Chapter Fourteen

Running the Bridges


Late in June 1876 the water was very high.  We were sent to beef slough for a raft and left Clinton at 4:00 a. m. we were all in good spirits that we would make the trip and be back in time for the fourth of July celebration.  On the down trip while passing La Cross we got a message to tie up somewhere as the water was too high to run the mills.  We sauntered along and lay at Clayton about three days and wired as usual when we got through the Dubuque bridge and got another wire not to come in but to lay up.  Landed for the night on June 30 on the island, above Sabula and wired that we would lay up at the head of Lyons slough.  Took in a dance at Sabula that night that night and left early the next morning, figuring that we were all set for a good time on the Fourth of July.  But, behold just above Pomme De Terre Prairie we sighted the Artemus Lamb coming up the river.  She landed alongside and the clerk came to the pilot house with orders for us to take our lines off the raft and return to La Crosse for another raft.  All our plans had gone to the bad and our hopes for a good time at home went glimmering!  We lost no time in obeying orders and in heading up river.  Were we mad?  Well, one look at any one of the crew was sufficient.  Ike Bollman was chief engineer and I said to him.  “Ike load the safety valve and if we all work together we will see the fire works at Clinton the night of the fourth!”

We left the raft and the Artemus at about 8:30 a. m. on July 1.  Were at the mouth of Black river early on the morning of the 2nd.  Put on just enough cross lines to hold the raft together and started down river headed for the fire works.  The question of fuel bothered me quite a bit but I sent the mate ahead and got a flat boat of wood at Genoa which was unloaded on the raft and boat in record time.  We had another 238 foot raft and not withstanding a previous hard experience at the Dubuque bridge I determined to give that wide span another shot, although the closer we got the more unsteady were my legs.  However, there was just light enough to see the marks in good shape and she shot through the span and never loosened a log.  We ran the boat through the draw and to the East Dubuque coal yards where every one but the engineer on watch carried coal, caught the raft, hitched in and continued on our way.

We had not notified the company when we left La Cross and they had no knowledge of us since we parted company with the Artemus.  I did not intend there would be any Artemus to meet us at Lyons slough on this trip!  We reached Clinton about 3:39 p. m. July 4.  Landed the raft at the piling above town, moved quietly down to our landing in the slough, tied up the boat, told the engineer to cool down and the crew to go and enjoy themselves until the next morning at 8 o’clock, as that was what I was going to do.  Next morning Lafayette Lamb came down with a broad grin on his face, and said he did not know what had become of us, not hearing from us since we left Lyons slough.  I told him that we came down the river so fast that the clerk, D. C. Law, dared not go ashore to send a telegram fearing he could not catch the boat.  As a reward we were told to go back at once and drop a few pieces out of Beef Slough.  “All right,” I said.

During the summer of 1876 the Chancy was laid up and I was transferred to the Artemus with Capt Cornelius Knapp.  Coming down one trip with a log raft when about a mile above Bellevue the main steam pipe burst at the curve just above the throttle and split the copper pipe for nearly two feet.  John Newsome, the chief engineer, was sitting in his chair with his feet on the throttle stand.  The force of the explosion blew him and the chair back into the blacksmith shop and he landed right at the after hatch.  He opened the hatch, went down in the hold, made his way forward to ad just under the throttle.  I went down on the raft, got out a line and landed as soon as possible.  Meantime the fireman was looking for the engineer and when I got on board they had him out of the hold.  We had sent for a doctor and when he examined Newsome found his fingernails missing.  We went into the hold and where he had squalled down, using his hands to support his body were his ten fingernails.  He lived only a few hours.  News of the accident was sent to the company at Clinton and a crew was put on the chancy and steam raised as soon as possible and the boat left with Mrs. Newsome, but he was gone before she reached his side. 

When I was with Capt. Cornelius Knapp on the Artemus Lamb he generally wanted to do the bridge work.  Coming down one trip we had a raft measuring 242 feet in the narrowest place and he was preparing to land and split and run through in the usual way. I suggested that he let me try running it through the span to the right of the draw hole.  He wanted to know if I could do it and I said there might be some logs to pick up when we got through bur he would see some time, so it was arranged I was to try it but there was to be nothing said to me while the work was going on.  He looked at me as though I had “gone buggy” but let me have the wheel.  The raft went in between the piers nicely and as the span began to be filled with a little more pressure on one pier than the other the small logs would be squeezed out of the water on the raft, but we got through without breaking a single boom chain and the loose logs were all on the raft.  Not a word was said until we were hitched to the raft below the bridge and began towing and then I asked him how he liked it.  He complimented me and said it was an exhibition of the best judgment he ever saw.

