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On the River


Davenport Democrat and Leader

March 22, 1931


 By Capt. Walter Blair


Daily Service Between Davenport and Keokuk

Away Back in 1855.

 Some famous steamers 

Keokuk and Blackhawk, Two of the Fastest Of

Early Sidewheelers.

    The Rock Island City Directory of 1855-6, under the head of “Lines of Steam Packets,” mentions the steamers J. McKee, with Capt. Leroy Dodge as master, and the steamer Ben Campbell, captained by R. F. Bartlett, as giving a daily service to Keokuk carrying passengers, freight and United States Mail. The packets left here on alternate evenings, excepting Sunday following the arrival of the train from Chicago.

  Captain Dodge was also the owner of the J. McKee, which was a fast craft just the right size for the trade.  The Ben Campbell was owned at this time by Capt. L. W. Clark, who was also the owner when she burned while lying at Buffalo near his home.  Both of these steamers were side-wheelers.

   The directory at that time also named the Lamartine, in charge of Captain Phelps, as leaving here for Muscatine each evening at 9 o’clock with the return trip beginning at 8 o’clock the next morning.

Fast Side-wheelers

Two fast side-wheelers came into the trade in 1858.  These were the Keokuk and the Black Hawk, of which Capt. Silas Haight owned both and commanded one. The Keokuk was built at Brownsville, Pa., in 1858. She was 177 feet long, 27 1-2 feet wide, and with a depth of five feet in the hold. She was powered by two engines of 20 by 5 ½ feet dimensions and three boilers 40 by 26 feet.

   The Black Hawk was a close mate for her in every way. When the river road, the “K lines” was extended up to Fort Madison the Keokuk was sold to run out of La Crosse and the Black Hawk took care of the trade alone making a round trip a day between Fort Madison and Rock Island, and it took a smart boat to do this.

   Some time in 1861 she was taken by the U.S. and rendered very active and useful in our southern waters during the Civil war. Then the trade was taken by two small sternwheelers, the Kate Cassell, 167 tons, built 1854 and owned by B. H. Campbell of Galena and Capt. B. W. Davis of Rock Island. Capt. Hillhouse took her south in U.S. service in 1863.The other boat, Jennie Whipple, was built at Brownville, Pa. in 1857 for the Chippewa River. She was 135 feet long, 30 feet wide and four feet in the hold. 

Popular Captains

Captain J.W. Campbell and Captain Hillhouse were prominently connected with these popular steamers and the three Ruby brothers of Buffalo, Engineers Ben Wilson, Spence Burtnett Sr., Wilbur Norris, Lew Smith, George Hailkes, and Fred Kramer of Rock Island, Andrew and James Coleman and Tony Le Claire of Davenport were among the pilots employed on the boats and their successors. The engineers were “Deck” Scott and E.D. Dixon.

   In 1864 the Kahlke brothers and John Theissen built two good sternwheelers at Port Byron, Ill., for B. H. Campbell of Galena and Captain B. W. Davis of Rock Island. The City of Keithsburg began to operate in charge of B. W. Davis and the New Boston in charge of Captain Melville. Both were on the run to Ft. Madison, leaving Rock Island and Davenport on alternate evenings.

   At the end of the season in 1864 both boats were bought by the Northern Line and kept in the same trade. Capts. Tom Buford, H. S. Ruby and J. W. Campbell had charge at different times. Lemuel Parkhurst of Davenport, the father of Mrs. T. F.  Eldridge, 1404 East Tenth Street, was clerk on one or the other of these steamers all the time they were in the short trade. I have before me a bill of lading of the steamer New Boston, dated April 14, 1865, and one of the steamers City of Keithsburg, for Sept.10, 1867, both of which are signed by Mr. Parkhurst as clerk.

   The New Boston and the City of Keithsburg were both about the size of the Helen Blair  of later days. The Keithsburg had the engines of the Fanny Harris: when they were idle again they were put in the Diamond Jo steamer, Libbie Conger, built in 1878.  They were doing good work there when the steamer was wrecked in the great cyclone at St. Louis in May 1896.

 No Local Service

   For a few years after the New Boston and the Kiethsburg were taken out of the short trade there was no local service out of Rock Island and Davenport to points south excepting a small boat every week day from Andalusia and Buffalo up to Davenport and back. The Louisa, a dandy little sternwheeler owned and operated by a Captain Jones, gave a very satisfactory service until she was sold to the U.S. Engineering department.

  Then Capt. Sam Mitchell put into operation the little Lone Star – a grandparent of the present handsome and powerful little towboat of the same name. She was a very well geared side-wheeler not very fast and with very limited accommodations. At the end of her second season she was sold for a sand digger.

   From 1875 to 1880 Davenport and Rock Island had a very satisfactory service by the Diamond Jo, followed by the Josephine, running between Fulton, Ill., and Burlington, Ia., James Osborn was agent in Davenport, George Lamont in Rock Island and W. G. Block in Muscatine.

   These three men were remarkable fine agents, being friendly and attentive to patrons and very loyal and faithful in promoting the interests of the boats. The crews of the boats always held them in high esteem.

   After the Josephine withdrew from the Fulton - Burlington trade in 1880 there was no local service south by the river for 12 years.

   On February 1892, the Carnival City Packet Co. was organized at Davenport with Capt. Lon Bryson, L.M. Fisher, F. W. Downs, Capt. August Reimers and W. A. Blair as directors. The officers of the company were W. A. Blair, president and manager; S. R. Van Sant, vice-president; M. L. Marks, treasurer, and J. B. Phillips, secretary.


