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Full text of "Old Man River; upper Mississippi river steamboating day's stories, tales of the old time steamboats and steamboatmen"

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B r o v^ n , C hax I e <b Ed uu a r<± 

Old Man River 







The Virginia, the first steamboat on the Upper Mississippi, passed up 
the river on her way to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, in 1823. With the 
settlement of the Old Northwest the number of steamboats multiplied 
year after year. Nine out of every ten boats we e built on the Ohio 
river. They were of two types — stern and side- wheel. The largest 
measured up to 300 feet in length. They often carried as many as 500 
passengers. They cost from $20,000 to $40,000. George B. Merrick, his- 
torian, compiled a list of about 1500 boats which were in use on the 
Upper River between 1823 and 1900. These were packets, raft boats ana 
ferry boats. The loss of boats up to 1897 by snags, fire, ice, collisions, 
explosions and other causes numbered 295. Other boats were worn out 
and dismantled. Steamboating began to decline in about 1870 with the 
building of railroads to St. Paul and other important river towns. 

For these stories we are indebted to George P>. Merrick and Harry G. 
Dye:', noted old time rivermen. To them this booklet is dedicated. 


Steamboat racing was one of the pleasures of the old time 
river captains, who took great pride in the appearance and 
speed of their boats. "One of the fastest steamboats on the 
Upper Mississippi was the swift "Key City," the champion of 
the Minnesota Packet Company fleet. She was never beaten 
by any steamboat outside of her own line, and by but one 
boat in her line — the peerless "Grey Eagle." She shone at all 
times like a star of the first magnitude. She was a very 
pretty boat to look at, beautifully proportioned and very 
serviceable, a river greyhound. 

Her captain, James Worden, was a real sport and always 
ready to accommodate any boat with a race and at any old 
time. Hank Whitney was her very efficient chief engineer. 
He always had plenty of rosin on hand and had no objection 
to "perching a nigger or two on her safety valve." She never 
suffered a single defeat (1857-66). Captain Worden had a 
broom with a brush about three feet wide and with a long 
handle by which it could be firmly affixed to the roof of the 
pilot house. This broom he offered to any boat that would 
take it away from the "Key City". He at the same time 
offered to wager any sum on the result of her racing. Her 
reputation was known the length of the Upper River. 

— 1— 

Of course every captain who had a fast boat sought the 
first opportunity to test Captain Worden's claims. The "White 
Cloud," a fast side-wheeler, tried conclusions with the "Key 
City" and was beaten. The "Northener", a really fast boat, 
had a race with her through Lake St. Croix. This was a 
river classic. The race began at St. Paul and ended at Pres- 
cott. Here the "Key City" hoisted her broom. Ned West 
was the pilot of the winning boat, "as fine a pilot as ever turn- 
ed a wheel." 

In one of her following races the "Key City", leaving St. 
Paul heavily laden with freight, beat the "Keokuk" to Lake 
City by over two miles. Then she beat her to Reads Landing 
by about one and one-half miles. At Wabasha her com- 
petitor was one mile behind the "Key City". The "Key City" 
made business landings at Alma, Minnieska, Fountain City, 
Winona and Trempealeau, thus consuming over an hours time 
and yet she was only one mile behind her opponent when the 
"Keokuk" reached La Crosse. The supremecy of the "Key 
City" was unquestioned. 

The "Key City" was loafing along upper Lake Pepin, towing 
a heavy barge, when she met the "Messenger", a big and fast 
Lower River side-wheel steamboat. The latter biew her 
whistle, a challenge for a race. That was enough for Captain 
Worden. He put some men aboard the barge and set her 
adrift. His firemen began sifting in rosin with the cordwood, 
and, it is presumed, hung a grate-bar on the safety valve. It 
did not take the "Key City" long to strike her gait. The 
chimneys of both boats were soon red-hot. The "Key City" 
soon overhauled and passed the "Messenger". Running far 
enough ahead of her to make such a proceeding safe she ran 
across the bow of her rival, and circling back returned to her 

Other fast and powerful steamboats, among them the "Tish- 
mongo", "Tigress" and "Resolute" tried to wrest her laurels 
from the "Key City", but all had to take the wash of her 

The fast run of the "Grey Eagle" in 1858 between Dunleith 
(East Dubuque) and St. Paul was 24 hours and 3 minutes, 
with 21 landings. The "Key City's" time for the same run 

was 24 hours and 29 minutes with 13 landings. She was very 
nearly as fast as the "Grey Eagle", the queen of the Upper 
River. The "Key City" was the grandest boat in the Min- 
nesota Packet Company line. Stories of her triumphs are 
still told whereever old rivermen gather. 


