persons good qualities during life and the showering of loads of flowers on their grave at their demise.

  I am enclosing an article from a friend of a half century’s standing and for some season an employee of Captain Van Sant, as a tribute to his sterling worth.

  Our lines drifted far apart of late years but the ties of friendship are not parted by distance and in reviewing in memory old scenes the old bonds still hold fast.  With this preliminary I submit my sketch of Capt. S. R. Van Sant.

Respectfully A. D. Summers.  

  Captain S. R. Van Sant.  

  One of my boyish recollections, and one of the earliest of them, at that, was of one cold, windy day in the fall of the year as the boats were being hauled out on the Le Claire boatways and I was standing on the guards of the Old Hiram Price, watching operations as boys will, when the fender against which I was leaning slipped off the guards and I was suddenly precipitated into the water.

  Probably having been raised, in and on the Mississippi I just have had an instinctive knowledge of swimming as I managed to hold up until John Laycock caught me by the hair and held me till Captain Sam Van Sant came running down from where he was having the cradles sifted under another boat and pulled me out.

  Since that fall day so many years ago he has occupied and filled with honor the gubernatorial chair of Minnesota for two terms he has served with credit as commander-in-chief of the Ga. A. R’s and is entitled from his extended service on the river to the title of Commodore yet to me has always been and will continue to be until the end of the chapter Captain Van Sant.

  Possibly such a striking introduction at such an early age may account in part for this but the recollections of the old boating days have a more intimate memory when associated with Captain Sam than with governor S. R. Van Sant.

  Of course all river men know that Captain Van Sant is not a native of Le Claire but he has always been so intimately connected with the steamboat and river life of Le Claire that in my mind I always think of him as being to the manor born. 

  Neither was his wife Ruth Hall a native of Le Claire, although remembering her joyous participation in the social gayety of the old town during her girlhood and the deep personal interest she has shown for it during her mature years we feel that Le Claire has a greater right to claim them both than has any other place.

  There probably never was a couple in real life who achieved the fame and the material success that were more free from a snobbish sense of their importance. Plain, unaffected, sociable, business like they have remained thru good as well as evil fortune. Preoccupied, at times as Captain Sam was some may have thought him unsociable but when you consider the load he was carrying you certainly must admit him excusable.

 I was not on the inside, of course but from current river gossip, there was a time when probably more than $50,000 would have been needed to put the firm on its feet.  It used to be told the Captain that he was in the habit of carrying around a five hundred dollar bill to pull on the groceryman, woodhawks, coal men, butchers and other small dealers and when they would say they couldn’t change it he would just say “Well you will just have to wait till next trip then.”

  Butcher Rathmann used to tell this on him with great gusto.  He said the Captain come running into the shop one day after he had finished icing the meat for the Silver Wave and asked if he could make out the bill for the days supplies right away as he was in a hurry but to just let the old account stand for awhile longer.  As Rathmann handed him the invoice he threw down the five hundred dollar bill and asked him to take the change out of that.  As Rathmann frequently needed change he generally kept a pretty good nest-egg on hand and was especially prepared so he just reached down under the counter and brought up a wallet and then he went back and came up with a shot-sack but about that time Captain Sam picked up the bill remarking “Oh just wait a minute. I believe I can make the change.”  And he pulled out a roll and paid it and then Rathmann walked out from behind the counter and placing his hand on the Captains shoulder and said “Now Sammie you hadn’t ought to do me that way, you can get any thing you want but you mustn’t treat me like that.  Great bighearted Butcher Rathmann, he carried many a man beside Captain Sam thru a tight place.

  Now at the same time that Captain Van Sant was turning every trick and making every edge cut, every man on deck got his envelope with his money in it at the end of every trip and he had to take it to.  If you wished to, you could write your name on it and put it back in the safe but you couldn’t let it stand to your credit on the books.

  The idea seemed to be that the men should get their money if everything went to smash.

  Those were ticklish times, what with boats blowing up, rafts smashing to pieces, prices ruined by over competition during dull seasons it took nerve to stand the strain but that’s what the Captain had and he had a good poker face with it; if he was worried he never showed it and I never heard him complain.

  I expect that Charley (Windy) Johnson and I have pulled him from Beef Slough to Muscatine without hearing a murmur (that is, a murmur from him), but you might have heard the linesmen doing a good deal of murmuring.  Sometimes as soon as we had gotten the lines on at the slough we would pull out for Alma .  “Just wait here till I send a telegram or two, boys” and we would wait and wait and watch the boat go by and pass out of sight down the river sometimes giving us a six or eight mile pull, maybe catching the boat for a meal and then pulling right out again.

