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Adam Clarke Van Sant



Collected and Transcribed


Sue Rekkas







He sailed With Captain Daniel Smith Harris on the First “War Eagle”

—Saw the “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.


    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 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.


    The 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 gear.


    The 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.


    With 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 early days.


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.


    The 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 hazardous condition.


    The officers behaved bravely, and did their best to secure the safety of as many passengers as possible in the event of a disaster.


    I stopped off at Rock Island.


    A 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 shore.


    She 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, 1883

A. C. Van Sant

School of Shorthand and Typewriting

Author of

 Van Sant System of

Touch Typewriting


Adam Clarke Van Sant




Steamboats and Steamboatman of the Upper Mississippi

by George B. Merrick

Saturday Evening Post Burlington Iowa,

August 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 Mississippi River.


     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 run.


     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 necessary.

  Your affectionate brother,

A.      C.  Van Sant





Additional Information from Men Who Know

—Valuable Contributions to River History,

Supplementary to Captain Merrick’s Narrative. 

The Saturday Evening Post of Burlington, Iowa,

April 24, 1915, page 7.



A Boy’s Story of Old Times on the Mississippi


    When I 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 my means.


     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 bacon.


     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 flues.


     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 school again.


     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!

                                        Yours Truly,

                                         A. C. Van Sant





Additional Information from Men Who Know

—Valuable Contributions to River History, Supplementary to Captain Merrick’s Narrative. 

The Saturday Evening Post of Burlington, Iowa,

June 10, 1920, page 7.



About A. C. Van Sant


     Adam Clarke Van Sant was born July 4th, 1832 in New Jersey.Van Sant.jpg


     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, December 1905.”


Penman’s Art Journal (Volume 25) A. W. Elson & Co.

contains 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





Collected and Transcribed by

Sue Rekkas

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