Scott Co, Iowa USGenWeb Project
A Raft Pilot's Log by Capt. Walter A. Blair
1929-Arthur H. Clark Company
Transcribed by Joan Bard Robinson
The Noted Raft-boat 'Silver Wave'
After we put the 'LeClaire Belle' with her broken shaft in charge of the
Diamond Jo Boat Yard at Eagle Point in November, 1878 I paid off the crew,
and took the boat books and my personal belongings to LeClaire, Iowa
Arriving there on a Friday evening, I left the books at Captain Van Sant's
residence and the next day secured comfortable quarters with a
Mr. Wilson who lived five miles west of LeClaire. On Monday morning I
began a four months' term of school at Browns Corners.
Mr. Wilson was director, as well as my landlord, and had three
daughters (very nice girls) attending my school, so our relations were very
Mrs. Wilson was an excellent cook and a very pleasant, jolly woman. I
enjoyed the winter very much. It was an excellent neighborhood. We had
singing schools, spelling matches, debates, parties and dances for our
evening diversion. The winter passed quickly and when school closed the
river was open and and the raft-boats were starting out.
Captain Van Sant placed me on the 'Silver Wave' to fill the same position
I had on the 'LeClaire Belle' in 1878. Captain George Rutherford
was her master and pilot and to my great delight George Tromley, Sr., was on
her as pilot so I could go right on with my pilot-house lessons.
The 'Silver Wave' was a larger and heavier boat than the 'LeClaire Belle'
and very hard to steer. Like most boats at that time she had two skeg rudders
and only one balance rudder.
About this time someone building a new boat gave her a basket stern with
three balance rudders, and she was such a fine handler that no more skeg
sterns were built and when hauled out for repairs all the old boats had their
skegs removed and were given all balance rudders. When this change was later
made on the 'Silver wave' it helped her greatly both in steering and bucking.
When I joined her early in the spring of 1879, Henry Whitmore of Galena,
Illinois, was chief engineer and James Davenport of LeClaire, his
assistant. Dan Hanley, still living in Davenport was our fireman and his
younger brother, James was cabin-boy and assistant to Joe Gallenor the cook,
where he learned all kinds of mischief and devilment. 'Jimmy' as we
called him then, is now dignified and successful lawyer in Davenport, Iowa,
and he has not lost any of that spirit of devilment that kept the crew of the
'Silver Wave' alternating between fun and fear while he and
Joe Gallenor lost sleep in studying up some new trick or joke to put over on
Mr. Whitmore was not only an excellent engineer, but a fine mechanic.
When a young man he spent four winters in the Broadway Machine Shop in
Saint Louis, learning blacksmithing and machine work and he held the best
jobs in the Galena and Minnesota Packet Company during its successful career.
During the first half of the season I stood watch with Mr. Davenport
and had little to do with Mr. Whitmore as he did not seem very friendly.
During late July and August we laid up three or four weeks as the
low water would not permit rafting logs in Beef Slough. To fill in the time
and partly cover the expense , we ran several short excursions. On one of
these, an evening trip, with our boat full of merry dancers, she 'ran through
herself.' That is, she broke the wrist pin on the port crank and this let the
piston head, rod and pitman go forward with such force that
the main cylinder on that side was cracked and ruined. This crash and the
escaping steam caused quite a scare for a few minutes; but we kept them
reasonably quiet and in a very short time Mr. Whitmore disengaged the broken
engine, shut the steam off from it and was able to keep the boat going after
a fashion on one engine and took us back to LeClaire, a little late but all
We had to remove the old engine and get a new cylinder cast by Williams,
White and Company of Moline.
Before the new cylinder was ready, Captain Van Sant received word
that the Chippewa river was rising, that rafting would be resumed in Beef
Slough and to proceed at once to take care of Musser and Company's logs.
When the new cylinder came we worked two days and the intervening night
getting it 'shipped up,' We hardly stopped to eat, and never mentioned sleep
till we had her going up the river going again. After this job Mr Whitmore
wanted on his watch and arranged it so I stood watch with him the rest of
that season and all the next. He took interest in showing me how to do
things. I helped him at the forge and anvil, got to be his favorite striker
and was proud of it. We made all the stirrups for
the wheel, and kept all the mate's raft tools in good shape, and during the
summer he made several fine hammers and finished them off as nice as any
We said Uncle Henry( as we called him ) could make any tools required in
the engine room except monkey wrenches.
In those days there was a great movement of 'harvest hands' northwest,
from Missouri and Kansas to the great wheat field of Minnesota. On one of our
trips we picked up an even hundred of these men at five dollars each for
Winona. This fare was for transportation only. They could sleep on deck
anywhere and get sandwiches and coffee at the kitchen; only a few of them
paid fifty cents for a full meal at the cabin table as they were out to earn
and save money.