The "Denmark", a side-wheel packet of the St. Louis line 
(1856-62), was the first passenger boat on the Upper River 
to sport a steam piano, or calliope. This was in position on 
her hurricane deck. This "music-maker" was added to her 
equipment by her captain, Robert C. Gray, "as a persuader of 
custom" from the traveling public of her day. Among the 
rivermen "opinions differed as to the direction her passengers 
were persuaded to take — on board or overboard. It was con- 
fidently averred that the same passenger never booked himself 
for a passage on the "Denmark" a second time." Several de- 
luded travelers are said to have ended a more or less miserable 
existence by jumping overboard enroute. However, to the 
general public, not "fed-up" on her music, her arrival and 
departure from the levee of the river towns was a real musical 
treat. The performer on the calliope was a "real artist and 
could play popular songs, national airs and well-known hymns 
with equal facility and enjoyment." "As soon as the "Den- 
mark" rounded the bend of the river below St. Paul the cal- 
liope would start to play. That was the signal for everybody, 
and by the time the boat arrived, the levee was crowded with 

The "Clarion", a small stern-wheel steamboat, had "a whistle 
in keeping with her name, but out of all proportion to her 
size. It was said that her builders at Monongahela, Pennsyl- 
vania, took the whistle and then built a boat under, it. It was 
so large that it made her top-heavy. They said that the 
engineer always had to shut off his engines when the pilot 
began blowing for a landing." So strong and loud was her 
blast that a Dutchman in one of the river towns once fell 
out of the second story window of a hotel when he heard her 
"wissle" and permanently injured his person. 



Most famous of the raftsmen of the Upper Mississippi was 
Captain Stephen B. Hanks. He was born at Hodgenville, 
Kentucky, in 1821, and was a cousin of Abraham Lincoln. In 
1841, when living at Albany, Illinois, Stephen, a healthy and 
strong young man, left home for the pine woods of the St. 
Croix valley. Here he found employment as a lumberjack 
cutting timber and helping to drive the logs to the saw mill at 
St. Croix Falls. Here he helped to raft and float the lumber 
to St. Louis. "In 1844 he made his first trip as pi'.ot of a log 
raft that floated all the way down the Mississippi from Still- 
water at the head of Lake St. Croix to St. Louis."* This was 
an undertaking which probably no other riverman could have 
successfully accomplished in that early day of log rafting. 
The distance, as the river channel ran, was "a good, long 
seven hundred miles."* After ten years of rafting Captain 
Hanks became a steamboat pilot. From that time on until 
the year 1892 he stood at the wheel of the fine boats of four 
different large packet lines. His was a life or rare achievement. 
He was ninety-six years old when he died, in 1917. He was 
a Christian gentleman, and "he was held in high esteem by 
all who knew him." (Walter A. Blair, A Raft Pilot's Log) 


On the river front at Le Claire there stands a grand old 
elm tree, dear to the hearts of many old time rivermen. Its 
semi-globular crown of foliage has to-day a spread of nearly 
one hundred feet and its huge trunk is over twelve feet in cir- 
cumference. This monarch among trees is located at an Iowa 
Mississippi River town which enjoyed great prominence in old 
steamboating and rafting days as the home of the skilful 
rapids pilots and of other steamboatmeu of note. Its landing 
was a stopping place of many great and small steamboats on 
their way down river. Here they secured pilots to take their 
boats over the Rock Island rapids. 

In the shade and shelter of this great tree, known as the 
"green tree hotel", many riverman, temporarily out of em- 

ployment, once found a retreat. All were welcome there. In 
this riverside "tavern" there was no landlord to greet, no 
register to sign, and there were no lodging bids to pay. Put 
your hat anywhere and stay as long as you like ! A man might 
spread his blanket here or there, or, if he had none, use his 
coat or shirt for a pillow. On many a summer night lodgers 
were plenty, river tales were told and river songs were sung. 
Here a steamboat or raft boat captain might hire a cook, a 
fireman, deckhands or a raft crew. Much has been written 
about this famous tree. This sylvan hostelry was known to 
steamboatmen and raftsmen the whole length of the Upper 
River. This historic landmark still stands and is cared for by 
the citizens of this river town. 


