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"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 Davenport.

  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 Davenport.

  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 sure ting.”

  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.


Collected by Sue Rekkas

and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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