Le Claire, ran largest rafts down rapids: Father furnished Evidence for Lincoln.
On a fair day in May 1856, the sidewheel excursion steamer Effie Afton, puffing down the Mississippi, struck a pier of the first bridge across the river between Davenport and Rock Island.
The impact of the collision or some other force, upset a stove on the steamer's deck and the big boat went up in flames. The bridge property of the Chicago, rock Island and pacific railway, being a wooden structure was also partially destroyed.
Out of this incident grew the famous rock Island bridge case in which Abraham Lincoln distinguished himself, winning the case for the railroad when the steamship company brought suit.
What is more important the resulting decision set a precedent which struck the opposition in the building of trans-Mississippi bridges a death blow.
Probably no one at this day remembers the incident more distinctly than captain Orrin Smith of Le Claire, for 48 years a river pilot in all capacities and today actively engaged in guiding the Lone Star on almost daily trips between Princeton and Davenport.
FATHER FURNISHED EVIDENCE
"My father, Captain John E. Smith furnished evidence in that case for the railroad company," he recalled the other night. Tilted back in an old chair on the lower deck of the Lone Star he rehearsed the incident while a kerosene lamp with yellow light shown thru the smoke from a cigar he puffed occasionally.
"It nearly made a farmer out of my father after years on the river. Lincoln and the rock Island wanted to prove that the bridge was not an obstruction to river traffic and hired my father to pilot a boat up and down the river for an entire day."
He did it successfully, easily. robably made a dozen trips or so in the same channel where the Effie Afton had gone down. "That made the river men mad and they wouldn't give dad a square deal so he went back to Le Claire and moved into a small farm. In 30 days steamboat owners were after him.
"Come on back and pilot our boats for us" they begged him, "They're going to pieces in the rapids."
"I'll come on back for $10 a day, work or play," was his reply and they agreed to his terms.
Records show that Lincoln received $500 for winning the case, but what Captain John Smith received, more than his daily wages, Captain Orrin Smith does not know.
"Like father, like son" the present Captain Smith has proved himself the equal of his father in his mastery of the rapids, which have been the downfall of many a river pilot and stout steamboat. In his half century of river navigation he has never lost a boat on water that churn over treacherous stones. He made a name for himself when huge lumberrafts were run down the river from Minnesota and Wisconsin forests and has the distinction of bringing down the two largest rafts ever floated across the rapids.
Fifteen hundred feet in length was one of these monsters, in reality a raft and a half. Captain Smith explained and conceived when a river captain was roused to new efforts by a story in a Davenport newspaper telling of the "greatest raft in history." Brought down the river by a rival.
The second raft, not quite so long, but a double decker and containing 2,600,000 feet of lumber is shown in the accompanying photograph.
TWO BOATS REQUIRED
To move these tremendous bulk of logs down the river, two boats were required, one at the stern and another at the head of the raft, the "after called a "bowboat" the bowboat made it possible the swinging of the raft back and forth across the stream.
Incidentally it was captain John smith again who conceived the idea of the bowboat and his son who carried this idea to the ultimate perfection.
"Huge rafts power the essential downfall of river men." Captain Smith declares, "With smaller rafts logs would have been moved less rapidly and the supply would have lasted longer. As it was the last raft was floated down the Mississippi many years ago and a lot of pilots were thrown out of work."
"I've run all kinds of boats."He recalls." Raft boats freighters, excursion steamers, and sand barge boats. There used to be a boat each way daily between St. Paul and Davenport , crowded too with people sleeping on deck cots or wherever they could find a place.
WILL NEVER COME BACK
"Now they're all gone, burned, sunk, rotted, except for a few small ones which as were running here. They'll never come back. They don't pay, the railroads put them on the run and now the automobile has the railroad going. Once owned a boat myself, paid $15,000 for her and was lucky to get $1,800 when I sold her." He explained. Consequently, in the attempt to return large traffic, Captain Smith sees but madness where, he says, the cost will far exceed any return and where ice locks the channel for five months out of 12 months.
But as long as any kind of a boat courses up and down the river here Captain Smith will live the life he knows best. He has been on the water from the time he was able o row his first skiff. "I used to swim like a fish, tho I haven't been in the water for years." He says. Why I used to swim across the river from Le Claire to Port Byron any time the notion struck me, and back again, "Many's the time I've given passengers on those daily boats a good scare. Just as they pulled away from Le Claire bound for Pt. Byron, I'd paddle up behind in my canoe, throw a rope over the rudder beam and ride into mid-river. Then I'd upset my canoe and come up under it, making a big shout as I went down.
UNDER THE BOAT
"People would see the canoe turned over and wouldn't see me come up. I'd be under the canoe where there was plenty of air and there I'd stay until I thought a boat would be coming after me, then up I'd pop. What a laugh and stare that would give them." he roared.
"Used to be a crack shot too." He reminisced. "Where other fellows used a shot gun I'd use a rifle or pistol. Always used to hunt rabbits with a revolver and get them too. If I saw them before they ran.
"One day we were coming down the river and saw a big flock of swans way ahead. I called to my engineer, Frank Long. He got his shot gun and I my rifle. When we were about 50 yards away, close enough for the shot gun, I banged away twice and to swans fell, frank called up and asked "did you see those two I got", "Well until you see the balled marks I answered and sure enough I'd hit them and he missed 'em. "One other time Jake Brasser, a boxer, wrestler, and a crack shot, as he claimed, boasted he could out shot me. Fellows always used to be shooting and then hanging the targets up in a saloon.
A CRACK SHOT
"Well we put up a six inch target at 35 yards. Jake had a five shot and O a seven shot revolver. We fired and then investigated the results. I'd placed all seven shots in the six inch circle, piecing the bull's eye with all of them. Jake had hit t only once, but that was right in the center of the bullseye. Say, he put that target up in the saloon, and didn't get over it for days. We used to laugh about that.
Returning once more to the talk of swimming he warned "Don't ever get into ice water, it'll paralyze you." He told the incident of his own initiation, his first and last experience which happened about 30 years ago.
"We were coming back from hunting near Princeton. Had our boat full of guns, camping stuff and straw in the bottom. A stiff wind was whipping the waves into whitecaps and water stopped into the boat. All at once she started head first for the bottom."
INTO THE ICY WATER
"The fellow with me grabbed his gun and went down but I grabbed an oar in one hand the boat with the other. Down I went too, and then managed to get a hold of George. Under water I turned the boat upside down, out fell the stuff and up came the boat, bottom side up." "Hang on the boat I called as I pulled George up, and holler like the devil." I managed to climb on top the boat, straddle it and began to paddle. Finally a fellow heard us shouting and paddled out. He pulled George into the boat and I sprawled in paralyzed from the hips down where the icy water had soaked me. When I got to shore, I ran all the way to a saloon, got three hot whiskeys, went home, put on dry clothes and came out all right. We both did, but stay out of ice water."
With that Captain Smith fell back to dreaming a minute.
"Well guess it's about time to look for the hay, he spoke suddenly," and rose to turn down the lamp.
Source: The Davenport Democrat and Leader, Davenport, Ia., Davenport, Ia., Davenport, Ia.,Davenport, Ia., 10 Jun 1928.
Contributed by Sue Rekkas.