Chapter Three

Begins River Life


In the spring of 1865 I got my first free ride on a steamboat.  It was on the War Eagle commanded by Captain Abe Mitchell of Albany an old friend of the family.  The boat had wintered in Le Claire and came up from that place with the side wheel steamer Ocean Wave on one side and a barge on the other en route to Dubuque.  Capt. Mitchell had promised to take my brother Ira H. and myself to Dubuque and try to get work for us on some boat as we both had the “bug”.  Think my brother was successful in landing a job as “shiner” but I did not get any kind of a job and how I got home has been a mystery since I have been trying to solve some of these kind of problems .I have no recollection how I got home from this trip.

Think it was this same fall, about the close of navigation, that the War Eagle and one of two other boats were secured by the C. & N. W. Ry, to run up and down through the draw of the railroad bridge at Clinton, to test out its danger to navigation.  I do not know what the decision was at this time but do know from experience in later years that the bridge was certainly a stumbling block for floating rafts when the water was too low for them to run the eastern or Illinois end of the bridge.  I also have a picture of the bridge.  I also have a picture in my mind of several barges of ice of a fleet in tow by one of the Huse-Loomis boats, some time later, in a general mix up at this bridge.  During the excitement a man fell overboard with the oat backing as hard as she could, and went under the barge immediately.  The mate kicked off his shoes and rushed to the forward end of the barge hoping to be of assistance to the man, but he was never seen afterward.  This accident made a lasting impression on me.

One of the most peculiar incidents in an accident to a raft at his bridge is one that happened to the Satellite as a bow boat when she went up nicely on the pier east of the draw pier when the pilot got a little too far over in trying to go through the east span of the draw, I had some experiences myself at this bridge that will come along later so am of the opinion that the result of the test made by the War Eagle at this time was not of great benefit to the railroad company.

(Note: - In his memoirs published some years ago Captain Stephen B. Hanks, another old time river man, tells of being pilot on the War Eagle on the same trip that this boy go his free ride to Dubuque.  He was ---pilot on the War Eagle at the time she was maneuvering around the Clinton Bridge in an effort to minimize its danger to navigation.  The War Eagle, Itasca and Key City were said to have been used for the test at different times.  They ran through the draw by night and by day; with barges and without; head on, and stern first; landed above the piers and below the piers.  The only accident was the breaking of one of the wheels of the Itasca caused by a gust of wind throwing her against one of the piers.

Captain Hanks says in part:  “In the fall, I think in September, I was sent to Clinton with the War Eagle as one of the boats engaged by the railroad company to demonstrate that its bridge at Clinton was not an obstruction to navigation*** it was not fully explained to me what was expected of us but I was finally approached by a representative of the railroad company and urged to make an affidavit that I did not consider the bridge an obstruction to navigation, but I steadfastly refused to so although there was there were hints that it would be to my material advantage if I would*** After the close of navigation at the instance of the Chicago and North Western officials I took a statement setting forth that the bridge at Clinton was not a material obstruction to navigation to some of the pilots and solicited their signatures.  I went down as far as Burlington and out to Des Moines.  I had refused to sign the statement and was unable to get the signature of a single pilot and returned the paper to the company’s office in Chicago.  While naturally disappointed, the officials treated me very nicely and paid all expenses as they had agreed.

The late George B. Merrick, himself an early day riverman, in his history of the Itasca and War Eagle says that the tests came as the result of complaints that the east draw span of the bridge was only 119 feet in the clear instead of 160 feet as required by United States law.  He also says that one of the pilots did furnish the railroad company with the desired affidavit and that he, the pilot, and his wife “held the keys to Chicago.”  And lived in luxury for some time.  Presumably that affidavit, or something, satisfied the complaints or the U. S. officials as we have no knowledge of the width of this span ever being changed. F. A. B.

Aaron Winans had two rafts in Cat Tail slough, about two miles above Albany, and I got a trip with him to Davenport.  We were four days fitting up the raft and when we left the slough there was a strong wind blowing and the crew of 24 men were almost continually at the cars.  I was just a little over 16 years old and trying to be a man and any one who knows the old time raft oar knows it is a man’s job to handle one.  I got so weak that I could not get the stem to my breast and so sore and stiff the next two days that I could scarcely move.  However, I nerved myself up and asked for a job on the second trip but was turned down although Mr. Winans knew our circumstances and how badly I needed the work.

So I gave up the river for the rest of the year and went back to our old friend Farrington, who was glad to see me and gave me work for the rest of the season at $17 a month.  The increase added immensely to the happiness of my mother and myself.  By the way Mrs. Harrington was a sister of the Chancy’s pilots well know to all old timers.

Largely with rafts, and many terms applicable to same, so a short description of them may assist in a better understanding of the term used.)


Transcribed by Georgeann McClure