Commodore William F. Davidson of the old White Collar 
Line of Mississippi River steamboats was a very pious man. 
It was his custom to assemble the members of his crew on 
deck on Sunday mornings and to there hold a prayer meeting. 
On such occasions he always offered the prayer himself. One 
of these prayers he once concluded, according to a river tale, 
with the following words : 

"And Oh Lord bless the poor. Give to every poor family a 
Barrel of Pork, — a Barrel of Flour, — a Barrel of Sugar, — a 
Barrel of Salt, — a Barrel of Pepper." Then, hesitating for a 
moment, he added: — "Oh h--l no — that's too much Fepper!''- 

There were other river captains who were well known for 
their piety. One of these was a resident of La Crosse, a fine 
upright man, yet this steamboatman was also known to be 
able to swear harder than almost any riverman of the Upper 
Mississippi when occasion seemed to require it. In the back- 
yard of his home there was a fine apple tree. The boys of 
the neighborhood annoyed the good captain very much by 
stealing its fruit. On one occasion he caught a number of 
them in the act. Then he let forth such a stream of finished 
profanity that the young thieves were almost scared to death. 
One of them has since stated that he will never until his dving 


day forget the continuous explosion of swear words which the 
old officer emitted on this occasion. 


Land sharks operated along the banks of the Upper Missis- 
sippi as they did elsewhere in the Middle West, promoting 
paper townsites and relieveing their victims of their money. 
'"One of the boldest-faced of these swindlers was the so-call- 
ed Rolling Stone colony. In the spring of 1852, some three 
or four hundred people, chiefly from New York city, came to 
seek their purchased lands in Rolling Stone. They brought 
with them beautiful maps and birds-eye views of the place, 
showing a lecture hall, library and academy. Each colonist 
was to have a house lot in the town and a farm in the neigh- 
boring country. None had ever had any farming experience. 
Boarding steamers at Galena, they expected to be put off at 
the Rolling Stone levee, for the views represented large 
houses, a hotel, a big warehouse and a fine dock. But the 
steamboat officers had never heard of such a place. Careful 
investigation, however, seemed to locate the site three miles 
above Wabasha, on land belonging to the Sioux Indians. As 
they insisted on landing they were put off at the log cabin 
of the only white man within ten miles. They made sod 
houses for themselves, or dug shelter burrows in the river 
banks. Sickness came; many died during the summer and 
autumn, and when winter set in the place was abandoned. 
The people suffered severely, and the story of Rolling Stone 
makes a sad chapter in the early history of Minnesota." 


On June 14, 1872, the "D. A. McDonald", a famous boat 
owned by the Van Sant Navigation Company, on her up- 
river trip, was near North Mc Gregor, when her boilers ex- 
ploded, killing or drowning eighteen out of twenty-seven men 
on board — one of the most disasterous explosions ever re- 
corded on the Upper Mississippi. Among those killed was 
Captain Martin. Several of the survivors of that disaster had 

most remarkable experiences. "\V. N. Pierce, of Rock Island, 
an engineer, was on board the steamboat as a guest. He was 
lying in his berth over the boilers, reading. The blast sent 
him high up in the air, ahead of the boilers and without get- 
ting scalded by any of the steam. He had a thrilling experi- 
ence, going up pretty well toward the zenith, turning a com- 
plete somersault or two, going down to the foundations of the 
earth under water, coming to the surface and swimming 
ashore, all within the space of a very few minutes. But, 
boys,' said Mr. Pierce, 'once is enough. I don't want any 
more boiler explosions in mine'." 

One of the crew, Charlej' Johnson, also lying in his berth, 
was blown through the door, or window of his room. On his 
mattress he fell in the river about forty feet from the boat. 
Here he caught a big oar, and straddling this he paddled 
ashore. He had not suffered a scratch. At McGregor he 
found a dugout and started down river to his home at Le 
Claire. News of the explosion and of his death had already 
reached his home town. When he got there some boys, who 
were swimming at the levee, saw him paddling toward the 
shore, they fled for home, not even stopping for their clothes. 
When he passed through the town, he cleared the streets 
wherever he went, the people believing him to be a ghost and 
not a flesh and blood visitor. His family had mourned him 
for dead, and inscribed the date of his demise in the family 


There is a superstition among rivermen that certain steam- 
boats are "hoodooed", and can never be successfully operated. 
Such a boat was the "Alex Mitchell", a passenger packet 
(1870-81). "She was thought to be the unluckiest boat ever 
on the Upper River. If there was anything in the river or 
over the river, she hit it. When there were no snags to en- 
counter she would bump an island or climb a tree. Hers was 
a chapter of accidents. To enumerate all of the scrapes she 
got into would fill a book." 

