RECOLLECTIONS OF ADAM CLARKE
Collected and Transcribed
BOYHOOD ON THE BIG WATER.
sailed With Captain Daniel Smith Harris on the First “War Eagle”
“Red Wing”—First—Blow Up.
MINNEAPOLIS, July 17, 1915.—Capt. Geo. B. Merrick, Madison, Wis. —
My dear Captain: I am enclosing a couple of stories written by my
oldest brother, A. C. Van Sant, of Omaha, Nebraska. You will notice
that he was on the river in 1846 as a cabin boy being just 14 years
of age. We recently celebrated his 83rd birthday on the
Fourth of July. He told us these stories of his early like and I
thought they might be interesting to your readers.
The old steamboatmen were a fine class of men—like princes in their
day. The story of the trip on the “War Eagle” will show now kind
Captain Harris was to the little cabin boy, and how generously he
was treated for the services performed. The idea of writing him a
letter and assuring him that his pay would go on, and when he was at
home six weeks or more he did not forget him. I dare say that at
the time my brother was a boy, the master of the “War Eagle” looked
larger to him that the President of the U S ever has since.
Then, too, see how careful the captain was to send the messenger up
Rock River several miles to notify the shipper that he could not get
over the bar to take his load for steamboats, and as you and I and
all the old timers know, the steamboat was a most important factor
in the development of the Northwest.
Wishing you success, I am cordially yours, S. R. VAN SANT.
A Trip on the “War Eagle.”
In the spring of 1846 I was very anxious to run on the Mississippi
River, and secured a position as cabin boy on what I considered the
fastest boat on the river, the War Eagle. The boat had been docked
for the winter at my father’s boat yard at Rock Island. Her first
trip was to Galena, at which place she received a good cargo of
freight, a good list of passengers, and took in tow a barge loaded
with loose sides of bacon.
Soon after leaving the mouth of Fever River the Kentucky, a fast
boat appeared about a mile behind the War Eagle. Capt. Harris said
the War Eagle had never been passed under way, and he did not
intend, although hampered by a barge, that the Kentucky should pass
her. He ordered better fires, and soon the safety valve lifted and
the boat began blowing off steam. He tried the gauges and finding
two gauges of water, he had the safety valve loaded down to prevent
the escape of steam. But the valve soon raised again, and the
Kentucky was evidently gaining, Captain Harris picked up a little
round stick of cord wood and used it as a lever to hold down the
safety valve, and told the engineer to be sure to keep two gauges of
water, saying “A boat was never known to blow up when carrying two
gauges of water.”
He ordered sides of bacon cast into the fire, and holding down the
safety valve urged the men to fire harder.
Under a fearful head of steam the War Eagle landed at Bellevue about
a quarter of a mile ahead of the Kentucky, which passed on without
making the landing.
Those acquainted with steamboating after congress enacted laws
against carrying more steam than the warrant of the boilers, knew
little of early day racing and the consequent blowing up of boats on
the western rivers.
War Eagle had an engagement to go up Rock River to Camden to take a
barge loaded with flour to St. Louis, but a bar at the mouth of Rock
River made it impossible for her to go for the barge. As I lived at
Rock Island the captain asked me if I would go ashore on the island
and go up to Camden and announce that the War Eagle could not get up
the river, but that if they had the barge floated down to the mouth
of the river she would take it to St. Louis on her next down trip.
The Captain assured me that my pay would go on the same as if I were
on the boat. I worked my way thru the woods and brush and delivered
the message and then walked home to Rock Island. In a few days I
received word the War Eagle had sunk on the Keokuk rapids and had
been raised and gone to St. Louis for repairs, but that my pay would
still go on. In about six weeks I received a letter saying that the
War Eagle would reach Keokuk at a certain date, and asking me to
meet her there, as she would run a few trips from Keokuk to St.
Louis. I worked my way down the river on a boat called the
Confidence, which was carrying a company of soldiers down the river
from Galena for the Mexican War.
War Eagle was a single-engine, side-wheel boat, with a large
fly-wheel which extended into the cabin. The top was boxed up under
the table. In making turns a wheel on one side was thrown out of
War Eagle and a boat named the Tempest were undoubtedly the fastest
early day boats on the Upper Mississippi River. As they were in a
packet line and ran on different days there were no races between
them. Had there been Captain Harris would undoubtedly have made
every possible effort to defeat the Tempest.
all the risks he took he never had a boat blow up which was
considered a great wonder, as no man on the river ever had more of
the racing spirit which caused so many of the river disasters of
A Trip on the “Red Wing.”
In my boyhood days, in the year 1847, I made a trip from Rock Island
to Galena and return on the Red Wing, a side-wheel steamboat.