  Capt. S. R. Van Sant once paid me a compliment by saying that I was the most cautious man he ever saw who was able to make the time I made.

One year I was on the Chancy Lamb Capt. John McCaffrey was on the Last Chanch.  We over took him at the head of Maquoketa slough and had to slack up until we got to the foot of the slough where there was room to pass.  Soon after Capt. John sent Charlie Tromley over to see if I was going to run the span at Dubuque bridge.  I told him that was my intention.  He then wanted to know if after my raft was entered in the bridge I would not come back and put his raft through, meantime he would cut lose, catch my raft and take care of it until his raft was through.  This was rather an unusual request but I told Charlie I would be glad to do so if it would be any accommodation.  Well the program was carried out and both rafts were put through without trouble.  It developed later that Capt. John, if he split and run in the usual way could not have gotten both pieces through before dark and would thus have lost a night’s run.  For some reason few pilots cared to tackle this span but it had no terrors for me.  Aside from the one break up I had with the Chancy I never had any trouble at this bridge.

The Lafayette Lamb came out in 1876 and Stephen B. Hanks was her master.  She laid up quite early in the fall and Capt. Hanks was put on the Chancy with me.  To have such an old time pilot who had been on the river for thirty years and had a record second to none, besides being such a noble man, placed under me, who was not half his age, was very embarrassing.  Our families had been neighbors and friends for years and I had always looked up to him wit a feeling akin to awe and I feared the outcome of this new relation!  However, we both accepted the situation that had been put upon us and during the period we were together everything was very pleasant and doubtless each learned something from the other and, if possible, the mutual friendship was increased. 

One trip down he came on watch just below Maquoketa slough.  Just as I was leaving the pilot house he asked me if I was going to split for the Dubuque bridge.  I said he was on watch and could do as he liked as he had run that bridge more than I had.  “Yes” he said, “but I never run a whole raft through, the wide span.”  “Well.’ I said, “If you double trip it will be dark before you get through and if you go through whole you will have plenty of day-light,” and I went on to supper.

The black birds were pretty thick and after supper I went down on the raft to try and shoot some of them.  He called to me but I did not hear him and continued to the bow raft trying an occasional shot as I went along.  He finally sent a man down t ask me to come in the pilot house.  In a short time I went up there and as soon as I entered he said:  “Here you take her!”  “Which span are you going through?”  I said.  “I am not going through any span!” and he left the wheel, and I was forced to take the job.

I pointed the raft over to the Wisconsin shore, until it looked to Uncle Steve, that we were going through the bridge sidewise, then as soon as the raft was in my marks, straightened up and went through without any trouble.  Uncle Steve, said it was the most wonderful performance with a big raft he ever saw.  I told him there was nothing to it except to get the raft into the water that went straight through the bridge.  To this he replied:  “I m here to tell you I’ll never try it!”  He told Mr. Lamb he never saw such a performance and that I ran that raft at every pier under the bridge and did not hit one.

Early in the game of running this bridge I secured some “marks” in a rather unusual-at least to me-manner.  One trip when some distance above the bridge I had three large sticks of cord wood dropped into the river, one at each bow corner and one in the middle of the raft.  Then I checked the speed of the raft and let the chunks of wood get ahead and watched them as we floated along leisurely behind.  The left hand chunk went through the right hand draw span; the middle chunk went about the middle of the span.  From this simple experiment I picked up some “marks’ that never failed me.

The last time I ever saw “Uncle Steve,” as he was called by nearly all Albany people, was when we had an excursion on the Sidney for Davenport.  He came aboard at Albany and soon after came into the pilot house.  After visiting a little I asked him to take a trick at the wheel, but he said he was through.  That all he wanted was to live long enough to finish his biography.  Never a nobler man lived than Stephen B. Hanks

(Note: The history of the river career of this remarkable man-Capt. Stephen B. Hanks-was prepared by himself when he was about 87 years of age.  It was the writer’s privilege to put it in shape for publication and it was originally published in the Burlington Post, by J. W. Murphy, between March 21, 1921 and July 29, 1922 and occupied over 100 columns in that paper.

It is a most complete record of life on the Mississippi, in various lines of traffic, between 1840 and 1882.  There are a few copies of the entire article that can be located.