Career of Silver Crescent

   This company bought from W. A. Blair the excellent raft boat, the Silver Crescent. She was 123 feet long with a 23-foot beam. She was built of selected Kentucky oaks and was a fine model. She had the engines of the two-boat Park Painter of Pittsburgh, with 14 inch cylinders and a 4-1/2 foot stroke.  She was fitted with a comfortable cabin and was one of the handsomest and fastest crafts in the entire rafting fleet.

   This boat finished up some rafting and after a few changes and additions started to revive, on June 17, 1892, the old trade to Burlington. This was the summer of extremely high water.

   The writer was her master and pilot with Parm Lancaster as mate, James Stedman as engineer and S. R. Dodds as clerk. For a few weeks Capt. Lon Bryson was with us, to teach and show us raftsmen how to handle passengers and freight as well as the clerical work connected with these things.

  Our start was not encouraging.  The entire earnings of our first round trip were $16.75.  The increase was slow, but by the end of the season in 1893 we paid a 5 per cent dividend.

  There was no change in directors until January 1895, when Major Works took the place of F. W. Downs.  During the first three years we had competition between Keithsburg, Oquawka and Burlington from the La Clede Packet Co. of Burlington, which first adapted for the use the pretty rafter named Pauline and later the Matt F. Allen, a large, light draft Ohio river packet.  This company sold the Pauline and later I brought the Allen and the excursion barge Antoinette and eliminated all competition. 


 The Steamer W. J. Young, Jr. operating in the local packet trade, is well remembered by many devotees of the river.

  The above shows the Young landing at Burlington, Ia. In 1895

 W. J. Young Is Bought

  In 1895 we bought the W. J. Young, Jr. the “Queens of the rafting fleet.”  Extended her beautiful cabin, added a neat half texas, and other packet features, and made her an ideal craft for the trade.  She became very popular, keeping on the old Silver Crescents schedule leaving here at 4 o’clock on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday’s and arriving at Burlington at 9:30 A. M. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  She left there at 3 P. M. on the same day of her arrival for the trip home. 

  I had Spence and Andy Burtnenas as engineers, while Leonard Suiter, a very bright young man, not only handled the clerical work but also learned the river and how to handle the boat skillfully, and was always ready to be called to relieve me.

  Parm Lancaster stayed with me until he could stand a watch in the pilothouse day or night.  A. P. Bert Lovett, who began with me on the Silver Crescent and who had been with the Diamond Jo Line Service, came on the Young one season as pilot with Leonard Suiter, who then had charge of her as master and purser.

  The young was140 feet long and 28 feet wide, containing excellent machinery and boilers.  Her engines were 14 inches with a six-foot stroke, and she could carry 190 pounds of steam pressure.  She never broke down during the nine years we owned her.  In 1903 we sold her to Kentucky and Indiana Bridge and Terminal Co., Louisville, Ky., and received just what we paid for her.

 Enter Col. Watterson

   One of the many pleasant memories connected with the W. J. Young is that of meeting and entertaining Col. Henry Watterson.  I think it was in 1895.  He had delivered his great oration on “Lincoln” at a big Fourth of July celebration in Burlington.  There was to be a river parade and fireworks in the evening.  The Young made a special trip to Oquawka in the late afternoon and carried a large group of people down to see the affair.

  I sent an invitation to Colonel Watterson to bring the people who were entertaining him and go with us on the Oquawka trip, Join in the river parade, and then anchor and view the fireworks.  The Colonel accepted and brought half a dozen folks with him.

 Charley Moore, the big chef who had been with Horace Birdsell in the St. James hotel in its most popular and prosperous days, had prepared a good supper of which the main feature was fried fiddlers, or bull pouts a small catfish of which we got a regular supply at New Boston. Moore was an artist in preparing and serving them.  I placed Colonel Watterson at the head of the table with a lady on either side; However, after he got started on the fish he seemed to forget the ladies-and called twice for more fish.

  While at anchor watching the last of the parade and the fireworks, the Colonel said to me;

  “Captain, you have doubtless read of the great feats at Rome and Venice, and in imagination you have tried to grasp the idea of them.  I have seen them at both places many times and- knowing this is not your show-believe me when I tell I never saw its equal anywhere in Europe.”

 Here’s the Famous Silver Crescent

 This picture shows the Silver Crescent leaving Quincy, ILL. in 1896 it was built at Clinton in 1883 and for many years was a familiar figure in the packet trade on the Upper Mississippi.  In 1910 the Silver Crescent was dismantled and rebuilt into the Blackhawk.


 One of Captain Blair’s Early boats

Matt. F. Allen



Many Round Trips

  In addition to our regular three round trips to Burlington, the Young, during the summer months made round trips to Muscatine, leaving Davenport at 3 p. m. Sunday and returning at 11 p. m. the same day.  These trips were well patronized by our “nice people.” It was a usual thing to serve from 75 to 100 suppers at 50 cents each, which was the customary price then for a good meal anywhere.

  When we bought the Young and put her in the Davenport-Burlington trade we put the Silver Crescent in the Keokuk-Quincy daily trade in charge of S. R. Dolls as master and purser.  He was on her almost continually in that run until 1908, when we replaced her with the Keokuk.  When in 1910 we bought the new Black Hawk, which was equipped with the Silver Crescent’s cabin and engines, Captain Dodds took charge of her.  She plied first in Davenport-Burlington trade, later in the Burlington-Quincy, and last in the Cairo-New Madrid trade until she was lost in the great ice gorge at Paducah, Ky., in January, 1918.  Here she was laid up at the time with the big boats of the Eagle Packet Co., fleet the Grey Eagle, the Spread Eagle, the Alton and the Peoria as well as with the St. Louis Whaleboat and several barges loaded with coal and lumber.

  The Black Hawk was in good company but they could not help her any.  All the boats were crushed and lost.  A fisherman at the mouth of Red River recovered one of the Black Hawk’s life preservers, which was the only bit of salvage.


Collected by Sue Rekkas

and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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