Source: REGISTER OF OLD SETTLERS , BOOK One, page 156 & 159
submitted by a Volunteer, Sept. 2, 2007


The first settlement on the island commenced in 1836. The Sterne brothers built a log cabin on the head of the island; there was another near Hershey's lower mill occupied by Mr. Main; farther down Adam Ogilvie, William Gordon, Ahimiaz Blanchard, William St. John, Pliny Fay, Gov. Lucas, and others had claims. There was an Indian camping-ground in a grove of jack-oak trees near where Charles Barrow now lives ( about four miles down on the river shore ). During one of those early winters the small-pox broke out among the Indians and quite a number were buried on the bank of the river at that place, and for a number of years afterward their remains were annually washed out. The trinkets buried with them were found along the bank for many years. Aaron Blanchard lived at Elisha Beatty's present home and his brother and Richard Usher had claims a little farther down. Jerome Walling lived at what was called Walling's Landing, now Port Louisa. All the settlements were along the river, as it was not feasible to live farther back.


The principally traveled thoroughfare was along the river bank. The Grand View road crossed the Island near where it now runs, but it was little more than a trail; as the slough had to be forded, which could not be done when the river was more than five or six feet above low-water mark. At the head of the slough was kept a ferry-boat, probably placed there in 1837; it was pulled back and forward with a rope. I presume it was put there in connection with the ferry-boat that was run by Stanton Prentiss three miles farther down, crossing the river above Blanchard Island. The Prentiss ferry was discontinued in 1840 or 41. The head of the slough was spanned with a bent bridge, probably in 1840; it effectually turned the north and south traffic travel across the Island during low water. This bridge was passable until the spring of 1844, when it was damaged by the ice. We lived on the Island at the time but happened to have a team on this side; tried to cross on the ice-- got the horses in over their backs, but got them out all right. Some of our neighbors went down to the Thornton Ford, near the line of Louisa County, and crossed over to the Island and came home; accomplishing a journey of twenty-five miles to make two. We joined a party that went up the hollow in the rear of Mr. Foster's nursery, cut some tall red oaks, hewed out sleepers forty-five feet long and repaired the bridge. During the season the energetic men of our city built a dam across the slough for manufacturing purposes as well as a road; ( banking was one of the privileges included in their charter.) The road was all that was made available and that has been in use ever since. The old bridge was abandoned and carried off by the public; many of the posts were standing twenty years afterward.


When we first moved to the Island in 1842, we found Mr. Magoon, William Gordon, George Martin, A. Blanchard, and Abijah Winn all settled along the river, all striving to get rich raising corn at ten cents per bushel, in store pay. Corn would not bring money at any price. Ahimiaz Blanchard raised forty acres of oats; they were the largest, heaviest oats we ever saw. He sold them at eight cents a bushel. They were cradled by hand and threshed with a chaff-piler.


In the fall if 1842, the sporting community built a mile race-track on the ground west of Mr. Hopson's farm, where they had several horse-races. They were making preparations for a big one, but there came an early fall and eight inches of snow, which prevented it. After that, the road in front of Mr. Gurley's, where that row of poplar trees now stand, was used for the race-ground. Almost every Saturday during the summer and fall a crowd of men and horses would come down from the city and run quarter-races. Shepard Smalley was considered the king of the track; he was taken as authority on the horse and all disputed points of pedigree. He had three of the finest thoroughbreds in the West, which he imported from Kentucky.


In the spring-time there was another pastime that was generally indulged in; that of spearing buffalo fish. I have seen in the shallow waters where the river overflowed the prairie lands, schools of buffalo fish, that would cover a hundred acres. I think that there were at least ten tons to the acre. Some of them were immense size; fifty pounds was no uncommon wieght for a buffalo fish. The buffalo fish had a habit then of gathering in the sloughs in the fall and feeding with their backs out of water. They would make a noise similar ro a hog grunting which could be heard in a still evening for 100 yards. They were a good mark for sportsmen.


