TRAVEL ON THE RIVERS
The first white men to see Iowa land came by water.
Marquette and Joliet traveled in a canoe. French trappers
and trader, the next white men to come, also came by canoe.
Rivers were the only routes of travel that the first white
men of Iowa knew.
Eastern Iowa has many rivers that flow into the
Mississippi. These rivers did much to bring settlers into the
state. The pioneers could follow the streams as they came to
look for land. If we can imagine Iowa as having no roads at
all we can see why rivers were used so much. Men could travel
easily and swiftly in their canoes. Flatboats could be loaded
and floated downstream to market at small expense. For a
number of years before Iowa land was opened to white settlers,
steamboats had been puffing up and down the Mississippi. The
Virginia had made the first steamboat trip up the great
river to the site of St. Paul, Minnesota, as early as 1823.
River steamboats were built in Iowa. Some of them were
crude and clumsy affairs. The N. L. Minburn was built
at Iowaville in 1852-1853. It made a number of trips on the
Des Moines River and down to St. Louis. It also made one long
voyage up and down the Missouri. The Minburn's last
trip was to New Orleans, and it sank in the Gulf of Mexico.
The owners of the Minburn made money with it.
A bad accident happened to the steamer Dubuque in
1837. One of its boilers exploded and twenty-two people were
killed. Accidents, however, did not happen often.
LARGE RAFTS AND BARGES
Great quantities of logs were "rafted" down the Mississippi
in early days. These logs were cut from the forests of
Wisconsin and Minnesota and then floated down the river to the
sawmills of Dubuque, Clinton, Davenport, and other river
Some of the most interesting times along the Mississippi
were on days when large rafts came down the stream. The
largest rafts are said to have been more than five blocks
long. The average length was three blocks.
Steamboats and log rafts were not the only river travelers.
Settlers oftentimes loaded a barge or flatboat with their
products and floated them downstream to a market.
To improve the rivers so that steamboats could travel on
then was considered to be a very important thing, Both
Congress and the early settlers were interested in it. In
1846, just before Iowa became a state, Congress passed a law
by which the Territory of Iowa was given land for river
improvement. The law said that half of the land lying within
five miles on each side of the Des Moines River, from its
source to its mouth, should belong to Iowa. The money which
the state received when the land was sold was to be used to
improve the Des Moines River.
The "Des Moines River Improvement" question for a time set
the people of central Iowa wild. While it was in its glory
the boats did a good business. An Ottumwa paper in June 1854
said, "Since our last issue the steamboats have had fine times
on the Demoine. The Globe, Sangamon, Col. Morgan, Julia
Dean, Time and Tide, J. B. Gordon, and Alice have
all made trips up, some of them going as high as Demoine. All
of them returned to the Mississippi with loads as heavy as
they could bear."
The "Improvement" project proved a failure. Politics
entered into it and there is said to have been such scandal.
It was thought that steamboats would travel up and down the
smaller rivers too. When permission was given to build a toll
bridge at Iowa City, the agreement stated that the bridge must
be built so that it would not stop travel on the Iowa River.
Iowa City and other settlements on smaller rivers in
eastern Iowa hoped to become river ports. A number of towns
were started along these rivers. Those which later were
fortunate enough to have a railroad come to them lived and
grew. Others, however, are only memories.
Steamboats on the smaller rivers in Iowa went as far as
Fort Dodge on the Des Moines River, Iowa City on the Iowa
River, and Waterloo on the Cedar River. Regular trips,
however, were made only on the Mississippi, the Missouri, and
to Des Moines on the Des Moines River.
RIVERS AND LAND TRAVEL
While the rivers made travel by water possible, they made
travel by land difficult. It was hard to cross the larger
rivers in the covered wagons. As travel became more common,
ferries were started at certain places on the larger rivers.
Wagons, cattle, and horses were loaded on a ferry and taken
across the river. The owners of the ferries made money before
bridges were built. Shallow places ("fords") could be found
in the smaller rivers where a wagon could be driven across the
stream. This was called fording the river.
Toll bridges later took the place of ferries. A toll
bridge is one where a fee, or toll, is charged for driving
across it. Many of them were built by private persons or