"In 1871 she hit the island at the foot of Coon Slough doing 
considerable damage to herself. In 1872 a cyclone tried con- 
clusions with her. The mate, who was sitting by her big bell, 
was blown a quarter of a mile, lighting on the shore without 
serious injury. The pilot was blown out of the pilot house. 
This was believed by some to have occurred because Captain 
Laughton had permitted the members of a German excursion 
to dance on her deck on Sunday, contrary to the laws of God 
and of Commodore William F. Davidson, one of the owners 
of the steamboat line to which she belonged. In July 1878 
the "Mitchell" was snagged and sunk at Oquawka, Illinois. 
She was raised. In November of the same year she hit an- 
other snag and was sunk, this time at the mouth of the Des 
Moines River. In December 1876 she was damaged $59J0 
by ice at St. Louis, and, in 1879, by the bridge at Hastings. 
In 1881 she was dismantled at La Crosse, after a "glorious" 
river career. 

The "Alex Mitchell" was valued at $30,003 when new, being 
built at La Crosse in 1870. She belonged at first to the North- 
western Line, then to the Keokuk Line, and, finally to Com- 
modore Davidson's St. Louis and St. Paul line, the famous 
White Collar Line. 


Captain Oscar F. Knapp, of Osceola, was "the father of 
steamboating on the St. Croix River." First to last he was the 
owner, builder and captain of a number of different boats. 
Captain Knapp "was a giant, physically, several inches over 
six feet tall, and weighing over two hundred pounds." 

In the fifties and sixties hundreds of lumberjacks rod; on 
his boats on their way to the mills and the pineries. Many 
of these passengers would pay their passage only under com- 
pulsion. Captain Knapp insisted on their fares. He kept his 
"compulsion" with him all of the time. It was always on "tap" 
and ready for use. When one of the "ja:ks" refused to pay 
the good Captain signalled the pilot to run as close to a tow- 
head as possible. Then catching the unwilling "jack" by the 


scruff of his neck and the slack of his pants, he simply tossed 
him ashore. When this action was resented by five or six of 
his fellow pirates, the Captain was willing and ready to "lick" 
the whole gang. One blow of his fist always settled the big- 
gest bully of the lot. At one time or another the Captain 
thus "colonized" with "jacks" every big sandbar along the 
picturesque St. Croix. In spite of his primitive methods of 
preserving order Captain Knapp's boats were always popular 
with the old time loggers and raftsmen. 


There were a few captains on the river who seemed to have 
a passion for ringing bells. George B. Merrick tells of a pilot 
who had this bell-ringing habit. From the pilot house he 
would keep the engineer and his second over busy executing 
his orders given in this way. On one trip the engineer got 
so far behind with these orders that after the steamboat had 
tied up to the bank at a landing it took him "seven hours and 
a half" to catch up with his bells. 


"Cypriane Buisson had been on the river since he was a boy, 
most of the time in the rafting trade — for twenty years cap- 
tain of one boat. "Cyp", as he was generally known on the 
river, knew the Mississippi well from St. Louis to St. Paul, 
up-stream, down-stream and crossways by day and night. He 
was conceded to be one of the very best raft pilots on the 
river. He had plenty of nerve, but no nerves. He never got 
flusterd. In every kind of dilemma or danger he was as 
cool as under ordinary conditions. An old steamboat en- 
gineer said that "Cyp" never rang all of the bells at once, 
never kicked all of the sash out of the pilot house, and never 
swore so that it created a blue fog so thick that he couldn't 
see his bow-boat, what-ever the stress might be. That was 
the river way of saying that he kept cool." 



Among the widely known big men of the old Mississippi 
River steamboating days was Joseph Reynolds, "Diamond Jo", 
owner of a great majority of the stock of the famous Diamond 
Jo Line of steamboats. This was in its day a great corpora- 
tion, controlling an investment of half a million dollars. Its 
fleet of freight and passenger steamboats was large and fine. 

Joseph Reynolds, birthplace was at Fallsburg, New York, 
and the date 1841. He received a common school education. 
When he was seventeen he began buying cattle, sheep and 
hogs, peddling the meat in the surrounding country. In the 
winter he taught school for the meagre wages of $10 a month 
and his board. Later he and his brother opened a general 
store at Rockland, New York. Here he married Mary E. Mor- 
ton. Her father furnished the money for the purchase of a 
feed and flour mill. Later he became the owner of a tannery 
also. Both proved very profitable. After a few years he sold out 
and came to Chicago. Here, in about 1856, he established a 
tannery. In the interests of this business he traveled ex- 
tensively in Illinois and Wisconsin. In shipping packages of 
hides and furs to Chicago he caused them to be marked with 
his nickname "Jo" stamped upon a diamond shaped figure. To 
this "trademark", rather than to the large diamond which he 
wore in later years in his shirt front or scarf, the origin of 
his nickname is correctly traced. Negro roustabouts patched 
the seats of their pants with Diamond Jo "trademarks" cut 
from wornout bags. 

