Chapter Five

Back to the River


Not withstanding my former unpleasant experience and turn-down, I had not given up the idea of getting work on the river.  So in the spring of 1866 I got a job on the little side-wheel rafter, Viola, James Hugunin, master and pilot.  The other members of the crew were:  William Hugunin, brother of the captain; William Whisler, Anthony Brandt, John Hoy, S. B. Roman and Ezra Chacey.  Just why I never knew, but perhaps from knowledge as to what I had been doing or of my failure on the first attempt, but I was dubbed “farmer” as soon as I went on board and the name stuck to me as long as I was on the boat.  My job was running the crab, the device that held the boat in position, on one of the stern corners of the raft.

(NOTE- a ‘crab” was a frame-work affair in which was a large wooden roller set up on end to the top of which was attached a long sweep or lever.  One was located on each side of the raft a little inboard from the side and stern.  A line ran from each crab through a shieve on each corner of the raft to the guard of the boat-just forward of the wheel on a side wheel boat and as far aft as possible on a stern wheel boat.  When the pilot desired the bow of the raft to be pointed to the left, he gave the agreed signal; the man on the left corner commenced his circular turn and wound up the line, pulling he stern of the boat to the left, the man on the other side letting out sufficient line to let the boat get into proper position.  This worked fairly well but was slow and hard work and many times more than one man was required on a crab, especially when it was necessary to pull the boat against the wind.  When a steam captain on the bow of the boat came into general use, the bight of the line was put several times around the capstan; the lines run through the corner shieves and then back to the boat.  This worked very well, the main disadvantage being that as there must be sufficient line to allow the boat to be straight with the raft, when her 

Stern was pulled over to one side; there would be slack line on the other side that would sometimes let the boat over too far.  Later a sort of doubled barreled capstan or “nigger” led from these barrels through shieves on the guards to the corners of the raft and that worked perfectly satisfactorily and the lines were always taut.

The old floating pilot had rather a hard time in running a raft from the pilot house.  He had learned the river from the surface of the raft and it did not look the same from an elevation.  It was not attempted in the first days of running rafts with boats, and later some of the pilots would use the pilot house, where they would have a comfortable seat in the shade, in a good piece of river, but they would go down to the bow of the raft when the came to a close place.  The younger pilots readily took to the pilot house and in time all raft running was done from that position-F. A. B.)

In the spring of 1867 my brother Lyman and myself took the big sidewheel steamer Hawkeye State from Albany for Stillwater.  As we were short of money we did what now would be called “hitch-hiking” and took deck passage hoping to get on the good side of the second clerk.  It was slow traveling in those days as the packet stopped at every landing where there was a warehouse to take on and out off freight and passengers.  We were in Dubuque for quite a while and passengers went ashore and some of them got left.  The Key City, another fine sidewheel packet, was at the landing when we left and soon after Lyman said he thought we were in for a race.  I asked why he thought so and he called my attention to the speed we were going, the racket the hog chains and guy rods were making and the smoke that was rolling out of the chimneys.  We looked behind but could only see another bunch of smoke, evidently from the Key City.  It was nearly dark when we backed out from the landing at McGregor to go around he island and up the west, or Prairie du Chien channel and the Key City was in sight about at Pictured Rocks.  She made the most beautiful sight I ever saw of a steamboat under headway.  It was a perfectly calm evening.  We could see the spray running up the stem and gently curling over the falling back into the water; the white top of the side swells looked as though they would make mammoth soap bubbles; the smoke from her stacks, black as tar, gently rolling out and behind her in a straight line for at least a quarter of a mile; the steam from her exhaust pipes forming two lines of pure white that declined to mix with the two lines of black above them; the green foliage from the waters edge to the peak of the bluff; all combined to make one of the most beautiful sights I ever looked upon and a picture worthy the brush of the most talented painter.

Meantime the Hawkeye State kept on going, made the Prairie du Chien landing and as she was going out into the main river above the island, the Key City came up the North McGregor side and we thought then and there would be a race for blood!  Just then the Key City blew a hailing signal; the Hawkeye answered it’ the Key City landed along side of the Hawkeye and let off the passengers who had been left at Dubuque.  The boats separated, the Key City went down the east channel to Prairie du Chien and we continued up the river and the supposed race-which was only in our minds was off.

