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On the River

Old Times On the Mississippi

By J. D. Barnes


Feb. 21, 1935


Writer’s Experience as a Riverman




   At the period of which I write the old Northern Packet Co., was at high tide. About all the business done between the cities of St. Louis and St. Paul was carried by the Northern Line. Commodore Davidson, however, had a line of fine steamers known as the White Collar Line plying between La Crosse and St. Paul, but they did little or no business compared with the Northern Line.


   At that time there was no railroads on either side of the river. Everything had to be transported by boats. The raft crew and their kits in those days was an important item in the packet business. Following are the boats of the Northern Line at the time and they were first-class in every particular: The Davenport, Muscatine, Burlington, Keokuk, Canada Reserve and a little later came the Rock Island, Dubuque, Clinton, Sucker State and Hawkeye State.


   The earnings of some of these boats were enormous, for instance, the steamer Davenport during the season of 1865, cleared $60,000 over and above expenses and the other boats of the line from $45,000 to $50,000 each but there was a slight falling off in 1866, the immediate cause being the close of the war. However, notwithstanding the falling off, the great Northern Line Packet Co., was getting rich a little too fast and as a natural result had become avaricious means as the following circumstance will show. 


   After our raft was delivered at Muscatine we boarded a Northern Line steamer for Prescott. Among the passengers was an old lady who wanted to get off at Sabula. It so happened that the boat arrived there a little after noon. Dinner had been ready and waiting for a half hour and people were standing around wondering why the gong did not sound. The cabin boys with their clean white aprons and nicely combed hair were each at their posts ready for the gong also, but it failed to sound until after the boat had made her landing and the old lady was safe on terra firma. Now the cabin passengers all saw this and they were not slow in their denounciations (?) against it and as municated (?) to the passengers below who were nearly all raftsmen, who as a rule in those days were a pretty tough lot, yet they had a keen sense of justice and right and were not entirely lost to honor, so when they heard that the old reliable Northern Packet Co., had actually beaten a poor old woman out of a dinner their indignation knew no bounds and they to a man did straightway go and take a fearful and solemn oath that they would beat the Northern Line when ever an opportunity was offered and that incident was as the hand writing on the wall, for their downfall dates from that time.


   I will now try to describe some of the various modes and ways resorted to by the boys in order to beat the company, and I do not know of any better or more honest way than to give my own experience for that is what I started out to do and I may as well confess and tell it all.


  The first thing in order on boarding a Northern Line Packet was to become acquainted with the second clerk for he was the gentleman that always examined the tickets, tho it was not necessary to be personally acquainted with him, but you must be able to identify him on sight for he always made a thorough canvass of the boat each day and it was very important to keep out of his way.  On one occasion when the clerk was making one of his daily tours of the boat he ran across the writer fast asleep on a coil of rope overhead that had been placed there for future use.  I had taken the precaution before I lay down to give my pants a roll or two at the bottom in order to give me a rooster like appearance.  The clerk however, gave me a punch which awoke me, but at the same moment one of the boys below called to him to not disturb that man for he had just come off watch, so he passed on to the next and I rolled over and finished my nap. 


  On the following day I met him face to face.  My presence of mind served me for there happened to be a broom near at hand which I fastened onto and began to sweep the deck until the clerk had got out of sight and so we schemed, my partner and I, one way and another, and managed to keep out of the clerk’s way until finally we walked the stage plank at Prescott all right.  At the latter place we were transferred to the steamer Bannock City also belonging to the Northern Line and also running in connection to Stillwater.  She was the first steamboat ever built in Le Claire but as she was a member of the Northern Line family why of course we had it in for her and the first thing we did after boarding her was to stow ourselves for a night’s rest as it was about ten o’clock in the evening and we would be due at Stillwater in the morning.  Our much needed rest was very much broken for it was not long before the clerk and Dan Dawley who was the watchman of the boat flashed a lantern into our faces and we were compelled to furnish the requiring fare.  Dawley said had he known that we were Le Claire boys he would not have molested us.


Collected and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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