In about I860 Mr. Reynolds disposed of his Chicago busi- 
ness and engaged in the grain trade at Prairie du Chein, then 
the terminus of the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad. In 
order to obtain better shipping facilities than the steamboat 
lines would furnish he built in 1862 the steamboat "Lansing". 
She carried grain and produce between Lansing and Prairie 
du Chien. In the winter of 1862-63 he built at Woodman, 
Wisconsin, the "Diamond Jo". He also built barges for bulk 
grain. In 1868 he began his first operations as a steamboat 
line with four boats and Fulton, Illinois, as his headquarters. 
Here he had a shipping agreement with the Chicago & North- 


western Railroad. Here he built and purchased other hoats 
extending the service of his hoats to St. Paul. In these years, 
18f)8-74 he handled many million bushels of grain. That year 
the general offices of his line were moved to Dubuque. Here, at 
Eagle Point, he also established a shipyard where many of the 
best steamboats and raft-boats on the river were built in the 
next twenty years. Captain John Killed] was the very effi- 
cient general superintendent of the company. In 188J tha 
company began to pay more attention to the passenger traf- 
fic. The passenger packets (1881-86) included the large and 
beautiful steamboat, "Alary E. Morton", the "Sidney", "Pitts- 
burg" and "Josephine". In 1883 the line incorporated as the 
"Diamond Jo Line of Steamers". Mr. Reynolds was its presi- 
dent. It continued without change until his death in 1891. 

"Diamond Jo" Reynolds was respected and loved by his 
associates and employees. He was a very quiet man and had 
little use for "society." He was well known at many steam- 
boat landings along the river between St. Louis and St. Paul. 
If one saw a quiet, modest-looking man seated on a box or 
bale at a steamboat levee, whittling a stick and paying atten- 
tion only to his own business, that was likely to be "Diamond 
Jo" Reynolds. He amassed a great fortune in the steamboat 


In the years 1854 to 1858 two boys, George and Samuel 
Merrick "bunked" in the garret of their father's (L. H. Mer- 
rick & Co J warehouse at the old steamboat landing at Pres- 
cott, Wisconsin. "There were two windows fronting the river 
and no steamboat ever landed at the levee, day or night, with- 
out two boy spectators carefully noting its distinguishing 
characteristics." So these lads came to know the steamboats 
of that day by their shape and size, by their wheels, by the 
trimmings on their smokestacks, their pilot houses, the colors 
of their outside blinds and the sounds made by their bells and 

"All of these points and man}- others, were taken in, and in- 
delibly impressed on their memories, so that if the whistle or 
bell were again heard, perhaps months afterward, the name 


of the boat could be given with almost unfailing accuracy. It 
was a part of the education of the "levee rats", as the bens 
were called. A boy, that could not distinguish by ear alone 
a majority of the boats landing at the levee from year to 
year, was considered as deficient in education. Every boy in 
town could tell what craft was coming as soon as she whistled. 
Every boat had a whistle toned and tuned so that it might 
be distinguished from that of any other boat of the same 
line. The bells, which were always struck as the boat came 
into the landing, also differed widely in tone." And thus the 
Merrick boys "grew into the very life of the great river as 
they grew in years." Soon George was ripe for river adven- 
ture. He obtained a job as pantry boy on the "Kate Cassell". 
a stern-wheel steamboat, and remained a member of her crew 
during the season. Of course he was very proud of his job 
on this fine boat. The next spring he became a "cub" engineer 
on another steamboat, the "Fanny Harris'". He learned the 
machinery of the boat. His next step upward came when hi 
became "mud clerk", or second clerk, of the steamer. The 
duties of a second clerk were arduous. He assisted and re- 
lieved his chief in attending to all of the business of the boat, 
writing up delivery books, checking out freight, measuring 
wood, and attending to a hundred other duties that fell to his 
lot. He collected the fares of passengers, assigned rooms, col- 
lected freight bills, paid for wood and other supplies. Then, 
at last, came the opportunity to learn the duties of a "cub" 
pilot from two of the master steamboat pilots of the Upper 
River. Under their able instruction he learned the channels, 
the marks and the intricacies of steering a steamboat. The 
height of his boyhood ambition to become a pilot was attain- 
ed. Then came the Civil War, and in 1862 George enlisted 
and marched away to the front with his regiment, the Thir- 
tieth Wisconsin Infantry After the War he entered the em- 
ploy of a steamship company in New York. Returning to 
Wisconsin he entered the newspaper business, and finally be- 
came the auditor of the University of Wisconsin. 

