Chapter Twenty-Six

Enters Government Employ


Early in 1903 I called on Major M. Meigs, in charge of the lower lock at Keokuk, to talk to him about the chances for getting into government service.  He gave an application blank which I filled out giving as I now remember C. Lamb & Sons, Capt. S. R. Van Sant and Captain Walter A. Blair as references.  This was sent to the government engineers office at Rock Island and in due time I was advised by Captain Sam Edwards, assistant engineer, to report to Capt. Ben Metzer, at Dubuque on a certain date to go as pilot on the steamer Vixen.

Our work for the summer was in the Dubuque district, which was between Bellevue and the mouth of the Wisconsin river, so there was little chance of my getting home.  Our son, Leslie, was pretty well established in a little business at Peoria and as there was nothing in Keokuk to interest us it seemed the logical thing for us to move to Peoria where Mary Helen would have company and make a home for the boy, so the move was made.

The duties of the government steamer were to “wait on” the U. S. engineers in their work in the so called improvement of the Mississippi.  After due consideration and surveying it would be decided to put in a wing dam at a certain place, the object being to narrow the channeled at that place and to form a sand bar below the dam on which in time might grow sufficiently brush and timber so that eventually there might be a point at that place in low water and make the narrowing of the channel permanent without further expense.  The first duty of the boat was to land men and implements at the designated spot so that the shore above the dam might be cleared off and properly sloped.  Then the boat would tow a barge loaded with saplings and heavy brush from sixteen feet to twenty feet long, tied in bundles from twelve inches to twenty inches in diameter.  When the cleared place was covered with a layer of this brush a barge of broken rock would be towed there and the brush thoroughly covered with rock.  Another course of brush and rock would be put on if deemed advisable.  The dam was constructed in a similar manner alternate courses of brush and rock being used.  Care must be taken in joining the arm to the lower end of the shore protection so as to preclude the cutting of the bank by action of the water.  The height of the dam was usually about four feet above low water mark.  Quarter boats must be moved from time and with the towing of empty and loaded barges of material several miles of river between the source of supply and the point of use, it can easily be seen that the crew of the boat did not generally get a chance to sleep on watch.

One Sunday while lying in Dubuque harbor, Captain Edwards told me they wanted to make a trial trip with the Oleander, a new government boat then being completed there, to test out the machinery and that they wished me to take her out, if I would do so.  So I went on board for that purpose.  A Captain Knight was in charge and he took me to the pilot house and showed me the new fangled scheme they had for signals between the pilot house and her engine room, it being different from the simple one we had used all the years, and after I had been instructed we backed out into the river and headed down stream.  She was a heavy boat and a larger one than I had ever handled but we had no trouble.  Went down to Royal Arch crossing, below Nine Mile Island, and returned to the harbor all in good shape.  Captain Knight complimented me on the way the boat had been handled.  She was built for light house service on the lower river and was a very fine boat.

The work was very pleasant, not exacting and the associations congenial.  I put in a very satisfactory summer and was much pleased to be assigned to the same position for 1904; which summer passed without any unusual or unpleasant happenings.

In 1905 I was assigned to the Elinor, a new boat constructed for government work and designed by the rock Island office force.  She was complete in every detail and equipped with steam steering apparatus, a great improvement over the old time “Armstrong” method of handling a steering wheel.  This season passed quickly pleasantly.  Work was practically the same as the previous seasons and in about the same territory.

In 1906 I was transferred to the Hannibal District and made Captain on the Steamer Coal Bluff.  The territory covered was between Hannibal and the mouth of the Missouri river and was in charge of A. L. Richards.  The work was much the same as in the other district but conditions were not as satisfactory to me nor the associations as agreeable as the previous seasons.

In 1907 I was back on the Elinor, a position I liked very much.  The most of the work was in the Dubuque district and the summer passed very pleasantly.  While the Elinor was at Rock Island, I do not just remember the date, but it was not long after the Moline lock was opened Captain Edwards sent work to me to take the Elinor through the lock and see what was the matter with it.  It seems that soon after the lock was ready for business some launches were put through and they all had trouble, some of them entering from the downriver end being damaged.  I tried to get some information as to the source of the trouble but could not get any word as to the cause and the more I tried and thought of it the more it got on my nerves so I decided to “come to” stuck a pin in myself and found out I was alive and decided there was nothing to be afraid of and went up to the lock with the Elinor.  The lower gates were open and all ready to take in the boat or a chunk out of one side or the other.  I did not know which and entered the lock at full speed and did not ring the bell until it was necessary to stop to keep from hitting the upper gates.  We tied up and were locked through in the usual manner with no excitement and no damage.  It developed that there was a strong cross current at the lower end of the lock and when the bow of a launch would get into slack water at the opening of the lock that the current would throw the stern around against the wall of the lock and the damage would be done before the boat would be backed away from the wall.  The trouble was remedied by putting a fence from the lower end of the lock along which boats could slide into the lock without danger.  I learned later that nearly every one expected to see the Elinor either wrecked or badly damaged in this first attempt.

The season of 1908 I was again on the Elinor.  During the period I was working in the service above Rock Island I came in contact with Captain Sam Edwards a great deal.  He was every inch a man; always approachable and ready to listen to what you had to say-whether he agreed with your or not-and to give you credit for a good idea, if you offered one.