The career of Captain J. E. Short covers the period of about 1864 to 1920, so the two make a pretty complete record of various traffic on the upper Mississippi for 80 years. F. A. B.)

At the close of the season of 1876 my three year contract with C. Lamb & sons expired.  I had then been with them five years during which time as I had never been “hopped on” very hard, I had reason to believe my services had been satisfactory.  Any how I had the feeling that I had done the best I could all the time.  The work had been hard many times but always as pleasant as could be expected and my association with the various members of the firm had been agreeable.  Only one thing stuck in my craw: and I never let that interfere with my work. 

My brother Lyman had been the first master of the Chancy Lamb-the first boat built by the company for its own business-and I had been the first pilot, and was promoted to succeed by brother when he was placed in charge of the Artemus Lamb, the second and better boat by the company.  When he left the service of the company I felt that by every reason of right I should be placed in charge of that boat.  I had the same feeling when they built the La Fayette Lamb, but both of those boats were placed in charge of “outsiders.”  I wanted to have one of those boats very much, chiefly for the recognition of the value of my services and to enable me to bring down a little bigger raft in a little quicker time with a boat that did not have to be forced and coddled as I had to do with the Chancy.

Early in the spring Artemus Lamb came to the house and asked if we did not want to buy a home.  The idea had not occurred to us and we said we did not have sufficient money to do so.  He had in mind a six-room cottage on a lot 124 feet wide and 200 feet deep, well improved with plenty of fruit which could be had for $1,500.  He said he would arrange to get it for us and we could pay many time within the year.  It sounded good to us and the more we thought about it the better it sounded and after taking a look at the place we decided it to be the thing for us to do.  So it was arranged that we pay $45 down and the balance within the year, and the deal was completed.  I got the money for the first payment from the building and loan association in $20 gold pieces and took them home to show Mary Helen and the two boys and John D. Rockefeller was never prouder of his wealth, nor anything he ever owned, than Mary Helen and her husband were of their first real home.  (Incidentally will say that the balance on the home was paid before the end of the year).

1879 was a rather uneventful season.  It seemed to me that there was not as much attention paid to the bats as usual-especially the chancy.  Chancy Lamb had gradually given up his work in the concern and I missed him greatly.  No one to quarrel with and put my nerves in working order.  The last visit I remember having with him, he came down in his Phaeton pulled by his black horse, and sat there looking us over.  He did not ask for me but I went to him and he greeted me as nicely as one could wish; asked me how things were going, how the water was for boating and a number of general information questions.  I could see that he was falling and much different from his old self.  He was a good man and I think he had enjoyed the business part of his life, and sincerely hope that he did.

Mrs. Chancy Lamb told me one time some of the experiences they had in coming west in the old-time covered wagon; west in the old-time covered wagon; how they plodded along day after day, foot sore and tired; how she would pull up her dress and wade through creeks and small streams.   Wish I could remember all she told me.  Having been through early poverty myself.  I could sympathize with her.  Finally they landed in Clinton, which was then not much of a place-even if it then had that name.

And that reminds me that when I was a small boy another boy by the name Of Boyce and myself used to take his mother in a skiff from Albany to Lyons, where she would visit a brother named Ira Blockwell, as I remember.  At that time there was a little portable saw mill located on the bank of the river just below the Iowa end of the present Chicago & North western bridge.  It had an upright boiler and no roof and was operated by Chancy Lamb.

Mr. Lamb once told me that when he started in business there that he could not get credit for an axe handle in Clinton and walked to Lyons where he succeeded in getting it..  He said he did not blame any one for not trusting him, for he did not know himself when he would be able to pay for anything.

All this, of course, was long before I knew of the Lambs and before the railroad bridge was constructed.  I remember when the steamers commodore Foote and Cumberland were ferrying cars across the river.  In winter, when the ice was solid enough, the railroad company would lay tracks on timbers on the ice ad thus have a temporary bridge.  I have been told that the engines from the Cumberland went into the Abner Gile.

(Note-Seldom do we find the name of a steamboat on the upper Mississippi not included in the list compiled by the late George B. Merrick and published in the Burlington, Iowa, Post from 1912 to about 1919.  Captain Short, however, gives us the names of two new ones-or rather two old ones that got away.  We have no record of the Commodore Foote nor of the Cumberland and if any reader can tell us anything about either of these two boats we will greatly appreciate the information-F.A.B.)


Transcribed by Georgeann McClure