At noon the next day when passing Spechts Ferry twelve miles above
Dubuque, our main hog chain on the port side let go on top of the after main
brace. This let her stern down on the side and put wheel, cranks, pitmans and
engines in such a twist we could not roll the water wheel over.
The pilot headed her for the shore, her headway carried her there and the
mate and crew got lines out to hold her.
Captain Sam Van Sant was riding up with us this trip fearing we might have
some trouble with so many deck passengers.
When the boat was tied up he came back to see the situation at out end
and he looked pretty blue.
Speaking to the engineer, he said, "Well, I guess the only thing to do
is to send these men to Winona by rail and then have the boat towed to
Dubuque Ways for repairs."
Mr. Whitmore said, "Captain, you do what I direct and give me some help
and I'll see what we can do."
The iron where it had broke was five inches wide and three-quarters
thick and it was a clean job to weld it with our little outfit.
It was awfully hot, close in under the bluffs that afternoon, but
before the supper bell rang we had her stern back up to place and the chain
with that weld held her until she was dismantled many years later.
We had no trouble with our passengers and they made better time with us
than if they had taken a regular packet that made frequent stops and
handled considerable freight, and the five hundred dollars passage money
they paid added just that much to the net profit of the trip.
Nearly all our work was running log rafts from Beef Slough, Wisconsin,
to the Musser Lumber Company, Muscatine, Iowa, that owned a half interest in
the 'Silver Wave.'
About this time the Musser Lumber Company and Captain Van Sant
incorporated the 'Van Sant and Musser Transportation Company' that
continued to the end of the rafting business.
I remained with the 'Silver Wave' three full seasons; two of them with
Captain George Rutherford and one (1881) with Captain Lome Short who gave me
great encouragement and opportunity to practice on the river and before the
season was over he would let me 'take her' anywhere night or day and
fortunately I kept her out of trouble and made life easier for him.
We had very high water in the fall of 1881 and some landings were hard
to make. On the trip we had a raft for the Clinton Lumber Company. At
Dubuque I got orders from them to bring the raft 'to our mill.' Captain Short
knowing the landing to be swift in high water had everybody up, skiffs and
check lines ready and the engineer had a clean fire and plenty of steam.
We got it landed at the mill all right early in the morning. Then the
superintendent, Harry McGlynn, came down in ill humor and refused to receive
the raft there; said they could not hold it, wanted it up above in
Joyce's Slough and wanted to know "why in h--1 we didn't put it there,'"
"Because your letter we got at Dubuque told us to bring it to the mill."
He said, "yes, but I wired you last night in care of the Sabula bridge to
put it in Joyce's Slough." "Well, we did not get your telegram. Don't know
why, but through no fault of ours the raft is here and we can't take it back
up the river and don't intend to try, so here we are."
I went up-town and consulted a good, sensable lawyer, then returned to
the Lumber Company's office and we compromised. They gave me a clear receipt
in full for the raft 'Where is as is.' Then we agreed to leave our kit on and
assist the steam 'Chancy Lamb' and 'Lafayette Lamb' in putting the raft up
in Joyce's Slough.
Taking one-half at a time and using all three boats we soon had both
pieces up where they wanted them, when they put on their lines and we took
We were all done and coaled up ready to start back up the river before
dark and everybody was in good humor.
That lawyer charged me three dollars for his advice. It was a good
Before leaving Clinton that evening we got a newspaper account of the
accident of the little steamer 'Jennie Gilchrist' the night before. The
western Union Railway was under water between Hampton and Moline. The
'Jennie Gilchrist' made a few trips carrying freight and passengers, while
this condition existed,
and left Davenport about 8:30 P.M. with a few passengers and some freight on a
barge. She passed up through the government bridge all right,
but when about up to the location of the old railroad bridge she had a
breakdown on one engine and before the engineer could get her cleared
up to work the other engine alone she drifted down to the government
bridge, her upper works caught and she capsized. Some of the people
were saved by getting on the barge and others were rescued by skiffs
from shore, but there were some loss of life.
The 'Jennie' was raised. repaired and had a long and useful career after
Te 'J.S. Keator' of Moline, Illinois, broke her shaft later in the season.
We had finisher our regular work and were ready to lay up for
winter when we received orders to go to Gordon's bay for a raft that the
'J.S.Keator' was going for when she broke down. The water was high,
the weather nice and the 'Silver Wave' made a quick and very profitable trip,
the last in 1881.