On the return trip, soon after leaving the mouth of Fever River, the
head engineer, who had been asleep in the “Texas,” came running past
me in his stocking feet as I was on the stairway. His haste excited
me, and I watched him push in the lower gauge. He said there was no
water, and ordered the engines stopped and the fire withdrawn. The
boat was shaking terribly under the high head of steam. The second
engineer, who was on watch, was drunk.
A line was attached to the boat and placed in the yawl, which was
hastily rowed to the shore and made fast, so that the current might
swing the boat to the shore after the expected explosion. The
officers attracted the passengers to the back end of the cabin,
which was considered the safest place in the event of her “blowing
up,” as was momentarily expected.
current swung the boat to the shore and when it was sufficiently
cooled the boilers were pumped up and after two or three hours delay
the boat again started on her downward trip. The head engineer
considered that the boat had had a marvelous escape, as such a head
of steam, a hot fire, and no water at the lower gauge, was a very
officers behaved bravely, and did their best to secure the safety of
as many passengers as possible in the event of a disaster.
stopped off at Rock Island.
few days later the Red Wing returned from St. Louis, and on her way
from Rock Island to Davenport encountered a fearful storm. I
noticed the boat was laboring very hard to stem the storm, and I
said to a companion, William Clausen, “If they don’t look out,
they will blow that boat up.” In less than ten seconds the boat was
hidden from view by steam. When the steam cleared away the boat
with her chimneys down was being blown towards the Rock Island
soon reached the Rock Island side, driven by the severe storm. She
had collapsed a flue and many of the deck hands and deck passengers
were severely scalded. The furious wind probably blew the steam
away so that the cabin passengers were not injured.
A. C. VAN SANT,
School of Shorthand and Typewriting
Sant System of
A. C. VAN SANT
Steamboats and Steamboatman of the Upper Mississippi
George B. Merrick
Evening Post Burlington Iowa,
7, 1915, page 5.
The “Flint Hill” Was Fast, Says A. C. Van Sant.
Mr. A. C. Van Sant, of Omaha, Nebraska, is a brother of Captain Sam
R. Van Sant, of Minneapolis. He is now in his 83rd
year. In his boyhood he ran on the river as a cabin-boy on the
first “War Eagle,” with Captain Daniel Smith Harris, and knew many
of the old boats, such as the “Otter” and the “Lynz,” precursors of
the old Minnesota Packet Company, and others not so well known. He
has promised to write up some of his experiences on the river away
back in the ‘40s, “when the world was young”—on the Mississippi, at
least. These will be not only of interest, but they will be of
great historic value. The names of the men who ran on the upper
river in the forties can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and
have fingers to spare.
In reply to a question, he has written Captain S. R. Van Sant about
the “Flint Hills,” and I am permitted to copy his letter in part,
which is as follows:
OMAHA, Neb., April 15, 1915.—My Dear Brother Samuel R. Van Sant,
Minneapolis, Minn.—I do not know much about the steamer “Flint
Hills” except that she was considered the fastest ferry-boat on the
In high water she had to run several miles to make a landing on the
Iowa side. In those long trips she frequently encountered many of
the fastest packets on the river, and could pass them with great
ease, if they did not have too much the start of her for the short
Father was no doubt on the best model-makers and draftsmen of water
craft of his time; but he had limited opportunities to show his
great ability in that line. Had he remained at the sea coast he
would no doubt have won distinction as a builder of fast boats. He
had such a passion for making models and drafting that he used to
make models and drawings of small sailboats that he could have built
just as well without a sketch of any kind. His small sailboats were
the fastest on the river and the little lakes on which they were
used. He was also a very skillful sailor of sailboats.
I am sorry that I cannot tell you more about the “Flint Hills.” I
was away from home when she was built, and do not know as much about
her as I should have known had I lived on the Mississippi at the
time she was built, and had heard more about her. On a visit to
Burlington some time ago I heard many stories about her running by
the fastest packets when the high water made her long trips
C. Van Sant
THE OLD BOATS
Additional Information from Men Who Know
—Valuable Contributions to River History,
Supplementary to Captain Merrick’s Narrative.
Saturday Evening Post of Burlington, Iowa,
24, 1915, page 7.
A Boy’s Story of Old Times on the Mississippi
was about 14 years old I was seized with an almost irresistible
desire to travel, and as I was fond of sailing and swimming in the
Mississippi river, which I was in the habit of using as a bath tub,
I thought how nice it would be to travel on some of the beautiful
steamboats with their fine decorations and bands of music which
passed up and down the river in a channel within five hundred feet
of my father’s residence which was so near the bank of the river
that it formed the boundary line of one side of the street and the
other line of the street was the line on which our house fronted.
The frequent passage of the boats within a stone’s throw were a
continual source of excitement to my young mind.
To my great delight the War Eagle, my highest ideal of a steamboat,
docked at my father’s boat yard situated at Rock Island, Ills, for
the winter which was not far from our house.