  Did anyone ever hear of a strike on a Van Sant and Musser boat?  I never did.  There wasn’t anything to strike for.  Of course their were times when we had to work hard but so you did on all the boats and we lived better than any ordinary hotel all of the time and not a boat on the river led us in wages.  One day when Windy and I had pulled him out to Lansing we stopped at the wharf-boat and while waiting one of the Mc Donald boats came by.  She sent the skiff out for some supplies and Windy asked the linesmen what they were paying and they said thirty-five dollars.  We had shipped out at thirty so when we finally got away, Captain Sam had set up in the hotel office and read the insides out of the paper (daily papers were scarce at that time), Windy told the Captain that he thought we ought to have a raise and after an inquiry Windy told him that such and such a boat was paying thirty-five dollars. We were informed that we had been getting thirty-five for some time.

  When we got back to the boat after about a ten mile pull I went up to the office to investigate, as I hadn’t examined my envelope for several trips, just putting them back in the safe, and I found that not only were we getting thirty-five but that the linesmen were getting forty dollars.

  In speaking of Captain Sam having a poker face I by no means meant to imply that he had acquired it by playing poker.  In fact I don’t believe he knew how to play the game, although he may not have been as innocent as he tried to make out. One night while at an entertainment at the old Davenport’s Hall, a sleight of hand performer was working some of his magic when he picked up a deck of cards and asked Captain Sam to pick out a card, this he proceeded to do but afterwards on the prestidigitator asking him what card he held he said he didn’t know the name it went by but that it had two little black spots on it.

  I have always thought that if the Captain’s wife hadn’t been sitting so close by, that possibly he might have shown a greater knowledge, however.

  The Captain’s knowledge of music was about commensurate to his knowledge of cards.  They used to say that he knew just tow tunes.  One was “Hold the Fort” and the other wasn’t and during our winter night literary entertainments or our Blue Ribbon meetings over which he frequently presided.  Whenever he got to the end of his rope he always called on the congregation to sing, “Hold the Fort.”

  One of the impressions remaining in my memory was his dislike for sham or flattery.  I remember while waiting down at the old post office where we fore-gathered at mail time the comments he would make on some of his correspondence, for instance, a letter addressed Hon. Commodore Samuel R. Van Sant Esq., merely judging from the address he would say was from a nigger runner wanting a position as manager of the line; on the other hand a letter addressed simply Captain Sam Van Sant would likely ring the remark that that was a good pilot or engineer as the case might be.

  Many a beautiful moonlight night would we gather on the forecastle while the Captain regaled us with reminiscences of army life.  I was always fond of history but I always enjoyed it more when I heard it from the lips of the men who made it, not that the Captain ever boasted of the part he played personally, he never did that, but the scenes and conditions, the mode of life, these things he knew and could tell.

  On one such night, as the captain was talking, he idly picked up a big iron pin which we used for chalking the capstan and as he was quite proud of his physical strength he by a considerable effort succeeded in holding it out at arms length.  There was no one else among the boys who could come, anywhere near accomplishing the feat, but long, lean, lank Charley Amy who was firing that trip strolled up about that time and seeing the pin lying on the capstan he picked it up by the crooked end, holding it in one hand and remarking casually as he did so that “My old dad used to have a boss pistol about that size,” and after squinting across the top of it he laid it back down with no apparent effort whatever.  I think that was the last time I ever saw the Captain display his strength unnecessarily.

  I remember seeing him use a little of his muscle in another manner on one occasion.  Men had been quite scarce and we had to take what we could get and among others we had two tow-boatmen from the lower river.  They went by the names of Black Jack and Charley Ismay.

  They were both good workers but rather green on the raft and they couldn’t pull a skiff, but if a man showed a willingness to learn and wasn’t afraid of work captain had lots of patience with them.

  We were laying at Davenport levee for a short time one day and these boys had time to run up town and get a few drinks and on coming back down to the boat they met a bum who told them that their captain had said that when he didn’t have many men on board he had plenty of things.  Of course they had to take their new friend back up the booze parlor to reward him for his information and by the time they got back to the boat they had succeeded in getting up a pretty good “ Mad.

  Mrs. Van Sant was aboard that trip and of course the noise and cussing couldn’t be allowed and the Captain came down to stop it.

  He was one of the least quarrelsome men I have ever known but he didn’t know what the word fear meant, and after trying for some time to quiet them he finally lost his temper and told the boys that when he wasn’t pleased with a man he generally told him so himself and this he at once proceeded to do.