The winters of 1881 and 1882 were my last experiences in teaching; my
fourth in the same school at Brownes Corners. I had grown to know and like
everybody in the neighborhood. They were very kind to me and I had become so
attached to the scholars that I left in the spring with genuine
In addition to the many boat stores where we purchased supplies there was
a well conducted wharf-boat at Bellevue, Iowa, that carried a good
stock of boat supplies. It was in charge of a fine old man named Peter
Shiplor who had been a clerk on the packets and knew how to cater to
the steamboat trade.
It was handy to land at going up river as we could get ice, meat, and
provisions aboard in a very short time and Mr. Shiplor always had our mail
ready for us.
Going down the river we would always pull ahead in the skiff and tie up to
the wharf-boat, load in our supplies and be ready to pull out to our
steamer as as she was towing by the town.
In 1880 there was an epidemic of small pox in Bellevue but we had not
heard much of it while up river and on our way down I went ahead as usual
with our skiff and got needed supplies.
It was nearly six o'clock when I got back to the boat. After I saw the
stuff taken out of the boat and properly put away I went upstairs and took my
seat at the supper table with the captain, engineer, mate and watchman.
Someone inquired if there was any truth in the rumors about small pox
epidemic in Bellevue.
I told them I knew all about it. That Ben Stuckey the watchman of the
wharf-boat had had it and was now nursing others who were sick with it.
That Big Jake the colored man who did the hauling for the wharf-boat,
was very bad with it. They did not think he would live through the night.
That Mr. Shiplor was having a hard rime running the wharf-boat as no one
would come to work with him. That it was pretty bad up town. There had been
several deaths recently and a good new cases. But I found myself alone at the
table before I finished my story. I don't remember just what
they did call me, but when the cabin-boy heard what I said he ran back to
tell the cook and as a result I got no more waiting on and the other 'watch'
would not come to supper until I had left the table.
Then to make matters worse, we tied up two miles below Bellevue under a
high bank and cooled down all night to clean boilers.
After 9:30 P.M. all the crew except myself were in bed and asleep. I had
to stand watch until midnight and then call my partner who would watch until
I soon wrote up the log book, recorded a few bills paid that day and
balanced my cash. It was very quiet and I soon got sleepy as I had missed my
usual afternoon nap on account of business at Dubuque and Bellevue. To keep
awake I got up and walked decks. About 11 P.M. I saw several lights
coming down the road around the bend above us from the direction of Bellevue.
A little later I could hear several voices back up on the high
bank but they were not close enough to make out what they said. My curiosity
was aroused and as the voices continued I cautiously walked the logs, got
ashore and found a place where I could climb the high bank and found myself
in a cemetery close to the party burying the latest victim
of the small pox, Big Jake, the colored teamster from the wharf-boat.
When I roused my partner at midnight and got him up we had our lunch
and casually I mentioned the affair I had witnessed in the cemetery and
remarked " There may be another before morning. If you see lights and hear
voices up there, you'll what's doing.." I said," You knew Big Jake didn't
you, Jim?" "Yes, and I don't want to hear any more about him."
I suggested that perhaps it would be just as well not to mention the
funeral to the crew when he called them at three o'clock to wash boilers and
pumps up, but when I got up for breakfast I found they knew it all
and some were in favor of putting me ashore. Of course they couldn't do that,
but I had my breakfast alone and no one wanted my company that day.
On long trips we received little mail and few papers. Only a few 'Firebox
Reports' * and 'Cook House' ** dispatches were in circulation to kill the
Sometimes we made the run from Beef Slough to Muscatine without landing.
after delivering our raft at Muscatine or elsewhere we got our kit off the
raft and stowed on the boat and aside from stopping at LeClaire (usually) for
coal we raced all the way back to Beef Slough with-
The 'Silver Wave' could run well when she was in good trim. She needed
a good load on her head. On one trip she ran from LeClaire to Beef Slough
in twenty-nine hours and thirty0seven minutes. The distance is three hundred
miles. This run has not been beaten by any raft-boat to my knowledge.
There was considerable racing with other boats in those days. Mr. Whitmore
was always proud of his boat and did not want her passed.
If someone reported a 'smoke ahead' he always got busy and wanted to get
close enough to read the name even if he could not pass her.
The prevailing opinion is that racing on the river is dangerous. The
movies generally show an explosion of boilers as a natural feature of a
steamboat race. This is all wrong. The safest time to be on a boat is in
The engineer, firemen, mate, and watchman are awake and alert on the main
deck. The pilot is taking pains to do his very best steering, the captain is
in the pilot-house or close by to give any needed assistance and
the rest of the crew even to the 'slush cook' are interested and ready to
'trim ship' or do anything else to help their boat win.
I have never known a boat to explode her boilers or have any serious
accident while racing.
There have been a few explosions - not while racing - that could only be
accounted for by the facts that engineers do sometimes get tired and
sleepy and when conditions and tired are too harmonious they do go asleep
and the water in the boilers gets too low.
