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"On the River"


Davenport Democrat and Leader

March 6, 1932


 By Capt. Walter A. Blair


 Steamer J.W. Van Sant raising the Steamer Glenmont


 Some Interesting Data on the Famous Mississippi River Rafters built at Le Claire Boatways

     In the heyday of rafting on the upper Mississippi there was no better known boat engaged in this trade than the J. W. Van Sant.  This popular rafter was built by J. W. Van Sant and son of the Le Claire, Iowa, boatyard in 1870.  Her hull was 100 feet long, 20 feet wide and four feet deep.  Her engines were 12 by 4 feet and her one boiler was 24 feet long and 44 feet in diameter, with 10.6-inch flues.

  The J. W. Sant had no cabin until her third or fourth year.  She ran under charter to Capt. George Winans in 1870 and 1871, towing lumber from Read’s Landing to Hannibal and St. Louis and after many years of successful service was dismantled and her engines put in a new boat known as the “Peter Kirns.”

  Henry Whitmore of Galena Ill., selected the engines and boilers for the J. W. Van Sant, installed them, and went out on her as chief engineer.  He established her reputation as the first real successful stern wheel raft boat built for the business.  She demonstrated the “type” and the superiority of the stern wheel.

  Capt. Van Sant deserves the credit for the size and style proportions of this remarkable boat.  He consulted the best pilots and engineers to get the judgment in practical and experienced men who understood rafting.

The Brother Jonathan

  The Bro. Jonathan was built at Le Claire, Ia., in 1871 by Johnathan Zebley & Sons (Ed) her hull was the same size as the J. W. Van Sant, 100X 20’x 4’ and her engine were also the same size 12”x 4.  Elisha P. Bartlett installed her machinery, fitted her up and started her out in charge of Capt. A. J. Jenks of Albany Ill.

  About 1874 Capt. Jenks joined Durant Wheeler and Co., putting the Jonathan as his capital.

  She rendered D. W. & Co. several years of excellent service-was sold in 1892 the Jonathan was dismantled and her engines put on the new Vermi Mac built by M. J. Godfrey and son at Wabash, Minn., for D. J. McKenzie of Alma.

  Either while on the Jonathan, or later on the Vermi Mack she had an accident running one engine.  Instead of getting a new one, they bought the old engines of the dismantled Silver Wave and put them on the Vermi Mac.  These were 14”x 4.2”, larger in diameter than her old engines and made her a much stronger boat.

 D A. Mc Donald Appears

   The D. A. Mc Donald built by J. W. Van Sant and son (Sam) at Le Claire, Iowa.  Her hull was 120’x 24’x 4’ of excellent oak (native) well fastened after thoro seasoning.

  Her engines were 14”x 4’ and her two boilers were 42 x 24” with 10 in. flues in each.  Her hull had been completed in 1871, so she came out completed in spring of 1872.

  Henry Whitmore installed the machinery in her as he had done in the J. W. Van Sant two years before and started her out running under charter to McDonald Bros. of La Crosse, Wis., and she surprised even her builders by her excellent performance.

  The McDonald was not only larger in hull and engines than the J. W. Van Sant but she had a nice cabin with good rooms for her officers and two guest rooms.  She also had her kitchen, pantry and mess room on the boiler deck, which left her a large roomy deck room for the fuel and kit.

  On getting the new McDonald going well, Capt. Sam Van Sant took Engineer Whitmore off the McDonald leaving Robert Soloman as chief in his place, and proceeded to Evansville, Ind., where at a U. S. Marshal’s sale they bought the steamer Hartford to be converted into a rafter.

  While they were coming down the Ohio with the Hartford, the McDoanld going up river for another raft exploded her boilers, killed 18 of her crew and then sank.

  She was raised and rebuilt at Le Claire and got in three seasons of profitable work when she had another bad accident.  Early in the season of 1876 going down on a big river with a heavy tow of ice barges she hit a pier of the Keokuk Bridge and went down in deepwater.

  The Van Sants raised her after a hard struggle, took her to Le Claire on her own steam and rebuilt her again.  She ran the balance of that season without any cabin and made many fast and profitable trips between Beef Slough and Muscatine.  George Rutherford was her master and pilot 1876-77-78-79 and 1880.  In the winter of 1876-77 they gave her a finer and larger cabin with a full-roof fore and aft, and in 1878 by special act of congress she got a new name-the Silver Wave.  She had 11 years of continuous prosperity carrying this name until she was dismantled at the place she had been built once and rebuilt twice, by Van Sant.  Her last season1889 with George Tromley, Jr., as her master and pilot was one of her most profitable and successful periods.

  Having spent three seasons on her learning the river while clerk and nigger-runner.  I persuaded Capt. Van Sant, when she was being dismantled to let me have her nice pilot wheel to replace the poor one on the Silver Crescent.  Then we dismantled the Silver Crescent and built the Black Hawk in 1909 the cabin pilot house and this pilot wheel went on the new boat and were all wrecked and lost in the great ice break in Paducah, Ky., January 1918. 


The Abner Gile

   The Abner Gile came out in the spring of 1872.  She was also built by J. W. Van Sant and Son at Le Claire, Ia., for parties headed by Abner Gile of La Cross, Wis. Tho not so large as the McDonald she had the same sized engines, 14”x 4’.

  Some time later in her long and successful career she had new cylinders cast for the old upper works and the new cylinders were only 12 or 133 inches in diameter.

A. F. Holllingshead was part owner and her master several years.  Capt.Lome” Short

was her owner and master a few years and then go Capt. J. H. Woodus to have me and the Ten Bronk to take charge of the Gile in 1888.  She ran logs for the Canton Saw Mill Co. for several years until they closed down.

  Her last work was work dropping logs form St. Paul to Prescott.  In 1899 she sank at South Stillwater where she was dismantled and her engines used on some other boat.  Frank E. Goldsmith was her chief engineer several years while owned by Captain Short.  She had 28 years continuous service without a single serious accident.

Explosion on the Malborn

   While Van Sant and Son were building the Mc Doanld and the Abner Gile, their neighbors Zebley and Son, were building the James Malborn of La Crosse and his associates in 1872

  But the James Malborn exploded her boilers, killing the captain and part owner and several of her crew and then sank.  This accident occurring only a few weeks after the D. A. Mc Doanld explosion, and within a mile of the same place above the McGregor pontoon bridge) caused steamboat men to think there was some particular local condition that might explain these two disasters; but they have concluded that it was only a coincidence and both due to lack of care and caution.

  The wreck was raised, taken to La Cross and rebuilt as the Robert Ross.  This name was later changed to J. S. Keator.  She was for many years in charge of Captain L. A. Day of Le Claire, Ia., while she was running logs for J. S. Keator & Sons of Moline, Ill., her owners.

  After their mill closed down she was sold to a Memphis company who changed her name to L. E. Patton.  They used her towing logs to mills in Wolf River.

  Capt. A. O. Day, now supervising inspector of steam vessels at St. Louis, Mo., served his apprentice ship as cub-pilot with his father on the J. S Keator and was his partner after getting his license.

  Kettenbracker and Wiether of the Le Claire Foundry and Machine shop cast and filled a pair of 14”x 6’ cylinders to the old top works of the J. S. Keator’s engines.  This increased her power and (strange to tell) decreased her fuel expense.  On each outboard side of her pilot house and under her name was a large and pretty “K”.


Collected by Sue Rekkas

and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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