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"On the River"


Davenport Democrat and Leader

August 14, 1932


 By Capt. Walter A. Blair


New Locks and Roller Dam Expected to Forever Blot Out The Treacherous Rocks and Chains which Make Rock Island Rapids Most Dangerous on Mississippi

    With the building of the new locks and roller dam across the Mississippi River Davenport and the coming of the five foot water stage, the treacherous rocks and chains of the Rock Island Rapids will be blotted out forever.  The tortuous channel that wound its way from Davenport to Le Claire, requiring services of special pilots for all steamers will be replaced by the placid surface of a lake navigable from shore to shore with perfect safety.

  The dwindling of the river traffic in the last twenty years has erased the memory of the strenuous days and obscured the romance of the river.  Yet the old inhabitants know that every rock and chain on the upper rapids, as the river between Davenport and Le Claire is called, is named and that every name originated with a marine disaster.  The entire length of the rapids is wreck strewn and many of the wrecks were coupled with loss of life.

  Previous to the beginning of government work on the upper rapids, its passage was so strenuous and nerve wrecking and required such precision of knowledge and skill that no steamer dared attempt the passage without special pilots who made headquarters in Davenport and Rock Island and in Le Claire, Captain Andrew Coleman of Rock Island was the dean of the fraternity.

  Have 20 Foot Fall

   The rapids have a fall of 20.4 feet at low water and over the entire distance the bed consists of rock deeply worn in pools and rising in ledges knows as chains, which stretch across the stream from bank to bank leaving originally a depth in places of only 30 inches, even in the channel in midsummer droughts.  The greatest measured velocity over any chain has been 8.36 feet per second.

  The early day pilot was a man of iron nerve.  The moment he passed thru the draw of the Davenport-Rock Island Bridge north bound he was on edge, with nerves taut and eyes alert.  He pointed the jackstaff of his steamer toward established landmarks on the shore and held his ship steady as steel for an exact distance then spun the wheel toward a new objective.  All the way to Le Claire this procedure was followed, and in spite of alertness and skill wreck after wreck piled up on the teeth of the treacherous rocks and the latter were christened by the vessels they despoiled.

  Millions Dumped in River

   The government spent millions to smooth the path of the river mariner.  Prior to 1900 about one and a half million dollars were spent and since that time many millions more, the total exceeding the cost of the new locks and dam whose early construction would have saved a vast sum.  The work on the rapids pulled jagged teeth, widened the narrowest places and established piers and buoys and lights upon which to site the jackstaff and give the course.  The strenuosity was abated but the channel still resembled a cork screw and the millions spent did not make river traffic.  It did not increase the all year depth of the channel to a mark that would make transportation on the river commercially profitable.  The dam is needed to increase the depth to a point where navigation will be safe at all times, and to blot out forever the terrors of the upper rapids. 

  The present generation can hardly visualize the vast number of steamers that plowed the Father of Waters in the days before the stream was paralleled by railroads.  Neither can they realize the number of wrecks that piled up in the 15-mile graveyard between Davenport and Le Claire.  The river furnished the big news of the day and river business swelled the population of Le Claire to a city of over 5,000 during the period of the year when the Mississippi was open to navigation.

  The Crooked Water Trail

   Leaving Davenport north bound and passing thru the draw the steamer swerved sharply to the Iowa shore and found itself not half a mile above the bridge in the Lower chain and the famous Stubbs eddy, the channel was narrow to a point where it swerved sharply toward the famous Moline chain.  The danger was so great upon entering this chain that the proper procedure was to reduce speed and go ahead with utmost caution.  It was the heedless disregard of this procedure that christened Brazil rock. One morning, about the middle of the last century the large steamer Brazil was passing the Moline chain at a greater speed than conditions warranted.  Suddenly the pilot became aware that he was off his course, “Back her” was the signal the bells rang fiercely into the ears of the engineer.  But too late!  The Brazil was upon the rocks and with a yawning gap in her hull sank to the bottom.  The name of the sunken steamer was thereafter identified with this most dangerous rock in the Moline chain.

 Naming of Mason’s Rock

   Issuing from this swift and narrow passageway the up bound steamer came forth into a lake like channel several thousand feet in width, gradually narrowing, however, and running close to the Iowa shore.  It widened out a little and then narrowed again as it entered the troublesome Duck Creek chain.  The lower end of this rock bound passageway was guarded by a number of small islands and the helmsman had to keep eyes open and his steamer steady as he entered.  But the narrow channel was not the greatest danger, Sudden rocks abounded, even in the wider places, and Mason’s rock, named from the ill-fated A. G. Mason, which struck and went to the bottom in 1856, is located on the Iowa side just above the upper entrance to Duck Creek chain.  The wreck occurred three quarters of a century ago but so disastrous was the accident that the rock bears the name until this day.  One foggy afternoon the famous old War Eagle also stranded on the Duck Creek chain but was salvaged and put back in commission.