In those early days Muscatine Island was a hunter's paradise. Wild geese were more abundant than wild ducks are now. I recollect being one of a party of three that killed fifteen in a single day. In the winter of 1843 and 1844 the snow in the big timber was marked all over with wild turkey tracks. They could be seen in flocks of hundreds; they were feeding on pin-oak acorns. During the winter, deer would drift in from the high prairies. One could see a dozen any day without much trouble. In the low grounds or in the timber could be found species of wild hog. They resembled the picture of the wild hogs in India--tall, long-legged, and thin. A hog that would stand three feet high would not be more than six or eight inches through. They were armed with immense tusks and were the worst wild animals we had to meet. I have seen very valuable dogs killed by them. Their flesh was yellow, oily, and strong. Where they came from, the earliest settlers could not tell. They disappeared probably about 1845. Wolves were very abundant. The island with its level lands was a fine chasing ground. The greyhound was the popular dog for these hunts; John Vanatta and Robert Davis had each a large pack. On almost every fine Sunday during the winter they could be seen riding or running across the Island.


In the autumn the Island was covered with an immense growth of grass. I have been hunting cattle in the low ground where the grass was so high that I would have to stand upon my horse to see over. I could only tell where the cattle were by the shaking of the grass. A cow-bell was a very useful thing in those days. In the fall after the frost had killed the grass, some of the most terrific prairie fires could be witnesed. We recollect seeing one start near Keokuk Lake and run across on a west wind to the river at the rate of five or six miles an hour; in many places the flames were thirty feet high. In order to protect our fences we had to plow furrows twenty or thirty feet apart and burn between them; we then had rail fences and if the fire touched them they were sure to be destroyed.


Snakes were abundant.. A party of four of us in a single day killed snakes enough to reach a distance of 300 feet. It was during high water and they were driven to high grounds. The trees along the Sand Mound were a favorite resort for them. Almost every tree had a snake or two hung upon it somewhere. It would have been unsafe for one to have gone there without a good club and a pair of sharp eyes. We boys were on the war-path that day; many of these snakes were six feet long, and some of them quite venomous.


During the high water of 1844 the road near where the Musser's mill now stands, was impassable for a long time-- probably two weeks--and a large amount of valuable land was overflowed on the Island and on the west side of the slough. It was decided to build a levee in connection with the dam to connect with the high ground near Hershey's lower mill. A subscription paper was circulated; the subscribers generally payed in work, most of them coming from the west side of the slough. There were a great number of drift-logs floated out on top of the bank during high water. These were gathered and placed endwise to each other and covered over with earth dug from a trench; it being considerably safer to roll in the logs than dig up the earth. This levee was to be two feet wide at the top and one foot above high water mark. It was never completed; at all events the first high water washed it all out.


I think the high waters did little damage until 1851, when the water swept over the entire upper end and west side of the Island. The high ridge of ground where the two-story brick school-house in Musserville now stands was eighteen inches under water. A large raft of lumber got the better of its operators, and fetched up against a grove of trees out on the Island, two miles from the river. We don't think there were 2,000 acres of land on the entire Island, besides the Sand Mound, that was not overflowed.


In 1850 Congress donated all the swamp lands along the Mississippi, not sold, to the different States to reclaim them. Our county took advantage of the law, and set Surveyor G. W. Baumgardner selecting the overflowed lands, and returning the same. G. W. Kincaid was given a contract to build a levee, to be paid from the sale of these lands. He threw up considerable earth, but the pay not coming as fast as he required, the work was suspended. Louisa County availing themselves to the same act, secured considerable money in that manner, gave a contract to Mr. Thompson, who built a much better levee for a distance of about four miles above Port Louisa, than was built in Muscatine County; but it was of little value. Muscatine County never finished her portion of the levee, and never closed the gap. After the high water of 1851 subsided, the low price of these fertile lands invited immigration, and a more effective levee-system was needed.


J. W. Walton and myself prepared a bill and got our friend, the Hon. Royal Prentiss, then living at Port Louisa, to get it through the legislature, taxing all lands subject to overflow for levee pruposes. During the existance of this law a very substantial levee was built in Muscatine County, and the gap below it, and that of Louise County, were nearly closed. When the levee was completed to within half a mile of Louisa County, the Commissioner, Wm, Hoyt, changed its course from the bank of the river, where it is now built, to the sand mound, crossing a deep pond requiring a bank twenty-three feet high, a hauling of earth by teams of 300 feet, and leaving out some valuable land. Dr. James S. Horton, the owner of the lands on the outside, applied to Judge Dillon for an injunction. This application brought on quite a contest. It was late in the fall. If the levee was built to the sand-mound Mr. Carmichael, the contractor, could work his teams all winter on the high bank, making the big fill; if it ran along the river-bank he would have to stop when frost came. Mr. Hoyt Carmichael, or someone else conceived an idea of getting an affidavit, which was circulated as a petition. Dr. Horton had five or six affidavits. It was during the first term of Dillon's administration. The injunction was not granted. Dr. Horton, appreciating the difference between a judge running over the whole State of Iowa, and one runnng in a single district--where forty votes might change the election, appealed to the Supreme Court, where the injunction was granted. Winter had set in and the ground was frozen, so the work stopped. During the winter some of the citizens living on the upper part of the Island, thinking they had gotten levee enough to protect themselves, got the law repealed.


