Chapter Seven

The Season of 1870


In the spring of 1870 my brother Lyman and I went to Stillwater and got jobs on the steamer Minnie Will, owned and commanded by Capt. Cyrus Bradley Hiram Baise was pilot and Lyman was second pilot.  I was sort of a handy or “fancy” man, it being my duty to see that the plugs and lock downs were all in place as all logs were rafted in those days.  Every time we met a boat or one passed us the swells would make trouble and some logs would be sure to break loose.  Capt. Bradley’s scheme was to tow two rafts through Lake St. Croix, then float one and tow the other to Lake Pepin, tow both through that lake and then float and tow to destination, both crews returning on the boat.  At that time the little boats in the rafting trade were not expected to shove the raft through the water to any extent.  The boat took the place of a stern crew, helped out if the raft got into trouble and brought the crew home.  Time was saved in this manner.

One night I had the honor of being all along in the pilot house of the Minnie Will going up in Lake Pepin.  My head began to swell and I imagined I would soon be a Mark Twain.  It was certainly a big plume in my cap to be trusted with the boat alone.  Got through the lake all right but when we were near the head of the lake it was very dark and there seemed a million islands ahead of me and the plume began to droop, my legs got unsteady and pain began to take possession of me internally!  I called to the engineer to send the watchman up and when he came I told him to get Capt. Bradly to come and take the wheel for I was sick!  When the Captain came to the rescue I rushed out of the pilot house down on deck where I stayed long enough to get some bearings and then went back to the pilot house.  Captain Bradley says:  “Were you lost?” that choked me and I saw right away that my sick spell was no good and owned up that I was, and got off with a light sentence!  Captain Bradley was a very religious man and I never heard him use any bad language.  He and Hiram Baise would quarrel to beat the band but they used no bad words.  He used to tell me that he and Hi. Would have a reckoning some day, but I never saw it.  Bradley was the best man I ever run with.   He gave me good advice, much of which I did not follow.  One thing he told me was never curse men under me.  He wanted to know how I would feel to be cursed by some one who was over me.  I always remembered it and followed that advice.  Only once was cursing ever put too me.  Going over the upper rapids one time with De Forest Dorrance as pilot I had the left hand corner bow oar.  We were going through the bridge on the Davenport side.  He had us all pulling to the left until we were very close to the piers and it looked to me as though the pier in front of me would take at least a string and a half from my side of the raft and let me into the water., if nothing worse, and I certainly thought he had lost his senses and  dropped my oar and was getting ready to run to the middle of the raft for safety when he said “d---n you, get hold of that oar, and d—n quick too!”  I thought the blade of my oar was already on the left side of the pier when all of a sudden the raft took a swing to the right and missed the pier by some six or eight feet, and all the bow crew still pulling to the left.  After we got through the bridge I opened up on pilot Dorrance and gave him some of my mean language in retaliation and then was sorry for it and apologized and we were friends all the rest of his life.  He taught me the upper rapids and I found his marks perfectly reliable and it was not long until I was able to run the rapids as well as any other part of the river.

The next trip Capt Bradley chartered the G. B. Knapp and took charge of her with Hiram Baise, master of the Minnie Will.  I was assigned to the Knapp with Capt Bradley and was very glad of it for he was very kind to me and I learned more about the river and steamboating from him than any one else.  He showed me how to handle a boat, how to judge water, how to flank a big raft, how to get shore marks and many other things for which I was very grateful and have been thankful to this day.

One funny thing happened on the Knapp.  We had a Frenchman for cook and he had a French-Indian wife.  One day as she was getting off the steamer on the raft her clothing caught in some way and she was practically “Up-ended” making rather an amazing display.   When her husband and the captain had pried her loose she shook herself, looked around and said: “Ain’t that re-dick!”

After the season closed at Stillwater I went to Reed’s Landing hoping to get something that would help me out on the way home.  As luck would have it I found Dan Davison and Boyd Newcomb taking eight strings of lumber to Dubuque and I got an oar on the bow.  I do not think we put out a line on the trip.  Nicholas Suitor an Albany boy, was cook on the raft and both of us anxious to get home.  So after getting our pay, there being no boats running, we decided to take the skiff route.  We started down late in the afternoon.  The weather was quite cold.  It was practically dark, when we reached Catfish so we landed, built a fire, made some coffee, hung around the fire awhile, and slept by jerks until about 4 o’clock the next morning when we pulled out.  Put in a full day and camped that night on an island just below Savanna.  It was getting colder and the next morning was very foggy and we were wet to the hide by the heavy dew.  Floated as best we could and when the fog lifted we were about six miles above Lyons and made home about  4 o’clock that afternoon.  I was glad to be home once more and to have a nice bunch of money for my good mother, who was always my saving bank.  It was the best season I had and I felt that I was gaining ground and that life was beginning to be worth living.

