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On the River

Old Times On the Mississippi

By J. D. Barnes

Port Byron Globe

Feb. 28, 1935


Writer’s Experience as a Riverman




  The steamer Bannock City arrived in Stillwater about two o’clock on the following morning, and as the passengers were sleeping soundly the boat was tied to the bank, and the crew was turned in for the remainder of the night, watchman included.  The engineer on retiring had neglected some part of his engine so that the steam was allowed to escape, which soon filled the engine room where the sleeping passengers had made their beds, and it was not long before they were groping around in the darkness gasping for a little fresh air for the hot steam was so thick and dense you could cut it with a knife.  However, my partner and I, after feeling around struck something which proved to be a bulkhead, and by a few well directed kicks, with our heels we had holes large enough to admit our heads, and we lost no time in poking them through those holes, for fresh air in that room was very scarce at that moment.  In the meantime the crew had been notified and were rushed out of their sleeping apartments half dressed with the impression that the boat had exploded her boilers or something worse.  The engineer, however, soon located where the trouble was and the escaping steam was shut off.  The captain of the boat was very much concerned to know who make skylights in the bulkhead, but he failed to find them.


  Arriving at Stillwater we found another raft all ready and waiting for our pilot, Sam Register to be delivered at Muscatine.  According Ike Wasson shipped up the same crew almost to a man and again the steamer Minnesota pushed us in company with several other rafts thru the lake to Prescott.  We then made the run to the head of Lake Pepin where we remained until the tow had all arrived, and while here Lige Wakefield and Dick Swalley of our crew, engaged in an altercation one day which was contrary to good discipline, and the result was they were court marshaled and sentenced to go ashore. Wakefield however, was not long out of a job for the Winnie Will, Si Bradley, captain, was lying a little below us so he hired out and remained with them most of the season.  The latter boat will be remembered by the old floaters as one of the pioneer raft boats.  She was a primitive affair; however, as he fulfilled her mission which was only to demonstrate the practicability of the steamboat for rafting purposes.


  Our run from the foot of the Lake Pepin was nice and smooth until we reached raft channel.  The river had fallen to a great extent since our first trip and as a result half of our raft was hard aground on a sand bar.  Now this was a sad and very unprofitable predicament for the old floater, for it was the custom in those days to run by the thousands and the longer they remained on a sandbar the smaller would be their profits.  What made it still worse in our case we were getting harder on the sand every day for the water was falling at the rate of one inch every 24 hours.  However, we went at it with a determination to make our stay in raft channel as short as possible.  The first thing in order was to free that part of the raft that was not aground, from the remainder.  Accordingly it was cut loose and allowed to drop down out of the way, while the remainder was removed in pieces, sometimes a part of a string and sometimes only a few logs.  And we labored every day waist deep in the water until we were once more onward of our course.  The b (not readable) ently amused with raft channel.  They declared that Coon Falls and Bad Ax bend were pretty rough, but raft channel was enough to break their poor hearts.


  Arriving at Le Claire, John Suiter was once more taken aboard our raft for Sam Register thought there was no man who knew the Rapids as well as John Suiter.  After delivering our raft at Muscatine the season of harvest was at hand, and as a result our crew was broken up and scattered to the four quarters of the earth, most of the boys stopping off at home and engaging in harvesting.  The writer went as far north as McGregor Landing and then took a run out to Pottsville for the purpose of harvesting but it did not pan out very good on account of extreme wet weather, so I returned and boarded the first steamer for La Crosse.  Arriving at the latter place I found the people very much excited in regard to cholera that was reported to be raging at St. Louis, and inconsequence the place was put under quarantine rules.  The Old Northern Line packet Canada stole a march on them and succeeded in landing, when three coffins were ordered to be brought aboard the boat at once.  This announcement caused a general stampede of the people who had collected at the landing on that beautiful Sabbath afternoon, among whom was the writer.  Altho’ I had been guilty of stampeding I stood my ground, for I saw no danger.  I walked down nearer the boat and learned that three persons who had died of cholera were to be taken from the boat, making eight in all since leaving St. Louis.  As men were very scarce about that time the undertaker pressed me into the service and I assisted him in getting them into his wagon.  There has been a great many conflicting reports is regard to the number she lost on that trip, some stating it as high as thirty, but from good authority eight is correct.


Collected and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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