Steamboat boilers must be built according to United States laws, of the
very best material and subjected to very rigid tests by the United States
inspection service before they can be used. They must stand a cold water
test one hundred and fifty percent of the steam pressure then allowed.
A set of boilers to carry one hundred and eighty pounds steam pressure must
stand two hundred and seventy pounds water pressure test, and this test is
applied at least once a year as long as they are in use.
If I thought boiler explosions a mystery I could not have slept so com-
fortably over them for fifty years.
Search lights or electric lights had not come into use during the time
I was learning the river. We had kerosene lamps and lanterns for lighting
and the only thing we had to help the pilots landing at a bad place or
hitching into the raft at night was the miserable old 'torch basket.' This
was an iron basket about the size and shape of a ten-quart pail, that was
hung on the end of five foot iron handle.
Using dry pine kindling cut up fine to get a good start we fed the torch
with crushed resin a little at a time and then occasionally more wood.
This made a lot of smoke and some of the time a pretty fair light, but
it required close attention and at best was generally criticized by the
captain and pilot on watch.
The watchmen were expected to have a barrel of kindling and a bucket of
resin always ready so we could flame up the torch on short notice.
This would have been easy enough but for the cooks who frequently
stole our stock to start or hurry up the fire in their big range.
After running two or three nights without landing, perhaps just as the
watchman was nearly ready to turn in the whistle would blow for a wood pile
and the 'skipper' would call for the torch.
Rushing down to start it, it was no uncommon thing to find the kindling
barrel empty and the resin pail nearly so. Frequently we would find part of
the kindling and some of the resin behind the kitchen range. Of course when
the cooks got up at 4: 30 A.M. and discovered their supply ( stolen from our
stock) had vanished they made the air blue with all kinds of swearing and
threats and tried to pin the whole thing on the watchman.
That torch was the one serious bugbear that made many nights miserable.
After electric lights were installed the watchman led a different life.
During the three seasons I spent on the 'Silver Belle' we only had one bad
Captain Rutherford tried to run Cassville Slough with the whole raft in
the night and without any searchlight. Captain Van Sant was aboard that
trip. He advised against trying to run it 'whole.' He urged Captain
Rutherford to tie up and wait for the daylight, but Captain Rutherford was
always ambitious to make time and kept on.
We made the bends and other places all right but came to grief at the head of
the island nearly at the foot of the Slough, one corner caught on
the island and the opposite corner on the stern caught the bar on the right
and before we got the wreck landed in the last right hand bend at least
one-fourth of our raft was floating off down the river. Then a dense fog
settled down on us that did not lift until nine o'clock next morning.
By this time the mate had 'the remains' patched in good shape so the
steamboat could handle backing, floating, or towing along slow.
We had three skiff crews out catching and collecting the loose logs,
many of which grounded on shallow places and had to be rolled to deeper
Leaving my partner to stand my watch running the nigger engine, I went
with captain Van Sant in one skiff. We had with us a big ,husky negro who was
riding down river with us. We soon had him in the water with a peavy and he
did excellent work rolling off logs that were aground while we caught and
brailed them together and towed them out to the raft when it came along. The
day was warm and calm, a line day for our purpose, and we cleaned up every
log in sight as we went along.
We had no dinner, and it was 9:00 P.M. when the boat landed and we all
Joe Gallenor had a fine supper for us and we certainly enjoyed it and the
sleep afterward. I don't know who stood my watch that night, I was far away
on the billow.
The next morning we started out again but we had secured the bulk of
our logs the first day. We rowed
and floated along catching a stray now and then, the last one in Bellevue
Slough, fifty-five miles from where the break-up occurred.
We had 1200 logs scattered over fifty-five miles of river. We recovered
them all and delivered at Muscatine without any shortage and
only one day late.
Captain Van Sant's presence was a great help to us in many ways. He knew
what to do and had the happy faculty of knowing where to place each
man in the right place and get the most work out of him. He earned the title
cheerfully given him by the men on deck when they pronounced him
' A Hero in a Break-up.'
Captain Rutherford was on the 'Silver Belle' six seasons and she made a
lot of money in that time. He was not only an excellent pilot, but a man of
intelligence and good principle.
One evening during a discussion in the pilot house something said prompted
him to face me and placing a hand on each of my shoulders he
said, "Young man, remember this:
Life lays its burden on every man's shoulder,
We each have a cross or a trial to bear,
If we miss it in youth it will come when we are older
And fit us a close as the garments we wear.
I thanked him and asked if he knew the author of his beautiful verse. He
did not, nor do I.
