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On the River

Old Times On the Mississippi

By J. D. Barnes

Port Byron Globe

March 7, 1935


Writer’s Experience as a Riverman



  The arrival of the steamer at La Crosse with cholera on board, had created a panic throughout the town an it was the all absorbing topic. The consequence was the place presented a gloomy appearance and I determined to shake it as soon as possible.  Accordingly, on the following day I strolled up to what was then called North La Crosse, where I chanced to meet Miles Swank and Walt Henderson, who had been working at the calking business.  They, too, had caught the cholera panic and had decided to leave the place.  So we all began to look around for a raft that was going to pull out soon, and the sooner the better for us.


  However, we did not proceed far before we ran across Nate Smith who was acting as right-hand man for Myron Hill, and he wanted three men so he escorted us on board the raft which was to pull out on the following morning.  Hill will be remembered by the old floaters as having been killed at Rock Island by one of his men sometime during the season of 1867.  When morning came Hill failed to put in an appearance, and Jim Follmer, who was linesman for Jimmy Malvern came along looking for men.  We canceled our engagement with Hill and went, with Follmer aboard Malvern’s raft and were soon headed down the river.  On board the raft among the crew was Frank La Point and John Malvern, the latter a brother of Johnny Malvern, the pilot, and he was then making his first trip on the river.


    His career was a short and sad one.  He rose very rapidly and was soon a full-fledged pilot.  Subsequently he built a rafter at Le Claire boatyard called the James Malbin, and while on a return trip after delivering a raft she exploded her boilers completely wrecking the boat and causing the death of her owner and several of her crew.  He was a splendid young man, and had he been spared would doubtless have made his mark as a riverman.


    Johnny Malvern was only a remnant of a man, having lost an arm and an eye in his country’s service.  He was a very quiet man, though whatever he said on his raft was law.  One evening a little after dark when we were making a landing, he overheard Miles Swank making use of harsh language against him for running late.  Malvern said nothing, however, but on the following morning Swank was called up, paid off and set ashore.  After delivering our raft at Clinton, Walt Henderson and I returned to La Cross and shipped out with Ed Root.  Well say! He was a little the cleverest and nicest pilot it had been our fortune to fall in with.  For instance if we had to work our oars very long at a time he would politely ask the men to excuse him, and he would try and do better next time.  Nothing worthy of note occurred on this trip.  In due time we delivered our raft at Clinton, after which, Walt Henderson and I boarded a Western Union train for Port Byron and it was not long before we were enjoying Le Claire society once more.


    The writer’s stay in the latter place was a short duration, for on the following morning I had an offer to go to St. Louis with Than Allen and on account of the cholera being prevalent in that city it was hard to get men and as an inducement he was offering $1.50 per day.  I accepted and made the trip all right.


    After delivering the raft at the landing known as the bone yard, I learned that a battle was to come off the following day between Mike McCool, at that time the self-styled champion of the world, and Bill Davis of California.  Now this was something that I had long desired to witness.  Ever since John C. Heeman and Tom Sayres fought at Gretna Green, England, young America had been enthusiastic in the art of self defense in the prize ring.


    The fight between McCool and Davis was to be on Choutah Island not far from St. Louis.  A little steamer was engaged in carrying passengers to and from the battle ground.  The fare was $5 for the round trip and you would be entitled to a seat. (standing up) in the third ring, and by paying $15 you could stand in the second ring.  The writer was content with a third ring ticket.  On my arrival at the island I found a motley crowd of men and boys, and on looking over them I failed to see a single person I had ever met before.


    Among the notable sporting men of that day who were present, were John Morrissey, Jo Coburn, Jim Smith and Tom Allen besides others of less notoriety Morrissey seemed to be the most conspicuous character on the ground.  He wore the very best of clothes, and on the bosom of his well laundered shirt was displayed a diamond pin about the size of a bird’s eye.  Subsequently he represented a district in the lower house of congress from the state of New York.


    After the preliminaries were arranged time was called and the two men advanced from their receptive corners to the center of the ring, shook hands, exchanged greetings and the faced each other in battle array.  It was apparent from the start that McCool would win the fight for everything seemed in his favor.  He seemed to have more friends on the grounds, and the betting was two to one on him for he was in the very pink condition, while Davis was just the opposite.  He showed signs of weakness from the first round to the sixth, which knocked him completely out and Mike was declared winner.  McCool was a splendid looking fellow, born in New Orleans of Irish parentage.  After he defeated Davis, he dubbed himself champion of the world but a little later Tom Allen took the conceit all out of him.


Collected and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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