In this spring some of the officers came to board with us. I
applied for a position when the boat should start and got the place
of cabin boy. Now I could not only travel on the boat of my choice,
but would get paid instead of having to pay a fare that was beyond
In a few days the boat started to Galena, which was her starting
point on her downward trips. At Galena she took in tow a barge of
It was the boast of Captain Harris that the War Eagle had never
been passed under way, and he said she never should be. When about
a mile from the mouth of Fever River the Kentucky a fast boat that
was getting up steam when the War Eagle started down the river, with
the black smoke rolling under her chimney. She evidently intended
to overtake and pass the War Eagle which was hampered with a heavy
load of lead and a barge in tow.
Capt. Harris upon seeing the Kentucky, and divining her evident
intention ordered the War Eagle fired to her utmost capacity; but it
was soon evident that the Kentucky was gaining. Capt. Harris
ordered extra weights on the safety valve and told the fireman to
throw in enough bacon to produce all the steam they could and warned
the engineer to be sure to keep up two gauges of water saying a boat
never blew up except by letting water get below the tops of the
Pretty soon the War Eagle began to blow off steam even with added
weight on the safety valve. I had never heard of anything like
that, but as Capt. Harris had a great racing record and had the
reputation of never blowing up a boat I thought it must be all right
as long as he held down the safety valve, and ordered more fire.
The War Eagle made the landing at Bellevue the Kentucky as much as
two city blocks behind. The Kentucky did not stop and the race was
over without the War Eagle being passed under way. Although the
boats were near together at any time, the Kentucky would ultimately
have passed had not the War Eagle made a landing. But it was not a
race under fair conditions, as the War Eagle was hampered with a
heavy load and a barge in tow.
The rest of the trip was made more quietly, and the record of never
having been passed under way still was good. We soon passed Rock
Island. The War Eagle had an engagement to go up Rock River to
Camden to take a barge loaded with flour to St. Louis. But a bar at
the mouth of the river about three miles below Rock Island had
formed at the mouth of the river which made it impossible for her to
go get the barge. As I lived at Rock Island the Captain asked me if
I would go ashore and work my way through the tangled woods that
would take me to Camden dam and give notice that the boat could not
get up there on account of a sand bar but that they would have the
barge floated down to the mouth of the river they would take it on
the next trip. Then I was to go to Rock Island and remain until the
War Eagle came up again, and I was assured that my pay would go on
the same as if I were on the boat.
I worked my way thru the woods and delivered the message and
walked on to Rock Island. In a few days I received word that the
War Eagle had sunk on the Keokuk rapids, and had been raised and
gone to St. Louis for repairs; but that my pay would go on. In
about six weeks I received a letter stating that the War Eagle would
be at Keokuk at a certain time and asked me to meet her there, as
she would run a few trips between Keokuk and St. Louis. I worked my
way down on a boat named the Confidence, which was carrying soldiers
from Galena part of the way to the Mexican War.
When I got to Keokuk the boat was not there, and I decided to down
to St. Louis, and continued my trip on the Confidence. It so
happened that the Confidence and the War Eagle one going down and
the other going up the river landed at Hannibal, Missouri at the
same time. As the War Eagle made short stops I started on the run
to reach her before she pulled out. When within about 100 feet of
her the men began pulling in the gang plank, but Capt. Harris seeing
me ordered the gang plant run ashore, and the nest minute I was
aboard the War Eagle where the captain welcomed me heartily.
During the time the boat was laid up for repairs I went to school in
Rock Island, and my pay went on the same as if I had been at work on
the boat. Capt. Harris was very kind to me and assured me that my
pay would have gone on according to promise however long the boat
might have been detained.
After running on the boat until all views between Galena and St.
Louis became familiar, I gave up my position to continue my
schooling. My love for the river was very strong and while learning
the tinner’s trade the steward of the boat Montauk was told that
Clarke Van Sant who was at work in a tin shop nearby had run several
months on War Eagle. The steward came to see me and I instantly
said I would take the place; the pay was $16.00 a month, and I was
only getting my board where I was. I sent word to my mother that I
had taken a place on the Montauk and asked her to send me clothes so
I could get them when the boat came back. This she did. I
continued on the Montauk until close of navigation when I started to
I got to liking steamboat life and the next year I had a place on
the Red Wing which I did not keep very long as the boat had as
second engineer a drinking man, and as blowing up of boats was very
common thing, I did not want to risk my life on that boat.
On the trip before I left the boat the second engineer was on watch;
the boat was running very fast and shaking terribly, when I saw the
head engineer come running down the stairs, apparently greatly
excited. He found the boat was very hot, and the boilers had but
one gage of water. He ordered the fire extinguished, and a cable
was put into the yawl and the men were ordered to row rapidly to the
shore in case of an explosion. The current swung the boat to the
shore and after she was sufficiently cooled off she was pumped up by
hand and the fire started again. With out giving any alarm the
passengers were attracted to the back end of the boat, which was
considered the place of greatest safety.