We made one long, tedious trip with a raft of lumber from Reading's
Landing to Hannibal, in September and October, 1879. The river was very
low and Beef Slough had closed down. We took this raft on charter, so
much per day, which assured us of a fair profit. We grounded raft and boat at
the mouth of Skunk river, seven miles below Burlington. By two days hard work
we got off in pieces.
Then we lost two more days by wind, before getting away from this place.
It was slow, hard work putting the raft through the canal as we had to cut
it up in small pieces at each of the three locks in the old canal around the
Lower or Des Moines rapids which ended in Keokuk.
We were twenty-eight days on the trip but after all our delays and mishaps
I got a clear receipt for the raft from the agent of the Eau Claire Lumber
Company when we turned it over to their steamer 'Pete Kirns'
at Hannibal. In fact he complimented us on the good comdition of the raft
and the time we had we had with it.
As our pilots had not been running below Muscatine for a few years they
sent me ahead to Davenport to secure a 'posted pilot' to go down with us and
show them the way.
Several of the large Saint Louis and Saint Paul packets had been laid up
on account of the low stages of water and I was fortunate in getting David
LeClaire who had been on the 'Belle of LaCrosse' and was well posted. 'Dave'
LeClaire , then a very strong, healthy man about sixty-five years old, was a
half-brother of Antoine LeClaire, the founder of Davenport, Iowa. I found him
very intelligent and sociable. I enjoyed his company very much and told him
so when he left us on our return to Davenport. That was Dave LeClaire's last
trip. A few mornings after when his wife called him, he did not answer. He
had made his last 'crossing' to the other shore.
Racing between raft-boats going up the river (usually without anything in
tow) was very common, but it was always interesting and often exciting
though there was noting at stake, except the pride of the crews in their
Captain Van Sant was justly proud of the speed of the 'Silver Wave' and
After we bought the 'Ten Broeck' I soon discovered that when loaded
just right she made excellent time going up river, but she would not stand
crowding when heavily loaded as she did not have much free-board forward.
One night on backing out from a wood pile near Fisher's landing to go back
up to Beef Slough for our second piece, I saw a boat coming up
behind us and apparently gaining on us. I called down to James Stedman,
the chief engineer, who was on watch, telling him we should try to keep ahead
until we got up to the boom ( about eight miles). By the time he and the
fireman got a good fire and our usual steam, the other boat got up close, her
bow even with our wheel and we saw she was the 'Musser.' Her
pilot whistled to go by on the right but he did not go by. I kept well to my
side of the channel, the 'Ten Broeck' got her gait and gradually increased
the gap between us and went into the mouth of Beef slough four
I warned our crew not to mention anything about it as the 'Musser' may not
have been in as good trim as the 'Ten Broeck.'
Now comes the funny part of it. On our next trip coming up we had a very
heavy load of fuel and iron boom chains on the 'Ten Broeck' when we landed at
Winona and Captain Van Sant came on to ride up to Beef Slough with us.
While eating supper at the Winona dock the captain gave me and the
engineer a very kind but serious talk about racing and and he would admit
he had done a lot of it in his time, but could plainly see now that there
was no sense in it , etc., etc.
We promised to remember his good advise. When we reached the upper
end of town the new, fast ' City of Winona' came out of the foot of the
Slough above Youman's mill and was soon headed up for the Beef Slough.
She was gaining a little on us. Captain Sam was eagerly watching and soon
asked Mr. Stedman , the engineer, how much steam he was carrying.
I answered, saying, "I have given orders not to carry over one hundred and
twenty pounds tonight. Until we get these chains off her head, she will dive
when she strikes a deep place if we drive her any."
By this time the 'Winona' was close up to our wheel and gaining a little.
captain Sam could not stand it any longer. He said to Mr. Stedman and me-"Why
this is fast boat. Its a shame to hold her back this way. let steam come up
to her allowance and I will try to keep the water off her head";
and he got the crew to help him move some chain back; then he banked coils of
cross lines around her bow with tarpaulins over her head and we kept ahead
and gained a little even with slowing her down to mount the reefs in shallow
water; but when near Fountain City the water came over
her bow so strong that captain Sam and his false bulkhead were washed back
off her head. We then concluded we had had fun enough, slowed down, , let the
'Winona' go by , then cleared up the forecastle, put but her back on one
hundred and twenty pounds and turned in. 'Racing' was not
discussed when the captain came aboard after that.
Sometimes, however we raced down stream with rafts in tow. I remember oine
such when on the 'LeClaire Belle' in 1878.
We had fourteen strings of logs for fort Madison. The 'J.W. Van
Sant' (first) with fourteen strings of lumber for Saint Louis, was close
behind us when we got coupled up below the Clinton Bridge, and it was soon
apparent that she was gaining on us.
