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Early Boat and Barge Building at Albany
May 14

In the fall of this year, 1836, and during the winter following, the timber for a saw mill was hewed and framed and in the Spring of 1837 the saw mill was installed in an unenclosed building which was enclosed by lumber manufactured after the mill was started. The mill was located at the lower end of town near the home of Peter Church and was built by a man named Springer for Alfred Bergen, the owner. The boiler, engine, saw and other equipment was brought by river from Cincinnati and delivered by the Steamer Brazil and the mill was ready for operation sometime that summer. In the meantime Alfred Slocomb leased the mill for a term of years, I do not know how many and it was now up to us to get logs for it. During the fall and succeeding winter, 1837-8 a supply of logs was secured, some from, along the river above town but largely from the land adjacent to Cat Tail slough and above up to the sites of the present Clinton railroad and high bridge. We had a good crew of choppers cutting the trees which were hauled to the river with ox teams to be sent to the mill in rafts of from twenty-five to fifty logs. There were no wagons nor vehicles in the country for logging purposes and the logs were either ‘snaked” out bodily or hauled out on a forked sort of a device sometimes called a “lizard”. Later we went over to Beaver island on which a man named Cox had filed a claim. As he wished to clear the land he gave us the privilege of cutting all the timber we wanted. The trees were generally tall, straight and of good size and we got a great quantity of ash, soft maple, cottonwood, burr oak, hickory, elm, walnut, etc. that made fine lumber. In rafting the oak and hickory logs had to be placed between logs of lighter wood to keep them from sinking. While logging on the island we boarded with Mr. Cox, at least a portion of the time. Cox had no grindstone so we used to go up on the Iowa side of the river to a settler named Perrin who had a shanty on high ground, a little back from the river and reached by a path up through the tall grass and weeds, and about where the large saw mill of W. J. Young & Company, Clinton, now stands. There was no Clinton then but this place had been dubbed “New York” by the settlers. Mr. Perrin was very liberal to us in the use of his grind stone and years after I renewed his acquaintance in Minnesota, where he went from his Iowa claim.

Right here I am reminded of a tragic death that came to one of our earliest citizens, Gregg McMahon and his father, who was a pensioner of Uncle Sam, went to Cincinnati about this time, the father to get the amount of his accrued pension and the son on his own business. When ready to return they took passage on the new Steamer Moselle, on her maiden trip, commanded by a Capt. Perrin, who was a brother of our settler Perrin. When passing a small landing below Cincinnati they were hailed by a party of emigrants who desired to be taken on board.

There was another steamer close behind and as the Captain started to land one of his passengers suggested that the other boat might get ahead of him to which the Captain retorted that he would pass the other boat or blow his own to hell in the attempt. As the boat touched the bank her boilers exploded, the boat was destroyed and the Captain’s body was found lodged in the top of a tree. The elder McMahon was drowned, or at least was supposed to be, as Gregg told me the last he saw of his father was when he fell in the river among some horses and disappeared. Gregg was badly scalded but came out all right eventually. There were other casualties of course and doubtless a large loss of life as the affair made quite a sensation in steamboat circles and made another lasting impression on my mind it being the first steamboat explosion I had known anything about.

The McMahon brothers Gregg and Oliver, built a hotel after they came to Albany and called it the Travelers. Not long after the death of his father Gregg went down river and came back with a small steamer, with a single engine, called the Uncle Toby. His brother Oliver soon joined in the venture and both did well with the little boat. In the meantime both married, but did not make their homes in Albany. After a time, probably in two or three years Gregg McMahon died and left most of his estate to his brother’s children. Oliver afterward returned to Albany and operated a lumber yard and ran a small banking business, for a time, then moved to Lyons, Iowa, where he became quite prominent in banking circles and died a few years since. The only land mark remaining to recall his memory to the old settlers is his lumber yard office, a small brick structure standing close to the railroad track about one hundred yards below the site of the present depot. His only descendants in Albany at this time are a granddaughter, Mrs. Harry D. Booth and her two children.

During this same season, 1838, the building of flat boats and barges at Albany was commenced. Alfred Slocomb constructed one and got out the gunwales being cut from one big burr oak tree that stood on the island directly opposite town. These timbers were seventy-five or eighty feet long and the tree was a monster for its kind. This tree was felled across a log as near the middle of the tree as possible so it could be readily tipped from either end like a children’s teeter board. In blocking up one end was raised an inch or so with a long strong lever and the other end served the same way until the entire log stood some four feet above the ground and a trench was dug under the whole length of the log sufficiently deep that a man could stand upright under the log and in this position three cuts were made with a whip saw to divide the four timbers, the slab sides being hewn off with broad axes.

The timbers were brought to the Illinois side of the river where the barges were completed. A man named Holt came about this time and began the construction of barges that were sold as lighters for freight over the upper, or Rock Island rapids. I think he built one steamboat hull but I am not positive, aside from the whip sawed gunwales all the lumber and timbers in these barges were cut in the Albany mill from logs procured adjacent thereto. I think the reason in the industry was discontinued was on account of the turning of the mill after it had been in operation a few years, but I cannot give the date. It was on a Sunday when I had been out in the country on horseback and as I came in sight of the mill I saw smoke and then a flame. I rode frantically yelling “fire” with all my might, but it was too late and the mill was soon gone, there being no facilities for fighting fire at that time. There was no other mill in operation for sometime but as we were beginning to get pine lumber from the upper river country it was possible to continue building operations much easier than in the old log construction way.

Our first dependence for bread stuffs was by river and until we raised some corn and wheat there was a scarcity at times and flour sometimes cost us twenty dollars a barrel. After wheat had been grown it had to be taken a long way to mill, the nearest mill being at Union Grove, some eighteen miles. There was a little mill on Mill creek in Iowa, just across the river, where I sometimes went with a skiff to get a grist ground. Our meat and many other supplies were brought at first from Knox County, and there were some hair raising adventures from ice in the “Dosia” and Rock river in making these trips.



Collected and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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