I thought I had a very narrow escape, and made my mind that if I
reached Rock Island I would quit steamboating. This was the last of
my running on the river.
About a week later I was at the boat landing. The Red Wing was
caught in a wind storm, while trying to go from Rock Island to
Davenport. I saw she was having a hard time to weather the storm,
and realized that she was being fired hard, and I remarked to a boy
by the name of William Clauson “If they don’t look out they will
blow that boat up.” Almost as soon as I had finished the boat was
enveloped in steam. When it cleared away I saw the smoke stacks
were down and the boat was being driven by the wind toward Rock
Island side. In due time she was at the Rock Island landing. She
had only collapsed a flue but several were scalded. I never knew
how many, if any of them recovered!
A. C. Van Sant
THE OLD BOATS
Additional Information from Men Who Know
—Valuable Contributions to River History, Supplementary to Captain
Saturday Evening Post of Burlington, Iowa,
1920, page 7.
About A. C. Van Sant
Adam Clarke Van Sant was born July 4th, 1832 in New
L E Story The Blue Book contains photographs and sketches of a
few commercial teachers and contains the following information about
A. C. Van Sant. “Mr. A. C. Van Sant, of Omaha, Nebraska, began his
shorthand career at the age of seventeen, and for over sixty years
he has been closely identified with the progress of the art. When
he first began shorthand work, there was not in the world a
stenographer in the present day acceptance of the term. In his
earlier experiences, practical reporting was the only field offered
to a shorthand writer. His work brought him into close touch with
public men and affairs during the period of the Civil War when
history was being made.
For some time he was private secretary to one of the close friends
and supporters of President Lincoln. Among the men of national
prominence that he reported, may be mentioned Steven A. Douglas,
Senator Washburn, Lyman Trumbull, William Cullen Bryant and Owen
Lovejoy. Out of this experience, Mr. Van Sant has accumulated a
fund of practical information which has been dispensed to the
students who have come under his instruction.
Mr. Van Sant is the author of a standard work on touch typewriting,
which he has had a large sale. He was one of the first to see the
advantages of touch typewriting and has been instrumental in
training some of the most expert operators of the day. He is a
regular attendant at Commercial Teachers Conventions. The honor and
esteem in which he is held by the entire profession led to his
election as president of the Federation at the Chicago meeting,
Art Journal (Volume 25) A. W. Elson & Co.
the following about A. C. Van Sant.
“A. O. (C) Van Sant, whose photograph is here presented, is the
principal of a very select school in Omaha, Neb. Very few of the
business teachers have established so good a reputation as has Mr.
Van Sant in the brief time he has been before the public. Of a
modest and retiring turn, he has been content to let his work
establish his reputation. In December, 1898, at the Chicago
convention, there appeared a polished, genteel, suave, middle-aged
gentleman of medium height, who, when called upon to read a paper
and demonstrate the practicability of methods employed in his work,
electrified the body of shorthand teachers. That man was A. C. Van
ant, and that hour witnessed the birth of the great movement toward
introducing the teaching of touch operating on the typewriter in the
various schools. To be sure, many had taught touch typewriting long
before this, but not many knew of it. There were no doubt many
operators who could handle a machine without looking at the
keyboard. Since December,’98, nothing has been so energetically
discussed as has this method of operating the machine, and to the
subject of the sketch more than to any one else is due the
popularity of the idea. But about his life: He first studied
shorthand in the early 00’s, but made no practical use of it at
first, aside from occasional reporting for the Chicago Tribune. By
profession he is a dentist. In 1863 he was the official reporter of
the Illinois House of Representatives. From there he went to
Washington as the private secretary of Owen Lovejoy. He assisted in
reporting the Democratic National Convention which nominated George
B. McClellan, who was the opponent of Abraham Lincoln in 1864. To
give a list of the eminent men he has reported would be to name all
of the renowned statesmen of the Civil War period. In 1891 Mr. Van
Sant opened his school of shorthand and typewriting in Omaha, Neb.
His rooms are carpeted with handsome rugs and furnished with oak
tables and chairs. Each of his machines is in a four drawer oak
cabinet. He seldom uses a machine more than two years before
replacing it with a new one. He believes thoroughly in entrance
examinations, and is not slow in advising one to qualify himself in
the public schools in the English branches before taking up a
special course. He is the author of a series of typewriting charts,
of which nearly 100,000 have been sold. The writer has known Mr.
Van Sant personally a long time, and treasures his friendship most
highly. He is a princely and always courteous gentleman.
A. C. Van Sant died March 30th, 1921 and is buried in
Glendale Cemetery next to his parents.
Photo by Bob Jones