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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 the

 present day is in the Mississippi river excursion business.



Short Line Packets Here Brought Many Exciting Days




Racing Days of Verne Swain and Jo Long Are vividly recalled

Capt. James Osborn Stabbed.




Capt. E. J.



 One of the best known pilots on the upper Mississippi was Capt. E. J. Lancaster of

Le Claire. For many years he was master of the steamers “Stillwater” and “Eclipse”



 In 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.


  She 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.


  The “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


  In 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.


  The 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.


Owned by Jo Long


  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.


  Then 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.


  Then 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 Island.


Fast competition


  Then 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.

 One afternoon the Verne broke down just above the government bridgeCapt. 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.


  It is 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.


  Then 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.


  The 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.


 The 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 trade.


  Dixon 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.


  After 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.


  In 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.


  At 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.


  When 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.


  Capt. 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 weather.


A Losing Venture


  So 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.


  In the Clinton trade, covering a period of 50 years, there was but one accident resulting in loss of life.


  In my 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.


  It 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.


Here’s 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.



Collected by Sue Rekkas

and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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