Wreck of the Silas Wright

   A Comparatively free channel situated somewhat to the Iowa side eased the tenseness of the up bound steamer after passing the Duck creek chain, Just below Campbell’s Island. Tho the river is considerably wider at this point than at other places on the rapids the passageway for steamers is exceptionally narrow.  Winnebago Island reaches out its broadside into the narrow channel and it was here that the Silas Wright veered from the hairline course and floundered.

 An Island Christened in Blood

   Beautiful Campbell’s Island, the peaceful summer playground was christened by death and disaster.  Early in the last century a steamer owned and captained by a stout-hearted man named Campbell, headed up the river.  She was well manned and powerful.  Disregarding a warning of hostilities at the hands of Indians Captain Campbell went forward with confidence in his power and speed.  Suddenly out from the shore of the island came a great fleet of canoes manned by Indians in war paint and the steamer was taken entirely unaware.  In the bloody fight that followed Captain Campbell laid down his life with nearly all the members of his brave crew.  The captain was buried on the island, which will probably forever bear his name. 

 Three Wrecks on Campbell’s chain

   The name Campbell’s also given to the chain of rocks on the Iowa side just opposite the upper end of the island.  It was about a half a century ago that the steamer Danube met her fate on this chain but until recently the waters of the Mississippi still dashed over the wreck.  This disaster was one of the most complete ever known on the rapids.   The boat was entirely lost and it was with difficulty that those aboard were saved.  Campbell’s chain was also responsible for the wrecks of the Louisville and the Little Eagle.

  Upstream the channel grows wider and less obstructed.  A short distance above Campbell’s island it reaches close into the Illinois shore affording an excellent landing place and it is here that Hampton is located, the village being situated at an outward end in the Illinois shore and exactly at the point where deep water comes closest to land.  But immediately above the town the channel contracts and a very narrow passage lead to the famous St. Louis chain.

 St. Louis and Cabin Chains

   St. Louis chain and Cabin chains are almost continuous.  Both lie to the Iowa side of the channel but the channel is narrower and therefore they are nearer to the Illinois than the Iowa shore. On a rock near the point where St. Louis chain ends and Cabin chain begins the large steamer St. Louis piled up and became one of the most notable wrecks of the rapids.  The rock upon which it struck has ever since been known as St. Louis Rock, the steamer also giving its name to the chain.  The financial loss resulting from this wreck was one of the heaviest in the history of the river.

  Cabin chain, also known as Crab Island chain has caused its share of wrecks.  In the year 1856, the Mary C., a handsome little craft, hit the rocks like a battering ram and went to the bottom.  In 1888 the well-known rafter Ben Hershey went upon the rocks and settled down with a large hole in her hull.  She was raised and returned to active service, but the experience was an expensive one.  The channel, up bound, form Cabin chain was very narrow in the early days for a long distance but as at Moline chain had the advantage of being comparatively straight.  But unlike the Moline chain it did not open into a wide and unobstructed expanse of deep water.   

Three Wrecks on Sycamore

   Even closer to Cabin chain than the latter is to St. Louis chain lurked the limestone ledge called Sycamore.  A large amount of government money was spent to pull its teeth but before the operation the channel was so narrow and crooked that many wrecks were caused.  The Emerald, Envoy, and J. K. Graves all went down on Sycamore, the last named sinking in 1894. The continuous stretch of chains was lengthened by Smith’s chains on the Illinois and by the Upper chain on the Iowa side.  From St. Louis chain to Upper chain these ledges obstructed the river and left the channel without a single relief.  It was the longest and most trying run along the entire river for the man who stood at the wheel. It was this stretch that caused the government to build the longitudinal dam and locks running north from Smith’s island, the value of which improvement will be negated by the completion of the dam at Davenport.

 The Bridge Disaster 

  There have been several wrecks at the bridge, which connects Davenport and Rock Island.  In 1854 the steamer Effie Afton, up bound swung against the bridge and the sparks from her smokestack started a fire that burned one span.  The boat was entirely consumed.

  The Grey Eagle struck the bridge one day in the 50’s, floated helplessly downstream and sank opposite Perry Street.

  Two steamers on the same day rammed the bridge and sank.  The Aunt Lettie a four-engine stern wheeler as dignified as her name came sweeping down to the draw but lost control just as she entered the passageway.  She struck and stove a large hole in her hull, drifting downstream; she was engulfed by the waters just opposite what is now Pershing Avenue.

  The same day the steamer Flora up bound, while the wind was blowing a gale and waves were rolling high, was tossed against the bridge and drifted back just below the grave of the Aunt Lettie and sank to the bottom.

  The wreck that is freshest in the memory of old time Davenporters and which caused the greatest grief was that of the Jennie Gilcrist.  Just above the bridge her machinery broke down and a swift current crashed her into a pier and she sank.  Rescuers worked frantically and nobly but in spite of their efforts nine lives were lost.  After the present improvements are made such a disaster cannot occur for the terrific speed of the rapids will be greatly lessened and it will lose its power to viciously ram the boats against the bridge                      


Collected by Sue Rekkas

and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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