George B. Merrick's interest in the Great River and its his- 
tory continued until the date of his death, in 1931. He be- 
came the recognized historian of the Upper Mississippi River. 


In 191W he published a book, "Old Times on the Upper Missis- 
sippi", and in later years he contributed many other valuable 
articles, papers and monographs in which the history of old 
steamboating days on the river is graphically recorded. Thus 
this man, who in his boyhood had watched from an attic win- 
doy of his father's warehouse the big steamboats come and 
go, made his mark as an author and historian. 


On the crest of a high, wooded river bluff at Alinnieska there 
was for many years a large wooden "fish", supported on the 
top of a tall pole. This very conspicious sign was known to 
all of the steamboatmen and raftsmen plying up or down the 
waters of the Mississippi. They found it a convenient and 
unerring guide-post, as well as a weathervane, as it swung 
around on it wooden pivot. Adult passengers and children, 
who were being transported on the packets and who were 
curious about the wooden "fish", often asked questions about 
it. They were told, in reply by the pilots, mates or members 
of the steamboat crew, that the Great River was once as deep 
as the height of the b'.uffs, and that in the recession of the 
waters this particular "fish" was left stranded, pinioned to the 
top of this tall pole. 

In recent years this landmark was replaced by a tin fish 
(Id feet long) and supported by an iron pole upon which it 
turned, its head always pointed in the direction of tin- wind 
It continues to be a landmark of interest to riverfarers. 


Billy Henderson was a well-known fruit man and steam- 
boat bar magnate of the 60's. In 1854 or 1855 he owned the 
bar on the steamboat "Excelsior." As a side line he peddled 
oranges and lemons at the various steamboat landings from 
St. Louis to St. Paul. He was known the length of the river 
as "Billy". Later this was changed to "Old Bill" Henderson. 
Even in his younger days he was inclined to be severely 
economical. He generally wore a red or blue flannel shirt 


that he had traded in with some returning lumberman for the 
out-put of his gin-mill. Some carping critics said that he 
wore this style of shirt because it never required washing. 

As he attained age and wisdom he bought other bars, until 
finally he owned the "drug stores" on every boat of the 
Northern Line. He put in bartenders whom he hoped that 
he could trust to make correct returns. But he never did 
trust them, always complaining that he was being robbed. He 
became wealthy despite his dishonest toddy-mixers. 

In his later years he had an axiom which he always im- 
parted to his younger friends. It was: "Never carry any 
money in your pocket. If you have money in your pocket 
you will spend it. If you have no money in your pocket you 
can't spend any money. I never carry any money in my 
pocket, so I never spend any money". If a newsboy asked 
him to buy a paper he would draw the boy aside and take 
particular pains to explain to him why he never carried any 
money. It was said that when he died he did not take a cent 
with him — consistent to the last. 


Captain George Tromlye, who was taking a raft boat down 
river, called his son Charley, whom he was teaching the river, 
to take his place at the pilot wheel while he himself took a 
little rest. In the middle of the night he arose and went to 
the pilot house to see how things were going with his son. 
He asked Charley where he thought that he was. Charley 
replied that they were in Crooked Slough, which is near 
Lynxville. "Crooked Slough your ear!" exclaimed Captain 
Tromlye, and added, "EVER SEE LILY PADS IN CROOK- 
ED SLOUGH??" Charley had run the boat down a dead- 
end slough. This was in about 1875. 


Captain Jerry Turner was the captain and pilot of the 
steamboat "Pauline", in 1890. Walter Hunter was the other 


pilot, Harry G. Dyer, the mate. One day Captain Turner 
had a felon on his thumb and wanted to leave the boat at his 
home town of Canton, Illinois. The trouble was that there 
was no pilot to spell AJr. Hunter while he was away. Hun- 
ter informed him that there was a man on board who could 
steer and called Dyer. He took him into the pilot house and 
told him to take the wheel. Dyer steered while Captain Turner 
sat in the rear and criticized. 