In the spring of 1871 I went with Captain Daniel Davison, on the Annie Girdon, owner of the Knapp Stout & Company boats, as second pilot.  Our lumber came out of the Chippewa and our rafts wee made up at reds Landing.  The chief destinations were Dubuque and Fort Madison and in addition to that some lumber sold en route.  It was a very pleasant summer and I learned many things from Captain Davison and thought a great deal of him, although at times he was pretty cranky.  The only real trouble we had that summer was one night near Bellevue.  I was on the bow sounding the water, the word being passed to him in the pilot house y a man about the middle of the raft.  When we had two feet the raft began to crack, but he never stopped the boat until we had five or six cribs hard aground and the raft broken in two and swung around.  He said if I had sounded the water correctly he would not have gotten into that trouble.  Like many another good pilot it was easy to lay his troubles to some one else, but I liked the old man with all his faults.

One trip on the way up river from delivery of a raft at Fort Madison I was on watch and opposite Morehouse Landing there were two little islands and the channel was near one of them and I had forgotten which one and of course guessed the wrong one. Capt. Davidson was very nice about it and I thanked him for helping me out.

The next trip down just above Burlington at the foot of rush slough there was an island that split the channel.  Capt. Davidson tried to run the side he had been running but the harder he tried the worse he made it and he hit the island square in the head and just riddled the raft and broke some of the cribs.  The captain was like a wild man but I never knew what was the cause or what he blamed for it.

Capt. Davison was short the two outboard joints of the second finger on his right hand.  When he wanted to see right well he would hold his right hand before his eye and look between the first and third finger, as looking through a field glass.  He got about as much pleasure out of steamboating as any man I ever knew and one of his hobbies or habits, was eating nuts.  He was rarely out of them and when it happened that he was, the clerk got a job going ashore at the next town.

In May the outside end of the draw of the Winona railroad, bridge collapsed under the weight of a train and there was a lot of stuff dumped in that part of the channel with some nasty looking rods and braces sticking up out of the water.  We had six strings of lumber with the Annie Girdon and I had no idea he would attempt to run that section of the draw with such dangerous looking obstructions.  When a short distance above the bridge up went the field glass and on we went!  We hit everything in sight, shoved it all over and went through without breaking a board!

The Champion was another Knapp Stout & Company boat and about the smallest of that class then engaged in rafting and one of the best for her inches.  She was then commanded by Captain W. W. Slocumb.  We left Reads Landing a day or so after she left and for some reason Capt. Dan did not lay up on Saturday night and on a Sunday we passed the Champion, at the bank near Capoli, obeying orders as to Sunday lay up.  Henry Slocumb, son of Capt W. W. and the clerk of the Champion, came out in a skiff, went to the pilot house and asked Capt. Dan why he was running on Sunday, to which Capt. Dan replied: “to get down the river,” which reply did not set well and they had an argument that was quite hot, but of course did not accomplish anything.  I never did know why Capt. Dan violated the general rule of the company.

(Note: Generally speaking Sunday on the river was as good as any other day and treated about the same.  Occasionally a skipper would recognize the day but there are very few instances where the day was observed, differently from any other.  Knapp, Stout & Company had a rule requiring the boats to lay up on Sunday and it was generally observed.  Just the reason for the order we never knew, but some who followed the regular rule of running all the time the boats were on regular trips were unkind enough to say that it gave the company a chance to clean boilers every week and save some expense while that was being done as the per day men got no pay for Sunday -when they did not work! F.A.B.)

Captain Dan had an idea that a check line was for the purpose of assisting in landing a raft at destination and that line got little use from him elsewhere.  He was a great night hawk and would use every endeavor to get into certain stretches of river in which he could run nights.  This was especially true in floating days and as I remember these pieces of river were: foot of crooked slough to mouth of Wisconsin river: Caseville to Dubuque: Dubuque to Clinton: Clinton to La Claire: Rock Island to foot of Muscatine Prairie, Hamburg to Alton.  Later with boats on both bow and stern of he raft and powerful electric headlights, U. S. government light and buoys clearly indicating the channel, one part of the river was about as good as another-save the upper rapids


Transcribed by Georgeann McClure