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On the River

Old Times On the Mississippi

By J. D. Barnes

Port Byron Globe

Feb. 14, 1935

Writer’s Experience as a Riverman



   As this was my first trip from Stillwater, I will give a few glimpses of the river as we float along and also mention certain points that were a terror and a dread to the old floater. Our run from Prescott to the head of Lake Pepin was a stormy one. The wind was blowing at the rate of about 40 miles an hour, Sam Register, our pilot, wanted to tie up, but he could not for the reason old John Leach was coming in our wake and it was his place to put out a line first, but he kept right on coming and there was nothing for us to do but keep out of his way much to the discomfiture of Register who disliked to run in rough weather. However as Leach would not tie up and we could not go on, we both went without any mishaps until near Red Wing where there is a sharp bend in the river and in the bend we encountered the City of St. Paul coming up while another boat, the Davenport was coming down and the two boats in passing crowded us so close to the bank that the bow of our raft struck and swing out across the river blockading the channel, and in the meantime the City of St. Paul had to run into us and was hanging on the logs and worse than all John Leach who was behind us, would soon take us in from that quarter.


  I tell you, things looked pretty desperate about that time.  Our pilot had already seized an ax and was running towards the boat and calling the crew to follow, while at the same time the captain of the boat had rushed mad to his berth in the Texas and was returning with his rifle in his hands ready to fire in case the boat was molested, and they were shouting and cursing at each other all of which made it have the appearance of war especially to an old soldier.  Fortunately, no blood was shed for our raft kept on swirling around which made room for Leach to pass us in safety and in the meantime the boat had swung clear of our raft and was backing out and steaming up the river as if nothing had happened, and we moved on down, wrong end to end, until we found a good piece of river when we were again righted and soon made the head of the lake where we remained until the arrival of the rest of the tow.


  The first hard pull, long pull and pull altogether the old floaters had after leaving Reeds Landing was Beef slough, so named because it required plenty of beef to make the crossing.  Then there was Betsey slough, which derived its name from the following circumstance as the story goes and it runs something like this:  there was a fellow up north a good many year ago and he wanted to go south.  He was not able to take even a deck passage on a steamboat so he built a raft and placed all his worldly effects which consisted of himself and wife who answered to the name of Betsey, on board.  So down the river the pair floated on their raft perfectly oblivious of all surroundings save only the beauties of the mighty Mississippi as she rolled along unobstructed to the Gulf of Mexico.  But presently and all of sudden the raft struck something and the fellow rushed out just in time to see the raft saddlebag on an island and break in two, and he was on one piece and Betsey was on the other.  He following the main channel while Betsey followed the shore side which has been known every since as Betsey slough.

 Of all the hard pulls of the old floater at that time the one most dreaded was Chimney Rock crossing.  Its name was taken from the huge boulders and rocks that are cropping out of the banks on the Minnesota side of the river and they resemble very much an ordinary chimney.  On making the crossing the natural flow of the current draws the raft down in the small islands or town heads as they are called, which often is the cause of a break up.


  On this occasion while making the crossing our pilot became very much excited, and he seized hold of the favorite weapon, the ax, and began slashing the windless lines and cutting the binders right and left, all of which was folly for, in spite of his recklessness, the raft glided over all right with out the loss of a log.


  The next place that the old floater dreaded was raft channel, especially if he got caught in there in low water but fortunately for me on our first trip we had a good stage of water.


  The greatest drawback to the old floater at that time of the year, which was in the early spring was wind.  He would often have to lay at the bank for days and sometimes weeks would come and go and he could not move.  Sam Register was always famous for being blown near some town or some place where he could have a little sport so that rafting with him was never monotonous.  So down we floated without anything worthy of note occurring until we reached the first obstruction which was the Clinton bridge.  At that time the run had to be made on the Illinois side of the river, and if the raft was too wide it had to be split otherwise it was run thru whole.  Finally we arrived at Le Claire, known as the raftsman’s haven, for they always got a little rest at Le Claire no matter how hard the rest of the trip.  After taking John Suiter Sr., on board, we pulled out over the rapids, made the Davenport bridge all right and delivered our raft at Muscatine. 


Collected and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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