On the River
Davenport Democrat and Leader
March 1, 1931
By Capt. Walter A. Blair
Here’s the first Steamer “J. S.”
The above photo shows the first steamer “J. S.” After being sunk a
larger and better “J. S.” was built by Capt. John Streckfus and at
present day is in the Mississippi river excursion business.
Short Line Packets Here Brought Many Exciting Days
RIVALRY OF BOATS BECAME VERY INTENSE
Racing Days of Verne Swain and Jo
Long Are vividly recalled
Capt. James Osborn Stabbed.
of the best known pilots on the upper Mississippi was Capt. E. J.
Le Claire. For many years he was
master of the steamers “Stillwater” and “Eclipse”
1886 arrived a new boat expressly built for the trade by a man who
knew what was needed and how to give it. D. M. Swain and Sons of
Stillwater, Minn., had a hull of beautiful model built by Batchelor
on which they installed a pair of Swain’s cross compound engines-a
12 inch high pressure cylinder on the port side, and a 24 inch low
pressure cylinder on the starboard side, with a common stroke of 6
feet connected to a very high stern wheel with only 10 feet buckets,
or paddles. She had one locomotive type boiler with a fan blower to
promote draft and steaming. She had a neat comfortable cabin for a
daylight run, with a few rooms for a light single crew. This was
the first Verne Swain. She was 120 feet long and 22 ˝ feet wide,
(hull only). Her boiler was low and her cabin light.
was the fastest of her size up to date and not at all inclined to
list or heel over in a side wind or when rounding to into a
landing. She left Clinton at 7 a. m. arrived here at 10:00 a. m.
left Davenport at 3 p. m. Rock Island at 3: 20, and was back at
Clinton at 8:15 making seven regular landings between terminals each
day, seven days a week.
“Vernie” was not only fast and a good handler, but was very
economical on fuel, and made money from the end of the first week.
Bought by Streckfus
1889 John Streckfus of Rock Island bought the Verne Swain for
$10,000 cash and put his energy and enthusiasm into the trade. He
kept his boat in good repair and noticeably clean, adding little
comforts and conveniences from time to time. He paid good wages to
his pilot and engineer for first class work, Capt. Streckfus wisely
contrived to interest his children in his work and while not
neglecting home work or school, they were a great help to him, and
aided in making the “Vernie” even more popular.
Zack Suiter was pilot on the “Vernie” when Swain sold her and
remained some time later until Fuller Smith succeeded him and
remained on her until she left the trade. John Bromley, George
Haikes, P. M. Maines and William Walker were her engineers that
I remember. The Clinton trade ran strong without unusual incident
until the season of 1896, when the steamer Jo Long came in to divide
the business, by leaving Davenport and Rock Island at 7 a. m. and
returning about 7 p. m.
Jo Long was the same size as the Verne, had the same model and the
same sized engines-12 by 6 foot, stroke-for Capt. Streckfus had
discarded the large low pressure engine on the Verne, and she had
engines that were mates. Both boats and their engines were built by
the same man, D. M. Swain of Stillwater, Minn.
Capt. J. N. Long, a fine rapids pilot of Le Claire, was the
managing owner of the Jo long, but he did not go on her himself.
She was in charge of Capt Ben Conger of Fulton, who had
charge of the Diamond Jo and the Josephine when they were in this
trade 30 years before. Capt. Conger was clerk also and a real good
one. Had there been any living for a morning boat out of Davenport
Ben Conger would have proved it for he knew the game
thoroughly and played it quietly but with vigor and intelligence.
Not satisfied with results, however, Capt Long took charge himself.
Capt Streckfus put William Knaach in charge of the Verne with
Frank Black of Rock Island as clerk, and bought the fine fast
City of Winona from Youmans brothers and Hodgins of Winona, Minn.
Taking charge of her himself, with Durbin Dorrance as pilot,
P. M. Maines, engineer and William Oakes of Clinton as
clerk, he put the Winona on the run against the Jo long, leaving
Davenport in the morning.
Capt. Long chartered the D. Boardman, a first class rafter
with good power and a nice cabin and leaving Joseph Young in
charge of the Jo Long, went on the Boardman himself and put her
against the Verne on the afternoon run out of Davenport and Rock
the pace became fast and furious. Many people took sides and became
intensely interested in the contest. Old heads predicted all sorts
of collisions, explosions and other disasters, but the boats were
carrying more and more passengers each week and nothing happened.
afternoon the Verne broke down just above the government bridge.