Very little trouble was experienced on the upper end of the Island until the spring of 1870, when the high water broke through the levee where Musser's mill now stands. At this time the low grounds on the northwest side of the railroad track were quite all settled up. The water was held in check by the railroad, giving time for the inhabitants to get away with most of their effects. The railroad bridge was washed out, and trains delayed for several days. There were little or no crops raised that season on fully three-quarters of the best part of the Island, and no traveling by team to and from the city for a month or six weeks. Immediately afterwards the Musser Company commenced building their mill in the gap of the levee made by the high water, the county and individuals assisting in filling the gap.


There was no further serious trouble from the river until the spring of 1880, when nearly the whole of the population, including women in some instances, were called out to work on the levee. The Street Commissioner of the city worked his entire force of men and teams to keep the water from breaking over. There was such an interest felt in the city that it was arranged that, should a break occur, all the bells in the city should be rung. The mayor issued a proclamation to that effect. No break occurred, but back-water flooded most of the low ground on the northwest of the railroad. Very small crops were raised on the Island in 1880, the most productive lands lying useless. Following this high water, as has been the case with most high waters, fever and ague set in. A teacher in one of the schools told me that almost every day some of her pupils went home sick with the ague. While the high water of 1880 prevented large crops fron being raised, the high water in the autumn of 1881 destroyed more property than any one before, coming as it did when the crops were upon the ground. Hundreds of acres of corn were flooded. Wherever water stood around it, the wild ducks gathered the corn. Haystacks were flooded, roads impeded; in some cases the sweet potato crop had to be boated to the city.


Thinking that the time had come for another levee, in the autumn of 1880 we consulted our representative, the Hon. Hiram Price, on the propriety of getting Congress to help us. Under his approval we had a number of memorials circulated, asking appropriation. We secured more than 2,500 names to these. A series of political events prevented us from obtaining any help from that source. While the measure was before Congress, concluding that the Island inhabitants would have to help themselves, we got up a petition to the Legislature to have the Ditch-Law amended, so as to apply to the construction of levees. We quietly circulated this around, and got the signatures of forty of the leading citizens interested in the levee. We wrote out an ammendmant to the Ditch and Drain Law, and sent it with the petition to the Hon. J. A. Pickler, our member in the Legislature. He soon got it through thr House. We then wrote to Senator Pliny Nichols, who got it through the Senate. Thinking that the way had been prepared for a permanent levee, we concluded to let others do some of the gratuitous work. Two years ago, in the spring of 1882, Mr. S. E. Wicher came to our relief. He got the required petition, and gave the necessary bonds, and the general gratuitous supervision of the work had fallen upon him.

Although a period of forty years have passed since the first effort was made, we have now a successful levee; one that will be of vast benefit to the Island, costing $35,000 this time; $45,000 before; in all $80,000. It is twelve feet wide and two feet above high water mark. During the recent high water we rode over it, and found in many places there were six feet difference in the height of the water on its two sides. When this levee is occupied by the railroad, that will keep up the repairs, and afford another outlet for our products, then Muscatine Island will truly be the Garden of the West.


The following report of the Island products are from four raisers and shippers: W. H. Hoopes & Brother, T. B. Holcomb, C. B. Vail, and J. W. Garner & Son. Their aggregate reports show total shipments of carloads as follows : Sweet potatoes, seventy-three; melons, 123; onions, six; apples, twelve; cabbage, eighteen; tomatoes, ten; peas,and beans, four; Irish potatoes, two; radishes and asparagus, two; berries, three and one-half; sweet-corn, seven; grapes, seven; mixed lots, seventeen and one-half; total 285. In addition to these four firms there are Smith Bros, Hahn & Company, and thirteen other island producers not reported. A moderate estimate, made by competent authority, is 141 cars for these shippers, making a total of 426 cars from Muscatine. To which, adding 195 cars from Fruitland Station, gives the grand total of 621 cars.

Back to Book One, INDEX

Back to the Muscatine Co. IAGenWeb, Index Page