During the following winter captain Edwards wrote me that the appropriation had been cut down so he could not give me employment the coming season and suggested that I write Capt. John Killeen for a position on the Diamond Jo Line Steamers.  I did so and told Captain Killeen that I had never handled as large a boat as those of his line but thought I could get away with the work after a little practice.  He replied that he had  room for another pilot and would give me a trial and if I could handle the boats satisfactorily I would have the regular pilot wages.  This was very agreeable to me and I supposed the matter settled when along came another letter from Captain Killeen saying that Captain Edwards told him that I was needed on the Coal Bluff and as I was used to that work it might be better for me to take that position, and if I desired to do so it would be all right with him.  So the result was that in 1909 I was master of the Coal Bluff and held that position during the years 1910 and 1911, doing the same work in the Hannibal district with, as I now remember, only one incident out of the ordinary.

One day the boss in charge of the work told me to raise a barge that was sunk up in the harbor on the east side and at the foot of Portage Island, and when I got it raised to take it over to the north side and outer end of Portage dyke and sink it.  For over thirty yards at the lower end of the harbor there was only form four to six inches of water and the barge was sunk well up in the harbor and not over an inch of her deck appeared above water.  First I tried to pull her down with our big hawser and the nigger but could not move her.  Then we got a bucket brigade at work and soon had the entire deck above water-apparently there being no hole in the barge that caused the sinking.  Then tried pulling again and succeeded in moving her about one length.  As we had to take care of the barges on which the rock and brush were placed and keep the crews at work our time on the barge was limited to odd hours and evenings.  Finally we got her to where we could reach her with the siphon pipes.  Meantime every one who knew anything about the conditions said we could not raise the barge and if we did we could not get her out of the harbor.  This only made me more determined to get her out and carry out our orders.  In course of time we got her up and down to the foot of the harbor ready to try to get her out over the shoal water at the foot.  She drew more water than we had but I had faith in the pulling powers of the Coal Bluff so after using all the big lines we had in making the barge fast to the boat and with a good head of steam we started the boat backing and she come out all right.  They took her over to the place of final burial, cut a large hole in each end of the barge and dropped her in proper position according to orders.  It seemed a shame to destroy so good a barge as her timbers and bottom were perfectly sound and the barge must have cost at least $1,500.  We were through early in the evening and then ran down to the fleet to get instructions for the next day.  The boss wanted to know how we were getting along with the barge and I told him we had her out and sunk in the place he had told us to sink her.  “My god,” he said, “ I had no idea you would ever get her out when I gave those orders!  “Yes.” I said, but I must have better equipment as the holes we cut in her at each end are big as a barrel!”  I never knew what the idea really was, but it looked as though he gave an order he thought could not be carried out, and wanted to keep us busy, and was very much surprised when he learned that a perfectly good barge had been well sunk!

Soon after reaching home after laying up the Coal bluff in 1911 I had a message from the sand and gravel company at Hannibal asking me to come there and take their steamer Margaret and fleet of sand barges to St. Louis.  I left Peoria the afternoon of December 1.  As we were crossing on the bridge at Quincy the river was full of floating ice and it looked foolhardy to attempt a trip to St. Louis and had I known how full the river was of ice before the train left Quincy I would probably have returned home.  On arrival at Hannibal I hunted up the foreman of the fleet and tried to convince him that the trip should not be undertaken but he said he had orders to start the fleet for St. Louis and it was going to start even if it did not get out of sight of Hannibal.  “All right, what time will the fleet be ready to move?’ “At 7 o’clock tomorrow morning.”  He replied.  “I’ll be here at that time,” I said. 

The fleet consisted of five large sand and gravel barges and a big sand pump, I tow of the steamer Margaret, a very little tow boat.  Captain Ed. Gilbert was in charge and he proved to be a very good help, always around looking out for the condition of the fleet.  The river was full of floating ice and I called the attention of the foreman again to the hazard of the undertaking-but nothing doing!  So we got away soon after 7 a. m. We could not make much headway by towing as the would pile up ahead of the barges as well as gather beneath them but we kept going and landed at Clarksville a little before 6 o’clock that evening having made thirty-eight miles.  I was not very well pleased with the place where we had to land but it proved all right for soon after we landed the ice piled up behind the fleet to such an extent that soon the running ice was sheered off from the short and did the fleet no damage.  It had been a hard day and we were ready for the good night’s rest we had.

The night was cold and I was quite uneasy fearing that in loosening up the wheel we might be disabled but we got it to working without much trouble and left Clarksville about 7:15 a. m. Dec. 3.  The river was now full of running ice and there was a cold downstream wind, which helped us along a little.  We went aground opposite Turner’s Landing, swung part way around and the ice came down in such quantities that it pushed us over the bar and we landed at the head of Sandy Island about 6:30 p. m. after another hard day, and something over thirty miles to our credit.

Next morning, the 4th we were up early and drifted slowly down to Turkey Island where we stuck hard and fast in ten feet of water, and I thought then it was all up with us but kept bumping and backing and pretty soon the ice came rolling out from under the barges and the fleet began to move and for a few minutes we had a very exciting time but finally straightened up and went on to Grafton, having made an elegant run during the day.  In landing we had to run a check line ashore to help the oat on account of the great amount of ice under the fleet.

When we pulled out in the morning I noticed as we were backing out, that the boat was moving the fleet up stream.  The warm water from the Illinois river had melted the ice from the bottom of the barges and that was a great relief. 

The St. Louis foreman congratulated us on the trip but I told him that had I known the ice was running as it was I would not have started from home and that I would not make the trip again under the same circumstances.


Transcribed by Georgeann McClure