Capt. Streckfus chartered the F. C. A. Denkman and
had her route in the Vern’s place the next day. As the Boardman and
the Denkman were sister ships, built at Dubuque in 1881, to be
pitted against each other in a speed contest like this attracted
others who had not taken much interest thertofore.
greatly to the credit of all the masters, pilots, engineers and
mates engaged in that very unusual steamboat war that they carried
it on with rare skill and caution, and only a few slight infractions
of the rules were reported, and not one of the many thousands
carried was injured in any way.
James Osborn Stabbed.
on Aug. 8, 1896, Capt. Long refused to move his boat to let the St.
Paul come into the Diamond Jo warehouse. In the quarrel over this,
Agent James Osborn received a knife wound for which Capt. Long was
arrested, and on trial later was found guilty of assault with intent
to commit great bodily injury and fined $300.
steamboat fight was not continued long after this trouble and was
never renewed. The Jo Long was sold in 1898 to run in the Vicksburg
Lake Providence trade and was there when she capsized and sank, a
total loss, and with several lives lost.
Verne Swain ran in 1898 in charge of Capt. A. H. Lovett of
Davenport, and in 1899 and 1900 Frank Black, who had been her
clerk, became her master. In the latter part of the year she was
sold to Dixon Brothers of Peoria. I took her down to Galena and
rode up the Illinois river to Peoria. Dixon brothers changed her
name to speed and the next spring put her in the Peoria LaSalle
Brothers soon sold her and she has been rebuilt two or three times
and is still and has been for many years, running between New
Orleans and Monroe, La., and Camden, Ark., on the Onachita river.
She has been little changed in outward appearance and seems to have
a good business, mostly towing carbon black.
selling the Verne Swain, Capt. Streckfus put the City of Winona on
her run, leaving Davenport and Rock Island in the afternoon. The
Winona became very popular in the trade and she was fast and
regular, with nice comfortable cabins and easy chairs and couches
for tired women shoppers, and she made much money until the “I. &
I.” interurban line started operating.
1901 Capt. Streckfus brought the new J. S. direct form Howard’s
yards at Jeffersonville on the Ohio, and put her in as a morning
boat to Clinton, which would give her all evenings here to handle
moonlight excursions seven nights a week. But the J. S. was too
large and heavy to run to Clinton and put in the regular excursion
business, in which she was scored a great success.
the end of the 1904 season it was clearly evident that the “I. & I.”
had the advantage and left nothing but worry, work and loss for the
Winona in the Clinton trade. So Capt. Streckfus loaded the boat and
the barge Acme with onions and potatoes and went south as far as
Vicksburg, I think. There he sold out his stock and brought the
boat and barge back up as far as Paducah, Ky., where he made
extensive and radical changes in the popular Winona. She came back
in the spring of 1905 as the excursion steamer, W. W., so changed
that her best friends could not recognize their old favorite.
Capt. Streckfus withdrew the Winona at the close of the 1904 season
he sold his warehouse and good will in the trade to his friend,
Capt. John Lancaster of Le Claire, who had been master and pilot of
the fine rafter, Eclipse owned by the Lindsay and Phelps company,
and the Cable Lumber company, and which had run all their logs to
both mills until the final slowdown in 1904.
Lancaster acquired, or at ready had a substantial interest in the
Eclipse. He was strong and full of energy and an excellent rapids
pilot. Rafting at an end, he thought by economy and hard work a
good boat service could still be made to pay. The “I & I” made only
one side of the river while the boat made both sides and he thought
when the novelty wore off many would come back to the boat in hot
A Losing Venture
after spending $7,000 in making changes and getting his boat in
tip-top condition he gave it a good long, hard test, and had to give
it up and try somewhere else, and the long story of boat service to
Clinton was ended.
the Clinton trade, covering a period of 50 years, there was but one
accident resulting in loss of life.
Diamond Jo story a few weeks ago I told about Diamond Jo’s first
steamboat, the little Lansing. After several changes of ownership
and trades, in 1867 she was owned by Rambo and son (“Wes” and his
father) of Le Claire, and running as a daily packet to Davenport.
Capt. George B. Merrick, in his story of Diamond Jo and his
steamers, states on page 12, “On May, 18, 1867, while lying at the
bank of Hampton, ILL., one of the pilots, Robert Smith of Le Claire,
and Van Dyke, the clerk were killed in the explosion. The Lansing
was rebuilt at Dubuque.
certainly speaks well for the engineers and pilots on the many short
trade packets running the rapids daily in all kinds of weather, that
they can show such a clean record.
the Verne Swain, Speed Boat of its Day.
In days gone by, hundreds of people
along the Mississippi watched daily the trip
of the Verne Swain from Davenport to
Clinton. It was one of the fastest craft
on the upper Mississippi and
encountered many an exciting race with rival packets.