As the water was at a low stage and only one rapids boat, the 'Prescott,'
at LeClaire to assist over the rapids, each captain wanted to reach LeClaire
first and go on over with the 'Prescott's' aid, as the second arrival would
have a long delay.
The 'LeClaire Belle' had fourteen-inch cylinders and the 'Van Sant' only
twelve-inch both had the same stroke- four-foot. Not only did the 'Belle'
twenty percent more power, but she was a much larger boat and we made every
effort to to keep ahead. by the time we were at Camanche we were
we were side by each. And a few times the crews had to pry our boom logs
loose from the lumber. Both boats were doing their best and so were their
pilots, but there was no swearing or calling of ugly names- it was all quiet
and orderly as a well conducted funeral. That stretch of river then was wide
enough for two full rafts to run abreast all the way to LeClaire. Neither
crowded the other on shore or out on a bar; it was a fair test in
every way and we were loser. it took over an hour before the 'Van Sants'
raft cleared ours at the head of Steamboat Slough. When we reached
the LeClaire Foundry the "Van Sant' and the 'Prescott' were starting over the
rapids. We had to land and wait until the next day at noon.
While a lumber raft has more feet in it and weighs more than a log
raft of the same length and width, it is easier to tow, because it is of
uniform depth and the cribs and strings are coupled up close together,
while the logs being of different sizes, the bottom of a log raft is very
uneven and rough.
It takes longer to get a lumber raft under way or to
check its headway and stop it, but once under way the same boat or one of
equal power, will shove fourteen strings of lumber one-fourth to one-half
a mile an hour faster than she will fourteen strings of logs. In calm weather
a lumber raft will float a little faster than one of logs.
The usual speed of a standard sized raft towed by a boat of average power
was four miles an hour except in Lake Pepin or Saint Croix where it was only
two and one-half miles an hour. The speed was considerably affected by the
stages of water and the force and direction of the wind.
A pilots reputation depended almost entirely on the time in which he made
is trips, and there was constant effort to get all the speed possible
and to lose as little time as possible at the bridges or at the rapids. The
owners of the boats did not have to urge their pilots to 'make time'; the
rivalry between the pilots kept them all doing their best. It was racing
against time and each other all season.
The engineers and mates deserved a large part the credit for the good time
made, but the captain, who was also first pilot, got the lion's share
of it while the others got their full share of the blame if the boat lost any
time, or was a little longer than usual on her trips. The rivalry between
captains in the same line or on boats, owned by the same company, was
The LeClaire Navigation Company
In February, 1882, I drove into LeClaire, Iowa one evening, when there
was a meeting of the Pilot's association and took my examination for a
pilot's license successfully and any number of the association was authorized
to endorse my application.
In March I met the United States Local Inspectors at Rock Island .
Captain G.W.Girdon of Galena, the Hull Inspector gave me another examination
which I passed without difficulty and soon after I secured my first issue
dated March 15,1882, signed by George W. Girdon, Inspector of Hulls, and John
G. Scott, inspector of boilers.
This license authorized me to act as 'Master of steam vessels on the
Mississippi river, and its tributaries, and as Pilot between the Mississippi
and Saint Croix rivers between Montrose, Iowa and Stillwater, Minnesota,
except the Rock Island rapids down stream'
The last issue of my license dated March 26, 1927, permits me to pilot
on the Mssissippi and Saint Croix rivers between St. Louis, Missouri and
the Illinois river from its mouth to Peoria.
In March, 1881, Captain Sam Van Sant who had a half interest in the little
steamer 'Last Chance' sold me a one-sixth interest for five hundred
dollars. Captain John McCaffrey of LeClaire owned the other half interest,
had charge of her and was to pick up what work he could get and pilot
At the end of the season I drew out four hundred and sixty-five
dollars as my share of profit which was more then I had earned by seven and
one-half months work, and this made me eager to increase my holding.
Captain McCaffrey had the 'Last Chance' hauled out on the LeClaire Ways
for the winter and in February, 1882, Captain Van Sant and I bought
McCaffrey's half and divided our interest evenly each owning a half.
The 'Last Chance' was a small boat. She had a good boiler, but the engine
was small- ten inches in diameter by three foot stroke, and the
cylinders were in bad shape. The hull was old but had had a good thick bottom
put under her only three years before and she needed very little
We secured new cylinders a little larger and used the same upper works.
This and some valve grinding made quite an improvement in her movement.
As soon as I finished my term of school I secured a room at the Gault
House in LeClaire and took real pleasure in working on my own boat, cleaning,
painting , changing a little here and there to enable me to
house, feed and sleep a crew of eighteen men.
I was fortunate in securing Robert Shannon as chief engineer and George O.
Lancaster as a good carpenter and a handy man in many ways in addition
to being a good engineer.
