Chapter Eight

Gets Pilots License


During the winter of 1871-2 the Chancy Lamb was built by C. Lamb & Sons for the purpose of towing their own logs.  Her model was made by a shipwright named Morgan, who superintended, her construction, and she was built on the river bank in front of one of the mills of the company.  The lumber in her hull came from oak trees cut on Beaver Island and saved by the company.

It was arranged that my brother Lyman, would be her master and pilot and I was to go on her as second pilot.  It goes without saying that his arrangement was very pleasing to me and I took a great deal of interest in the building of my future summer home and many a trip I made from home in Albany some six miles on skates during the winter to watch progress and many times to “Lend a hand” for which of course I got no pay.  When the hull was ready for caulking I drove the “reamer” in many a seam and got as much pleasure out of it as any work I ever did.

During my service with Capt. Daniel Davison on the Annie Girdon in 1871 I had sufficient signatures to an application for license as pilot but neglected to put it in to the inspectors.  On the first trip of the Chancy Lamb in the spring of 1872 Captains Girdon and Mc Murchy, the U. S. local inspector came on board at Dubuque to go to La Cross and I gave them the application.  I was then starting a regular watch as pilot: they wee walking around the boat most of the time but did not come near the pilot house and said nothing to me.  Although I was technically violating the law.  All kinds of thoughts went through my brain: wondered if I would be punished for the work I had been doing without a license and I finally got myself pretty well wrought up over te matter and very nervous.  It was just dark when we reached Lynxvile and when we got to the foot of Crooked Slough I really did not know which chute to turn into and said to myself: “This will settle the license business!  I’ll lose my bearings get into some hole sand brother Lyman will have to us out and I will have t go at some other kind of work to make a living!”  Worked myself into such a mental condition that I did not care whether I got a license or not and in the mean time was nearly crazy to know where we were in that dark hole, when all at once the peak of a bluff came in sight on the Iowa shore, I knew where we were and the relief was such that I might have collapsed but for the wheel to lean against. Soon after Lyman came up and took the wheel and said: “Go down and get your license, the inspectors have it ready for you!”  And again I nearly collapsed!  At that time I got what was known as “second papers” for which I paid five dollars.”

(Note:- In those early days of towing rafts with a boat there was a great deal of unlicensed piloting.  The inspectors doubtless knew of much of it but did not consider it their duty to interfere unless complaints were made.  There were a host of young men learning the river and they were licensed as fast as the proper credentials could be procured.  F.A.B.)

After one of our early trips the chancy got some newspaper notoriety as the Clinton Herald of May18, 1872 contained this:


“The Chancy Lamb came down from La Cross in 50 hours with a 14 string raft.  She passed many rafts that had started a day ahead of her.  This is the fastest time between the two points with so large a raft.”

I do not recall that any special effort was made to make a quick trip.  The water high and probably we never landed after leaving La Cross until we reached Clinton.  In fact it was pretty nearly a rule that we did not tie up except for an accident, a storm or to clean boilers.  It was a company rule to clean boilers every seven days and it was generally obeyed.  The exception being that by running a little over time we could be at a terminal or at some place where the seven hours of average clean out time could be used to advantage by the crew.  When necessary to clean out en route the work was generally done during the daytime as after the operation the boilers were pumped up by hand that could be done quicker by men wide awake than half asleep.  The ideal place for cleaning was Clinton as while the work was going on fuel and supplies could be put on board and we would be ready to go as soon as steam was raised, or let the men get a few winks if they could before the regulation 4:00 a.m. leaving time arrived.