The kind of fare we were getting was not so very filling and our “silos” were getting pretty empty but Lyman’s plan was that we would stand it until we got to Winona. We went ashore and took a place in the line of new passengers, went to the clerk’s office and ought a ticket including meals and berth to Prescott, which cost us $2.50 each.  This gave us two good meals and a berth, so the ride of some 400 miles was pretty cheap, and there was not much profit for the boat on the two meals we had.

At Prescott we took the G. B. Knapp, then running between St. Paul and Stillwater, and got to Stillwater in the evening.  Found Gus Paine and he sent us to the other side of the lake where he was fitting up a raft and on which Lyman was to be second pilot and I was to “buck an oar.”

In a couple of days we were all ready for our departure and Capt. Augustus Young of the towboat Minnesota, blew his whistle as a signal for all the rafts going down at that time to get out into the lake where he could pick them up.  There were 14 rafts in this particular tow, make up four rafts abreast for three length and two rafts ahead, a mammoth fleet, with the boat hitched in behind and between the four rafts on the stern with a heavy check line on each side used for a tow line.  Oars were shipped up on the two bow rafts and each pilot would stand an allotted watch with his men on duty to work the oars when needed.  There were no bridges on the lake at that time and the only bad places were the bars at Willow river, Catfish, and Kinnikinick, at all of which more or less pulling was necessary, two or three men being on an oar to make the work easier.  After releasing the rafts at the foot of Lake St. Croix the Minnesota would run to the

Head of Lake Pepin, wood up and await the arrival of the rafts and then tow them through Lake Pepin. 

It was a great sight to look back up the river from Smith’s landing, below Prescott, and see these rafts winding along down one after another.  There were no wing dams in those days and all we had to look out for were the natural obstructions in the stream.  It was always a hard pull at the head of the lake-Pepin-getting into Wacouta, where the Minnesota would be waiting for us.  Going through that lake depended a good deal on the wind and sometimes the Minnesota had to wait for proper weather.  Again some of the rafts would have trouble in the 30 miles below Prescott and would be delayed.  In that case the Minnesota would go through Lake Pepin with what she had and return for the balance.

On this particular trip our raft was one of the first to reach the head of the lake and a number of us climbed the bluff to “see the sights” and the sight repaid the efforts as the view of the lake and some of the country behind was very fine.  While up there we indulged in the sport that every one who climbs a bluff generally indulges in rolling rocks down the bluff.  Unfortunately there was a board fence near the bottom of the bluff when we commenced but there was less of it when we got through!  It was a mean trick and we should have been arrested.  I followed the trail of one rock I started down and found that it went through one board leaving a hole just the width of the rock almost as cleanly cut as though made with a saw.  I never rolled another rock down hill.

(Note: - Once the writer cut a similar caper.  One trip with the buckeye in 1868 we lay at the bank in Raft Channel to make some repairs to the machinery and I climbed the bluff-as I did whenever there was a chance as the view always paid for the effort.  There were a lot of nice rocks for rolling purposes on top of the bluff and I rolled “em, taking care to start them so they would do no damage below.  Started an especially nice large one but instead of taking the route laid out for it, it very perversely took to a little ridge and headed for the hog house, located in a garden not far from the bank of the river.  I held my breath, saw it keep closely to the ridge, make one b9unce and lay low a section of the garden fence, gave two spasmodic bumps and bury itself in the soft ground of the garden not over 20 feet form the house! I went to the house and inquired for the man of the place, learned that he had gone to Brownsville and would be back in a couple of hours.  Went to the boat got hammer, saw and nails and doctored up the fence as best I could.

I had fixed the fence as well as I could and would pay any damage that had been done.  The fence was a crude affair and he said, as I had been honest enough to tell him about it he thought it would be all right, for which I thanked him.  Not long after he came to the boat and said: “Boy, you gave my house a close call!”  To this I agreed and expressed gratitude that the damage was not as great as it might have been and the incident was closed.  I never rolled another rock down a bluff.  R. A. B.