I hired William Long for our cook and he was a handy man with carpenter
tools also, so I started him in to remodel the kitchen and fit it up, as in
the work the boat had been doing on the rapids her crew lived ashore and'
the so called kitchen was nothing more than a small room with a stove in it.
With very little expense for materials Mr. Long made a very handy little
kitchen that just suited him and
pleased every cook who followed him. He was a great help to me in fitting
up the cabin and pilot-house and when we got all done we were really cozy
Mr. J.W. Van Sant, Captains Sam's father, had retired from the boat yard
but lived near it and visited it frequently when the work was rushing in
I knew Mr. Van Sant to be an excellent carpenter and a man of superior
judgment in repair work. So I sought his advise as to what work we should do
on the hull of the 'Last Chance.' The instruction and suggestions he
gave me on that job and others were of great value to me then and later
when I had to superintend the repairs on a fleet of steamboats every winter.
J.W.Van Sant was a very modest, quiet man but he had a keen streak of humor.
One day he proposed to ' set up the old spike heads that stuck out
considerably on her old sides if I would get a boy to hold the spike set.'
I got a husky young chap whose father was a good carpenter in the yard.
Mr. Van Sant did not use tobacco nor like it but he seldom indulged in any
criticism of another's habits.
In moving from one berth to another Mr. Van Sant was always there
with his maul ready and waiting for the young chap to take a chew and
slowly get himself around in position.
Working just inside I heard Mr.Van Sant ask the boy, "Ben, did you ever
see any snails ?" The boy expectorated and asked "What's 'at?"
"Did you ever see any snails?" "Yes. lots of 'em," said Ben.
"Well. said Mr.Van , "You must have met them, you never overtook any of
One stormy day in March, 1882, when it was too bad
for any one to work in the yard, Captain Sam Van Sant and I fired up the
stove and organized the LeClaire Navigation Company of LeClaire, Iowa, that
is by following the code of Iowa we got up our Articles of Incorporation
which we later filed, and with two or three amendments providing for
increases in our capital stock this organization carried us all right until
the sawmills shut down and the business ended.
Starting with the 'Last Chance' in 1882 we bought the larger 'J.W.Mills'
from W.J.Young and Company of Clinton, Iowa in 1883, the big fine
three-boiler towboat 'Ten Broeck' from McCaffrey and Dodds at LeClaire ib
1886. Then a year later we bought the 'St. Croix' from Chr. Mueller of
Davenport and also made a contract to tow and handle all his logs, take them
away from Beef Slough or West Newton as fast as they
were rafted out and store and deliver them as wanted at the mill. We
were still running his logs when the old mill burned at the foot of Scott
street and we ran every log cut by the new and larger mill at Cooks Point
until they dismantled it.
Then in 1888 we bought the 'Evansville' an older boat with new boilers,
new pump, etc. She belonged to the Matt Clark Transportation Company,
that failed. She was sold at Marshall's sale to John Robson of the Lansing
Lumber Company which had a large bill against her for fuel.
As we had been running all the logs to this Lansing mill for several years
we decided to take the "Evansville' at the price Mr. Robson had bid, for if
he kept her he would have her run their logs. We put a good crew on her
and started her out early in the spring of 1889, used her two seasons when
we dismantled her and used her engines, shaft, pump, nigger engine, capstan
and many other parts in completing the new 'Volunteer' built at our yard in
The next year, 1889, we bought the 'Netta Durant' of the Clinton Lumber
Company and Captain A.E. Duncan, paying $10,000.00 for her. With her we got a
contract for running all the logs cut by the Clinton Lumber Company mill,
mostly from Stillwater, but this work did not last
long as the mill shut down for good in 1890
In February, 1890, we bought the 'Iowa' of Gardiner and Batchelder and
Welles of Lyons, Iowa, who gave us all their work (running logs) that they
could not do with their steamer 'Gardie Eastman.' The 'Iowa' was an old boat
but had new boilers and very good engines.
This same year we bought one-third of the big new rapids boat 'Irene D'
from the rapids pilot, D.F.Dorrance, who over-reached his means in building
McDonald Brothers of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, took one-third and Disney and son
and Captain Dana Dorrance of LeClaire the remaining third. I was her manager.
I made a contract with D.F.Dorrance to use her in his work on the rapids when
low water came and McDonald Brothers and our company
could throw most of our trips to her and also find some employment for
her during good water stages.
We built the 'Volunteer' at our LeClaire yard of which R.A.Edwards was
manager, Captain Van Sant and I owned one-half the stock. The 'Volunteer'
Came out in 1891 and was a real success. She was light draft,
She could follow the logs anywhere and was fast going up river and a fine
She was one hundred and thirty-five feet long, had a twenty-four foot beam
and four0foot hold. Her engines
were thirteen and one-half inches in diameter and had a stroke of four and
one-half feet. Her new boilers, built by Grupe and Murray of Davenport,
'were thirty-eight inches in diameter and twenty-eight feet long.