  As the engineer on watch was standing in the engine room door looking on and as he was considering a good deal of a fire eater I thought I was quite at liberty to enjoy the scrimmage from a safe distance more especially, as both men were considerably larger than I, but just as the Captain had collared the biggest fellow and laid him down on the deck, the other one grabbed a cord-wood stick and started for him and in place of the big engineer going to the rescue he just stood still in the door like a putty man while little Frank Bicknell run in to stop Charley Ismay.  Frank had plenty of nerve but he lacked weight and my desire for peace overcome my fear so I was impelled to interfere.  Well by the time the Captain finished with him they were pretty well sobered up and both apologized and stayed away from the boat for some time.

  Capt. Sam paid me back for the favor, not long afterward.  When I had a run in with the cook who hit me rather unexpected and was about to finish up the job with one of those big, thick coffee cups we used to use, when the Captain hearing the commotion come running in and caught his arm just in time to save me a broken head.   

Mrs. Van Sant, who spent a considerable portion of her time on the boat welcomed at times, a little excitement, and on one occasion as we were pulling out of Burlington, after taking on a little coal when the towboat Minnesota whistled for the draw, I thought that as we had Mrs. V and Grant, who was then just a small boy, on board that we couldn’t have much of a race but that was where I missed it as I think the greatest excitement was upstairs.  While we didn’t make much speed, that was the closest match I was ever in.  It was nip and tuck from Burlington to Keithsburg where we had to land to replenish our supply of coal, calculated to carry us to Le Claire.  For fifteen miles of the distance you could step from one boat to the other.  We got our lines, our skiffs filled with water and everything else portable out on the forecastle to hold her head down and finally drew away possibly a quarter of a mile before we reached Keithsburg.  The fireman on watch was rather green so we routed out the other one and he did some better, but we finally pulled George Galloway, who was running as second engineer at the time, out of his bunk, and he gave us all the steam we wanted.  I don’t know how much that was as the engineer on watch at the time (I believe it was Sam, Maxwell) had his hat hanging over the stem gauge and the fireman’s gauge hung in such a dark place that you couldn’t see it without a lantern, and I don’t expect that it would have been good policy for any one to have stuck a lantern up there about that time.  We didn’t resort to any such crude measures as hanging grate bars on the safety valve, but possibly if you had examined closely you might have found a piece of plank wedged from the lever to the deck above. 

  Captain Sam, never resorted to manual labor a great deal.  In the first place, he wasn’t built right for it, and in the second place he didn’t have time but there was one or two occasions on which he made an effort.  At one period of extremely low water during which the works at beef slough were shut down the Musser Milling Co. had a few brails of logs up the Slough which we dropped out by hand.  The boat was landed just below the mouth of the slough and taking the skiffs we got out all but one brail and were coming down with that.  It was about the middle of the afternoon and awful hot.  As frequently happened we had a crowd composed of ladies and girls from Muscatine on the boat.  Just as we came in sight of the boat the left hand bow stuck on a bar and the stern swinging around struck the opposite shore and she broke right in two.  We had a few lines along but we hadn’t lined up yet and Captain Sam, who had dressed to take the train at Alma as soon as we got out, caught the end of a line and started across the break just as Brig Shannon started to come the opposite way.  As we were all quite busy. I didn’t have time to watch how it came out but the last I saw of them for awhile they were both trying to stay on a small log about the middle.  By the way, the Captain was the only one of us who was dressed, as we were in the water so much and it was so hot that we had shed what few clothes we had on and were coming down “Au natural” intending to dress before we come out of the slough but when we broke in two we forgot all about dressing till we heard a big uproar and on looking around we found we were in full view of the boat.  We finally got things together all right but the Captain had to dress again before he went ashore.

  Another time I saw him perspire was at Davenport .  We had been dropping out trying to store up work enough to keep us busy during the slack season.  We had several rafts laid up and had brought one down.  Men were as scarce as hen’s teeth and we hadn’t had more than five at one time for several weeks.  Henry Tweizel was mating and he and I were the only ones who knew how to pull a skiff, and that crew were about the limit for greenness all around.  Working all day lining up, putting on butting blocks and check-works and then picking up a wood flat to unloaded while running back at night had put us all to the back, there was one stretch of sixty hours that we had no sleep at all and Tweisel and I made up our minds to get off and rest up awhile after we had delivered at Muscatine.

   Having delivered our raft of course everybody turned in and the next thing I remember was at being roused by some noise and looking out of my bunk I saw we were taking on coal.  I can visualize right now the sight of Captain Sam, and George Rutherford coming aboard with a box of coal. Captain Rutherford who was about 7 feet tall and as slim as a lath, one arm (the left I believe) about three inches the shorter was carrying behind and of course throwing the entire weight of the load on one arm of the captain, who was carrying in front.  