"You turn your wheel too much," said he. No answer from 

"You turn your wheel too much!" said Captain Turner 
again. Dyer paid no attention. "YOU TURN YOUR WHEEL 
TOO MUCH!" said the Captain in a last attempt to instruct 
the pilot. No answer from Dyer. That was all, Captain 
Turner arose, slammed the pilot house door behind him and 
went away. Old pilots always moved the wheel from one 
side to the other, young pilots kept the nose of the boat con- 
tinually on the mark by moving the wheel just very slightly 
from side to side. 


A marine disaster, which occurred on the waters of beauti- 
ful Lake Pepin nearly a third of a century ago, will furnish 
a topic for conversation in that region for many years to 
come. The loss of the "Sea Wing", on July 13, 1899, was a 
major event in Upper Mississippi Valley steamboating days 
histor}-. On that date Captain David Wethern, the owner 
of this small stern-wheel boat, was conducting an excursion of 
some 170 happy residents of Diamond Bluff and Red Wing 
to the Minnesota National Guard encampment at Lake City. 
The excursionists w r ere mostly women and children. Not a 
few of the women had husbands, brothers and friends among 
the soldier boys, and all looked forward with pleasure to an 
enjoyable day to be spent in their summer camp. 

In the afternoon, while the "Sea Wing" and the covered 
barge, which she towed, were moored at the landing at Lake 
City, masses of dark clouds were seen to be forming in the 
sky. As the weather began to look stormy the excursionists 


had assembled at the landing. All were very enxious to make 
a start for home. Captain Wethern argued with them. He 
knew the uncertain temper of Lake Pepin in a storm. He 
tried in vain to persuade them to remain at Lake City until 
it had passed. They were so insistent in their demands that 
he depart that he finally yielded to their request. This was 
at about 8 o'clock in the evening. The little "Sea Wing", with 
her freight of many precious human lives, entered on the 
fateful voyage that was to lead to their destruction. 

She was near Maiden Rock, enroute to Red Wing, when 
the storm struck her and the barge. She had gone hardly two 
miles. It struck with the force of a tornado, and the little 
craft was soon bowled over like an eggshell. "The scene was 
a nightmare. Before she capsized many persons rushed from 
the barge to the boat. The barge, cut loose, was swept away 
down the lake by the heavy gale. She finally ran aground 
with her passengers safe and sound. The scene aboard the 
capsizing "Sea Wing" was terrible. Overhead a terrible storm 
was in progress. Thunder roared, lightening flashed and a 
gale, that assumed the proportions of a tornado, made the 
waters a perfect hell. Men, women and children struggled to 
save themselves, but to no avail. When the storm subsided 
only a handful had been saved, and nearly five score had gone 
down to watery graves. Among these were the wife and 
daughter of Captain Wethern. The work of rescue was be- 
gun at once. All through the night bodies were washed or 
brought ashore. These were laid in a long row on the beach, 
awaiting recognition by relatives and friends. Fifty-one 
bodies were taken to Red Wing. More were recovered later, 
until a total of ninety-nine were found. This grim tragedy 
cast a gloom on lake excursions, and for years afterward there 
were no excursions on Lake Pepin." The captain was blamed 
for this harrowing disaster, because he left port when his own 
judgement told him that he should have remained there. 


This little story was told of Bob Dodds, captain of the raft 
boat, "Charlotte Boeckler". At St. Louis his crew frequented a 


saloon kept by a Mrs. Murphy down on the levee. As soon 
as his men entered the saloon Mrs. Murphy would drive all of 
the other patrons away from the bar with the words: "Get 
back from me ba-a-r-r ye paper-collar dudes. Here comes 
Bob Dodds and his red-shirted rafter.-,!" And all would go 
back in a hurry. The patronage of this crew was nearly al- 
ways good for fifty dollars. The "Charlotte Boeckler'" made 
regular trips with log and lumber rafts from the Schulenberg 
and Boeckler lumber mill at Stillwater to their yard at St. 
Louis in the years 1881 to 1892. 


The steamboat captain stood on the deck of his boat which 
had struck a snag and was sowly sinking. He spoke to the 
frightened passengers who were huddled on the main deck. 
"Is there anyone among you who can pray?" A meek little 
man in the crowd stepped forward and replied, "Yes, I can 

"Good", said the captain, "you start praying while the rest 
of the passengers put on life preservers. We're one short." 


When business was light on one of the boats the chamber- 
maid was ordered to put on her bonnet and best "togs" and 
sit on the boiler deck where she could be seen by the crew 
of the opposition packet when they met her on the river. This 
was to show that the boat was carrying all of the passengers 
that wished to travel. As soon as the other boat had passed 
it was back to the washtubs for the protem "lady." 