We bought the fine, fast, handsome steamer 'Silver Crescent' of
Captain O.P. McMann of Clinton, Iowa, in 1890 for $7000.00. Sold one-third to
Van Sant and Musser Company and one-third to Captain Bob Mitchell of Clinton,
Iowa, who took charge of her as master and pilot for two years.
After organizing the LeClaire Navigation Company we closed an arrangement
with J.W.Rambo and J.N.Long, both expert rapids pilots, to
use the 'Last Chance' as their towboat to help rafts down over the Rock
Island rapids during low water.
Then we made a contract with the Hershey Lumber Company of Muscatine,
Iowa, to run ten million feet of logs from Beef Slough to their
mill for one dollar and ten cents per thousand feet, This work to begin as
soon as Beef Slough began rafting.
With our boat repaired, painted and fitted she passed a fine annual
United States inspection and on orders from Manager Van Sant I got coal and
provisions aboard and left LeClaire for Beef Slough on the night of
April17, 1882. I had Vetal Burrow, a French-Canadian as my pilot; the
engineers. Shannon and Lancaster, previously mentioned, James Shannon, mate,
with seven good men on deck. Two men to be watchmen and
nigger runners and two firemen, composed the operating crew. Then to complete
the roster we had Will Long and his helper in charge of the kitchen and our
little cabin. I furnished Will Long with everything he asked
for because I knew he would make good use of it, and there would be no waste.
Everything was good and nicely served and while he did not put on too many
dishes at any one meal, he gave us a good variety from day to day.
A good cook with a kind, cheerful disposition is a great help to the
captain; as he keeps the crew contented and happy. But such cooks are rare,
With the new engines a little larger than the old ones we were pleased
with our speed up stream and she was easy on fuel.
The river was high from LaCrosse up, as Black river and Chippewa were
both high. The big boats were taking six brails of logs-in two pieces of
three brails each. We took four brails-in two pieces of two brails each-
which made a raft one hundred and eighty feet wide and six hundred feet long,
which was plenty for a small boat on the high stage of water.
I had never had much practice on running a raft. My education and ex-
perience had been confined to learning the river and to run a boat in it.
To keep a big, heavy, long raft in the channel and off the high bars and
heads of islands was something I had yet to learn.
Pilot Burrow was very helpful and on our first trip he did all the most
difficult work like Betsy Slough, Raft channel, Bad Axe bend, Crooked Slough
and Santa Fe; besides the bridges at Winona, LaCrosse, McGregor, Dubuque,
Sabula, Clinton and Davenport.
You don't run any two of these bridges the same way and you can't run
any one any one of them the same in all stages of water. The tow is too heavy
for for the towboat to stop. The current will carry it down though the boat
may be backing her best, so to get through a bridge without injury you must
start right and keep right.
We had a few narrow escapes on our first trip, but made Muscatine in good
time and with the raft in fine shape; got a clear receipt and enough cash to
pay off the crew and all bills and the ''lit out' for Beef Slough again.
We ran three more of these four-brail rafts. Then we tried five brails-
a two brail piece and a three brail piece, making a raft two hundred and
twenty-five feet wide, and having good luck with this one, we ran five more
like it and our work was highly satisfactory.
Then the river fell so much the heaviest boats could not follow their
rafts down the shore at Sycamore( below LeClaire) and Pilots Long and
Rambo called us to do rapids work. I reduced the crew to suit the job and
this work gave me fine practice on the rapids, as I always took the boat
back up even if night caught me on the way.
While boarding at the Gault House in the spring with an excellent family
named Bard, I became greatly interested in the oldest daughter, Elizabeth,
three years younger than myself. She had been teaching the 'Indiana'school
while I had been at 'Brownes Corners,' two miles north. we did not meet out
in the country as all winter activities were were strictly neighborhood
Miss Bard's winter term closed a week later than mine, and on her return
home she found me pretty well established, and I soon made up my mind that I
wanted to be one of the family.
As Mother had taken our family to an inland town where they would have
better educational advantages, I certainly enjoyed the homey atmosphere
of the Gault House, and my favorite place for tying up the 'Last Chance'
between trips while working on the rapids was directly in the rear of the
The crew used to say that I could put her in there, close up the pilot-
house, ring off the engineer and be up with the girls on the back porch
before the fireman and watchman got in the slack of the head line.
The river came up in September and we resumed our long trips and
closed the season with a nice profit after paying for all improvements,
repairs, and new outfit we had put on her.
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