We had a peculiar accident with this raft just above Buena Vista, Iowa.  At that time, there were three channels among some islands about Buena Vista and some very treacherous currents.  Mr. Paine figured that by keeping well over to the Wisconsin shore he would avoid some of these currents.  He got a little too far over and set us all to work to pull the raft back where he wanted it.  We were under “double quick” instructions, which meant that we walked as fast as possible when the oar was in the water and ran back to starting point to put the oar in the water again.  The best we could do was to pull the raft over just enough for it to hit the island square in the middle of the raft and two or three lengths of logs went out on the sloping each.  The bow crew was ordered to the stern where we helped that crew pull the raft over until it started to swing around, then we went back to the bow and with hand spikes loosened the logs so that they went with the raft as it swung around and we got loose without losing a log and on we went down the river wrong end to.  During all this melle Mr. Paine never changed countenance nor showed in any way that there was anything going on out of the ordinary.  He was very even tempered and his men all liked him and were willing to do hard work for him as it was always appreciated.

On our return to Stillwater Mr. Paine found a lumber raft of 12 strings at the mill of Hersey Staples & Bean for Quincy, ready for him.  On this trip the Minnesota took 14 rafts through Lake St. Croix, which was an unusually large tow although at one time I believe she had 16 rafts.  It was customary to tow as many as she could get through Lake St. Croix, but four rafts were the maximum through Lake Pepin.  With an up-stream wind the cook shanties and the little houses built for shelter for the men would catch a good deal of wind and there was no telling when nor how hard the wind would blow in Lake Pepin.  Capt. Augustus R. Young was in charge of the Minnesota and his job was to tow rafts through the two lakes.  He was an expert at this business and a wizard as to guessing about the weather.  I never knew of his having a serious break-up in either lake.

By this time I was a full fledged floating raftsman and could handle an oar with the best of them.  Mr. Paine was a number one pilot and had little use for a check line whenever he was in anything like good river.  On this trip we got through Crooked slough just about dark and after the raft was straightened up there was nothing for the men to do and they were allowed to go to sleep, if they chose, all except the man on each corner of the raft who acted as watchmen to get the crew awake if needed and to repeat the pilot’s orders.  Everything went nicely until we got down to the little island above North McGregor when the order came to stand by the oars.  Almost immediately every man was at his post ready for the order telling us which way to pull.  That order did not come and soon after we were floating nicely down the McGregor channel and the order “get your coffee” came instead and this was followed y a mad rush to the cook house y both crew and pilot.

We never wet the oar blades all night long but just about daybreak we stirred it up in good shape at he mouth of the Wisconsin River.  That river was higher than the Mississippi at the time and some pulling was necessary to keep us off the Iowa shore.  The men were in good shape and eager for exercise.  It was a wonderful sight to see those oars all go into the water at the same moment; the men holding the end of the stem high above their heads; taking five steps ahead; all the oars out of the water at the same instant, the return trip in perfect order-all movements in exact time like those of a well trained orchestra.  What a movie they would make, but, those never again!  There are very few photographs in existence showing a floating raft and of course none showing the oars in motion.

Many of the old timers, especially in floating days, were ignorant-no that is not the proper expression, uneducated being a better one.  In many ways they were men whom any one might be proud to call friends, despite their numerous failings, and they could always be relied upon in time of trouble.  I can recall many of them younger than myself, who should be alive and strong, who went home many years ago, chiefly on account of the excesses in which they indulged.  The life was one of constant temptation and perhaps many of them did not have the early training and the backing some of us had and are not so much to blame.

In the spring of 1868 I got a trip out of Savanna bay for Clinton with Capt. Paul Kerz.

On the steamer Sterling for which I fort a little money and then went to Stillwater on the steamer reserve and got a trip with Gus Paine on a log raft to Quincy, which was a fine trip.  Then we made a trip from Stillwater with a lumber raft and on arrival at Quincy Mr. Paine got orders to lay the raft up in Quincy it at the rate of $2.00 per day.

