Old Times On the
By J. D. Barnes
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
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
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
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.