  I did not waken fully but drowsily concluded that they were just taking on coal enough to run to Le Claire and went back to sleep, but when I did wake up I found that they had taken part of the crew with some of the officers and a few bums they had been able to pick up at Davenport and had coaled up for the trip and when Twiezel and I finally did get up we were well on the way up the river for another raft.  As we were rested up by that time we said no more about getting off.

  Captain Sam’s idea never was to do the work himself but to get the contracts and then get the best men he could find to do the work, and at that, I think he had the hardest end of the job.

  One thing that must always impress us was and is Captain Sam’s loyalty to the Mississippi River , its traffic, its ideals, to the memories passed from the stage, and to the many friends who are still actively employed in trying to restore this great thorofare to its pristine glory.

  A good text for a gifted writer to amplify in a sketch of Captain Van Sants’s life can be found in an historical article on the steamboat J. W. Van Sant written by the Captain himself and appearing in a recent copy of The Post.  In concluding the article he makes use of this expression.  “I am still interested in the running of boats and expect to be as long as Captain Blair runs boats and needs a friend.

  He has exemplified by his daily life his belief in a “A Square Deal.”  If a man showed a spirit to rise he was always ready and anxious to help him and those who never took advantage of the opportunities he placed before them had only themselves to blame.  He is a temperate man although exposed to the temptations of army life which proved the downfall of so many men of more mature years, coming from army life into the atmosphere of the old floating days, never to be found in a saloon. Never do I remember seeing him, even in those days when it was customary for almost everybody to indulge in intoxicating beverages to a greater or a less extent, with even the odor of liquor about him. 

  He is temperate in speech.  With heavy responsibilities resting upon him and with great aggravation to encounter and with it all a naturally strong temper I never saw him give way with possibly one or two exceptions.  A clean man morally, no one could point the finger of shame at him.

  I at one time thought I should like to see the Dutch team of Roosevelt and Van Sant flying their banner in the breeze.  While I don’t say I should have voted for it yet, I hardly see how I could have voted against it, but since the Colonel led his followers off into the wilderness as he did, and deserted them. I am glad the Captain did not get tied up in the combination about a half a century’s acquaintance with the Captain I have never known him to play the quitter and I should dislike very much to think of him in that role after the lapse of so many years.

  Captain and Mrs. Van Sant’s loyalty to Le Claire is also well known and was never better exemplified than in the case of a boy by the name of Scarf whose parents lived near Le Claire but whom the Captain probably had never seen.  This boy was engaged in clamming near Winona and met with a serious accident of which Mrs. Van Sant learned after which she took the boy under her personal care, notifying his parents and looking after him carefully until he was able to help himself.  I do not think that the boy had ever worked on any of the Van San boats but the fact that he was a stranger in trouble, and suffering and hailing from Le Claire was an “Open sesame to their hearts.

  The same loyalty and consideration was frequently manifested to the crew.   For many years he had a very fine engineer who was a very crabbed, surly personage and the Captain was frequently called on to adjust differences between the engineer and the men on deck which he did with pains-taking consideration.

  On one trip while lying at the bank at Winona a colored man made application to him for passage down the river.  “Well,” he said, “I haven’t anything to say about it but you go down and see the boys and if they want to take you it will be all right with me” so the darkey came on board and reported the conversation and after holding a pow-wow we agreed to his coming in consideration of his doing certain work on the boat such as cutting cooks wood, hauling ashes, scrubbing decks, etc., and he must obligate himself to hide under the boilers when we were passing a boat or approaching a landing as you know in those days a colored man on a rafter was taboo and if the report had gotten out that we had shipped a darkey neither the crew or the boat would have been able to live down the reputation.  The Captain of course, realized better than we did the risk run but he was willing to run the risk to help even a poor homesick darkey.   Well we succeeded in taking a pan of grub out of the cook every day, and give him an old blanket or two to make him a bed under the boilers and we pulled the stunt off successfully but we heaved a big sigh of relief when he finally went ashore at Rock Island.

 It must be distinctly understood that this article goes double for it would be impossibility to dissociate the Captain and his wife in reliving in memory those days of old.

  As she stands by him now in the evening of an eventful, busy life, so she stood by him in the dark days of adversity, when the sun seemed to have set and the clouds had no silver lining; she never lost faith in the Captains star and by her courageous solicitation and her kindly comradeship she smoothed many a rough spot in his pathway and spurred on his flagging zeal until success finally crowned their efforts.




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