In June 1872 the D. A. McDonald, going up stream, blew up near the pontoon at North McGregor and 18 lives were lost, including that of the captain, French Martin.  In July the James Malbon, also enroute upstream blew up a little above the McDonald wreck with a loss of 15 lives, including that of Capt. James Malbon, for whom the boat was named and who was part owner.  Whether on account of superstition or for other reasons, it soon became the practice for boats to go up the Prairie du Chien channel rather than up past these wrecks.  Engineers reported that in many cases their boilers would foam when nearing the channel on the Iowa side and would not cool off until they got past the ill-fated places.  This made other engineers and pilots suspicious and so we all used the Prairie du Chien side.  There was a report out that a fortune teller in La Cross had said that the Chancy Lamb would be the next to go up, which certainly was a cheerful outlook!  Dick Dixon was our chief engineer and one trip up I told him we were going up the Iowa side channel.  He said: “Oh, Lome, don’t do it!”  I said we would go that way just to see what would happen.  When a little below McGregor he told me, through the speaking tube, that the boilers were foaming!  I said to let them foam, that it did not matter for if we were doomed we would go ahead full speed and soon have it over with!  Meantime I was at the wheel and could not help wondering as to what kind of a place I would find to light if we did go up!  The crew was all back on the guards and the engineer outside the engine room door.  We got past the McDonald disaster and nothing happened and were equally fortunate as to that of the Malbon and we heard no more about foaming boilers.  There was a suspicion that something in the yellow river water caused the boilers to foam but as it was always reported soon after passing the mouth of the Wisconsin, if it was anything as to water, the trouble might be in the Wisconsin at certain times.  One of our men had an explanation, so far as we were concerned, which was that we were “sanctified” and that nothing could interfere with us! I told him that Mr. Chancy Lamb considered us all hopeless and not entitled to any sanctification either here or hereafter!

One trip we got in a race with the J. W. Van Sant, Capt Daniel Davison, pilot and Henry Whitmore, engineer.  We got together just above Bellevue, the Chancy a little in the lead which we held for about 12 miles, but she was creeping up on us inch by inch until when opposite Tete Des Moris her pilot house was about opposite our jack staff with the Chancy on her starboard side.  She had not whistled for side and both boats were so hot that I feared we were all headed for “Kingdom Come,” at any moment.  When just about opposite the cut off into Harris slough, leading down into Fever river, Davison pulled the Van Sant over to starboard across the Chancy’s bow to go into the cut off.  I stopped the Chancy and backed her for all she was worth and saved the Van Sant, and probably a number of us from a watery grave.  But it was a close call, as before the headway of the Chancy was checked the Van Sant was square across her head with the current drifting her surely and rapidly on to the chancy.  Every second was an hour and I was nearly paralyzed with fear and when the boat itself was in the clear I feared we would get into her wheel.  As it was the wheel threw water all over our deck.  I certainly did thank the Lord when sure live danger was over.  It was a crazy caper on the part of he pilot and the closest call I ever had from a disastrous wreck. 

(Note:- Henry Whitmore vs. Dick Dixon. Dixon was a tough combination.  Both were very successful old timers, Henry dating back to the days of the Galena & Minnesota Packet company-and neither had the reputation of being “Ice water engineers.”  F.A.B.)

When navigation closed in 1872 the company had about 3,000,000 feet of logs banked about the mills for winter sawing.  They also had three rafts landed at the Hosford mill in the upper part of the town.  When the river closed they kept the Chancy just below the bridge where there was a space that rarely froze over.  The ice would gorge at the bridge piers as the river was closing and the water above the bridge would be several feet higher than below and the ice would dam up nearly to the bottom of the river.  When the river had closed and the logs from the rafts were needed we fired up the chancy ran up into the draw, bucked the ice, backed down out of the way to avoid having the hull of the boat hit by submerged cakes.  Buck it again and again until we had the draw clear.  Then we worked our way up to the raft and had a canal wide enough for a couple of strings of logs and some 3,000 feet long.  Through this opening we kept the mill going until the supply of logs was exhausted.  While it furnished work for some men on the boat and to the mill crew it was pretty tough steamboating.  The wheel would be loaded with ice and had to be kept free as possible with axes.  The decks were covered with ice and had to be sprinkled with ashes, making a mighty nasty mess.  Then the lines had to continuously thawed out and we were all very glad when the logs were gone and the mill laid up.  It took about ten minutes actual work to drop a couple of strings from Hosford’s to our own mill.


Transcribed by Georgeann McClure