In the fifties a river packet, name unknown, was proceeding 
up-stream. She was bound for St. Paul and was carrying a 
heavy cargo of freight. Among this merchandise were some 
packages or bags of asparagus seed, this toothsome vegetable 
being then almost unknown in the home gardens of the Upper 


River towns. When this vessel reached Lake Pepin she struck 
a snag which ripped up her botton so badly that she sank in f 
a comparatively short time. What became of her crew no 
one knows. Presumably, they, or most of them saved their 
lives by swimming, or floating, to the tree-grown shore. The 
packages of asparagus seed, which were on her lower deck, 
floated ashore. Some of this seed later germinated there, and 
in the years following asparagus plants were distributed along 
the roadside and in the fields near Bogus Creek and elsewhere, 
between Pepin and Stockholm. To-day, in the asparagus 
season, people from Pepin and elsewhere go to this neigh- 
borhood to collect his fugritive asparagus. Few of them have 
heard of the illfated steamboat which is said to be respon- 
sible for its presence. Asparagus roots from this region have 
been planted in gardens in the entire country round. (Local 


Captain George Winans was coming up the Mississippi in 
about the year 18/0 with his steamboat, the "Juliana", and 
towing a barge loaded with coal. He had delivered a log raft 
at St. Louis and was returning to Stillwater. When he reach- 
ed a locality just below Burlington he found Captain Ira B. 
Short there with his boat the "Mountain Belle". Captain 
Short was moving down-river and had got the log raft he was 
towing stuck on a sand-bar. He was vainly trying to extri- 
cate it. When Captain Winans stopped to inquire about his 
trouble, Captain Short, who was a man of an imperious 
nature, said, "George, I'll have to commandeer that barge of 
coal!" He feared that his boat would run out of fuel before 
he got the raft off the bar. His words and his attitude so ir- 
ritated Captain Winans that he yelled in reply. "No — you 
ain't going to commandeer my barge of coal! And if you 

try to do it, there will be trouble! I licked the whole 

Short family once, and, by G-d, I can do it again if you say 
so !" 

As boys George and Ira were playmates. George lived in 
one river town and Ira in another. On one occasion George 


gave Ira a licking, and Ira's two brothers entering the fight 
he whipped them also. Hence the above reminder. 


Captain Jerry Webber, when a Mississippi river pilot, was 
once being examined by the U. S. Steamboat Inspectators for 
a license. In the course of his examination he was asked the 
following question: — - "Captain what would you do if your 
boat was moving along and you suddenly saw a big rock 
sticking up out of the water right in front of your boat? You 
could not go back." 

"By — -," said Captain Webber without a moments hesita- 
tion, "I'd bust into it." Xo one could have done otherwise, 
the examing officer agreed. 

Captain Webber could swear harder than any captain on 
the Upper river. Often he would do this quite unconsciously. 
He had a woman cook on the boat and sometimes he would 
say to her. "Now Mrs. Black just get as far back on the boat 
as you can, so you won't hear me. I'm going to talk." 


One of the best raft captains of the Upper Mississippi was 
Captain William Dobler He was an able, courageous and re- 
sourceful steamboatman. He was "one of the best raft pilots 
that ever lived and held the record for log raft towing. One 
year he made eight trips from the rafting works at West New- 
ton to the Gem City' Lumber Company at Quincy, Illinois, in 
64 days." Quincy is 120 miles below Rock Island. 

One year in making a sharp river turn at Skunk Flats near 
Pontussa, Illinois, one end of his raft caught a sand-bar. As 
soon as George Walker, the other pilot, heard the noise he 
jumped out of bed and started upstairs for the pilot house. 
Captain Dobler saw him coming and said; "Go right back 
where you were George. I got her into this and — — I'll get 
her off." And he reversed and slowly backed the steamboat 
off the sand. 



When a certain steamboat left St. Louis she carried a gang 
of negro roustabouts to load and unload the freight. When 
the boat reached a landing one of the colored hands of this 
gang could never be found. When the unloading of the 
freight was accomplished and the boat again on its way, this 
nigger would appear from somewhere. When asked by the 
mate where he had been he said that he had been asleep. 
When the next landing was reached the darkey would be gone 
again. The mate searched everywhere for him but could not 
find his hiding place. This happened a number of times dur- 
ing the boats journey. At last the mate, thoroughly mystified, 
called the negro before him. He promised him that if he 
would reveal his hiding place he would not require any more 
work from him until the steamboat reached its destination. 
This being agreed upon, he asked the man, "Now where was 
your hiding place?" 

"Why," answered the grinning black, "I'se been in your