IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Sept. 2, 1916
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.
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.
having been raised, in and on the
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
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
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 “
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
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
Another time I
saw him perspire was at
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
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.
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
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
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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