Some rather interesting things-to me-happened while I was watching this raft.  The C. B. & Q. Ry was building a bridge across the Mississippi and had a little boat named Jessie that took the men up from the Quincy levee in the morning and returned them in the evening.  She was a real pretty little boat, about the size of the Champion, with a fancy wheel house that resembled a folding fan with the leaves or stiffeners painted in different colors.  Some of the workers on the  --- the ---------------------------- on the bridge.  These men would come to town down past the raft in skiffs.

Front street, Quincy was pretty nearly all saloons, the exception being Tommy Adams boat store.  These men would return at any hour of the night and such a time as they had getting back!  Many of them would be laid out in the bottom of the skiffs, dead drunk, and many of the others just sober enough to navigate.  They would cordell the skiffs along the raft and such cursing and fighting I never had heard nor seen.  It got on my nerves and I feared they might do me some damage so I let him alone.  I got acquainted with the watchman in the railroad yards near by and spent a good deal of time with him night until the gangs got by on their home trip.  However, I will do him the credit for never disturbing any thing on the raft they having troubles of their own.

Had built a nice little “bunk house-out of bundles of lath and shingles and was very comfortably fixed for shelter.  One night some kind of a beast or bug got into my little house and started to give me a concert.  It had a voice a good deal like a screech own but much louder and it was not at all stingy about using it!  Tried to find it but did not.  The minute I would get out of the bunk the concert would cease and hunt, as I might could find nothing but a minute after I returned to the bunk it would commence again and never miss a note.  I pounded the side of the little house in an effort to scare it away but that was unsuccessful.  Finally I could stand it no longer and constructed another house on another string of the raft some distance away and had no further trouble.  Perhaps whatever it was wanted the house I built-well, he got it!

After a short time another raft of six strings of Wisconsin lumber came in alongside of us.  This raft was in charge of a Mr. Daniels, and that name was on some of the lumber as coming from Stevens Point.  Mr. Daniels was trying to sell the lumber to various Quincy dealers but did not succeed.  He had not been there long before he was taken sick and asked me to look after the raft for him promising to pay me $1.50 per day for doing so.  He wanted to go to a hotel and asked me as to one in Quincy.  I told him I had never stopped at a hotel in my life but showed him the Sherman House sign, which was in plain sight from the raft.  He said he would go there and if I wanted anything to come there and see him.  Not long after that I was feeling pretty badly myself and went to see the doctor.  He told me I better get away from there, that cooking with and drinking that bay water was dangerous as it was very filthy.  He gave me some pills but I did not get any better so went to the Sherman House to see Mr. Daniels, but he was not there and had not been.  I tried unsuccessfully to locate him elsewhere.  I was quite worried for I wanted the money he had promised me and to tell him I was going home and could not look after the raft longer.  There was something queer about it for he had been very friendly all the time that he made occasional visits after going-as I supposed-to the Sherman Hotel. We were together a number of times and he told me to do what I pleased with anything in the cook house as he would not ship it back.  Told me I could have the two old skiffs that were on the raft and later I sold one of them for two dollars.  I never knew what became of him.  After my return home I wrote to him at Stevens Point, Wis. But got no reply.  Then I wrote to the postmaster there giving him the name that was stamped on the cribs of lumber in the raft and he said there was no firm in Stevens Point by that name.  My brother Al later said that the lumber laid there until some of it sunk and some was broken and that no one seemed to claim it.

Just before leaving I sold a little skiff I had for six dollars and so had money enough from sale of the skiffs to take me home.  As I was too sick to knock around on deck I took cabin fare. On arrival at Burlington who should come on board but my old playmate Chris Carpenter.  He was going back deck fare and suggested I change my ticket and come down with him and he would look after me, and this I was glad to do.  That night I went to bed on a pile of five bushel sacks-filled with oats, I think and Chris bunked at my feet.  In the morning I felt much better and Chris said I was talking in my sleep most of the night.  He took good care of me until we reached Albany where I went ashore and he went on up river.

A mill company paid me for watching the Paine raft but of course I got nothing for looking after the Daniels raft.  In spite of my sickness and the short season I took $70.00 to my blessed mother and she cried for joy, as she had never seen so much money in one bunch before.  I was not able to get back on the river that season.


Transcribed by Georgeann McClure