"On the River"
Davenport Democrat and Leader
14 February 1932
By Capt. Walter A. Blair
Other Mild Winters Recalled here by Old Time Rivermen
Attempt Made To Bring Ice Raft Down Mississippi;
On a recent Afternoon visit with
a few old friends in Le Claire at Fred Schworm’s store; the weather
naturally came up for consideration.
Of course, Captain Orrin Smith and
Nelson, his cousin, remembered a few open winters and saw
nothing remarkable about this one.
I had a vague recollection of an attempt to
raft a field of ice from Le Claire to Davenport during one of those
mild or open sinters back in the late ‘70s. Vetal Burrow,
then pilot with me on the Last Chance, gave me the whole story but
it had almost faded out.
So I asked Captain J. M. Hawthorne if
he remembered anything about it. He said, “Yes, I remember all
about it,” and gave me the whole story. The winter was a mild one
and as no ice had been put up at Davenport the ice companies and the
brewers became very anxious as February was half gone and no supply
had yet been secured. We had no artificial ice plants then,
depending entirely on the natural product which had failed.
Captains Joseph Hawthorne and George
Tromley, Sr., of Le Claire, both of them old floating raft
pilots, thought they saw a chance to make some money and relieve the
monotony of a long, dull winter. They made a contract to deliver a
field of good ice to a Davenport concern for which they were to get
a dollar a ton when it was landed in Stubbs’ eddy, in East
There was no ice between Le Claire and
Davenport, nor any dams, piers or other obstructions that were put
in later. The river was open and clear to the head of the Rapids,
but in the deep, quiet pool at Le Claire there was good 10 to 12
inch ice and teams were crossing to and from Port Byron.
Captains Hawthorne and Tromley engaged
Vetal Burrow and a few others willing to take a chance and
proceeded to get out a raft of ice to fulfill their contract. They
sawed out a section about the size of a half city block and fitted
up and hung large oars on each by which they could keep it in or
near the channel. They borrowed a check line and a raft skiff from
Captain Sam Van Sant with which to land and tie up at East
This adventure aroused great interest and
caused much comment in Le Claire and fully one quarter of the
populations were on the bank to see the start and cheer them when
they “Let go for Davenport.”
There were a few doubters and some
predictions of disaster but Hawthorne, Tromley and Burrow were
raftsman of experience and reputation and the great majority were
confident of their success.
The oars worked all right and the raft of ice
responded readily to their pulling and the crew wee ready to take
bets the “She will make it all right, but when she struck the swift
water and then the strong eddy on Smith’s chain the bow took a
dive-the water came up over the head block and all the bow crew but
Burrow let go their oars and ran aft, just in time, for she broke
clear across and the broke in other places and in less than a minute
the raft was just several cakes of ice rapidly separating in the
swirling currents and eddies.
When the first crack was heard all made for
the skiff, hauled out near the stern, and reached it in time all
except Burrow who hung on to his oar at the bow-went down in water
above his knees until the cake came up and the water drained off.
The heavy check line and the crew were all
the skiff would carry. They carefully worked to the Iowa shore near
the mouth of Sycamore creek, moved the check line out on the bank
and then three men, two to row and one steering, started to rescue
Burrow. His cake had taken the suck” was down near Hampton when
they got him. Burrow pretty well chilled but not at all frightened
gave the rescue party the Canadian laugh and said “What’s de matter
you fellar? I go deal more further den any of you. You brought one
or two dem oars wit you I take my piece to Stubb’s Eddy all right
They had a long hard row back home. The
others had preceded them on foot and Le Claire had a topic for
conversation that evening.
The idea was all right, but very mild weather
during the three days spent in preparation had weakened the ice.
Made it porous and it broke easily. But no one tried it again.