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"On the River"


Davenport Democrat and Leader

January 25, 1931


 By Capt. Walter A. Blair





The Diamond Jo was an excellent steamboat, 165 ½ by 32 by 4.  She had a fine cabin and Texas.  Built on the Wisconsin River in 1863 for Diamond Jo Reynolds.  Capt. William Fleming supervised her construction and served as her master.  Charles W. Cowles was clerk.  She ran between Fulton

and Burlington for five years until the “Josephine” took her trade and her crew.  Then the Diamond Jo, in charge of Capt. Bob Isherwood was put in the St. Louis-St. Paul trade. She was dismantled at Dubuque in 1883.


“Diamond Jo” Reynolds and His Line of Steamers

Was for Many Years the Most Picturesque Figure on Mississippi



Diamond Jo

      Joseph Reynolds was born in Fallsburg N. Y., in June 1819, of Quaker parents.  He received a common school education and began his business career at 17 as a drover and butcher.  He bought Cattle, sheep and hogs, killed and dressed them and them peddled the meat to farmers and in the surrounding villages.

    Later he and his brother, Isaac, opened a general store in Rockland N. Y., and not long after he married Mary E. Morton of that place.  With the backing of his father-in-law he built flour and feed mill, and later he added a tannery to his expanding business, which was fairly profitable.

    About 1856 Mr. Reynolds sold out all his interests in Rockland and came out to Chicago, and soon began buying hides and furs in the northwest.

    In order to avoid confusion he adopted a trade mark to be used in marking and shipping his bales of furs, a very simple one consisting of the letters Jo enclosed by four short straight lines, joined in the form of a diamond, and one which anyone could make and anyone would read-“Diamond Jo.”  Later, when he began buying wheat, he had all his sacks marked -Stolen From Diamond Jo.”  As he never sold any sacks, he and his agents and employees could and did claim all sacks bearing his trademarks. 


Moves to McGregor


     Some time in 1860 Mr. Reynolds sold out his business in Chicago, and moved to McGregor, Ia., where he lived for many years in the substantial brick home close to the steamboat landing.  He bought grain at Lansing, Ia. and DeSoto, Ferryville and Lynxville, Wis., shipping it to Prairie du Chien, Wis., where it was transferred to the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad.

    There was no railroad paralleling the river on either side then but during the open season shippers on the upper part of the river had service by the Galena, Dubuque, Dunlieth and Minnesota Packet company that was operating 12 fine steamers the Grey Eagle, Milwaukee, Northern Light, Itaska, Key City, War Eagle, Ocean Wave, Northern Belle, Golden Era, Keokuk, Fanny Harris and Alhambria.

    The Northern line, operating between St. Louis and St. Paul, had the steamers Northerner, Canada, Metropolitan, Sucker State, Pembina, W. L. Ewing, and Hawkeye State.

    But even with all these large steamers running regularly over or thru his section, Mr. Reynolds did not get a satisfactory service.  His shipments were often left at the landings and he felt impelled to help himself. So in 1862 he had built for his use a small sternwheeler, which he named the Lansing, that carried his grain and handled some outside business.

    Before the end of the season the Minnesota Packet Company bought the Lansing, promising to take good care of Mr. Reynolds business.


Finds Promises Broken


    Before long, however, Mr. Reynolds found these promises continually broken and he then had a much larger boat built of excellent Wisconsin Oak.  She was 165 feet long, 32 feet beam, and had a nice cabin and texas.  To advertise and identify her with himself and his business he wisely named her “Diamond Jo,” and her homeport was McGregor IA.

    This excellent steamboat had a long, useful and profitable career, the last few years of which she ran between Fulton, Ill. And Burlington, Ia., in charge of Captain Ben Congar, with Andrew Coleman of Davenport and H. S. Ruby of Buffalo as her pilots.  John Carlisle and George Dodge, clerks, Moses Mullen of Davenport, mate, and Los Record and Henry Alford of Davenport, stewards.

    In 1867 Mr. Reynolds bought the Propeller, John C. Gault, to tow grain barges. In 1868 he bought the Ida Fulton, chartered the lady Pike to handle his growing grain business, and he made a traffic arrangement with the Northwestern railroad by which his line got a large carriage of merchandise freight from that road at Fulton to points up to St. Paul and down to Burlington.

    While Mr. Reynolds built many new barges in these years he did not build any more new steamboats until 1878, but by judicious purchases, during those years he added the Imperial, Josie, Arkansas and Tidal Wave to his fleet.  With these light draft steamers of good power and plenty of barges he was able to handle a lot of grain and merchandise and to run at a profit in the usual low water season after harvest, when the big side wheel packets hail to run at a loss or lay up just when the grain crop should move.





Made Big Money


     It was nothing unusual for the Imperial or Josie to arrive at Fulton with eight barges carrying a cargo of 100,000 bushels of wheat, to be run thru the elevator into Northwestern cars for Chicago, and for the Josie, in charge of Captain John Killeen to show as high as $50,000 net earnings per season.

     In 1874 the general office of the Diamond Jo line was established at Dubuque, and the shipyard at Eagle Point, just above town, was put in shape to handle all their own and any outside work in repairing and building.

     The general office in the front of the second floor of a large, three-story building at the Dubuque landing or waterfront.  The “Boat Store,” on the first floor and the fear of the second, carried a large stock of supplies of all kinds for steamboats and rafts, while the third floor was the “Ship Chandlery and Sail Loft” where tarpaulins and rigging were made up and carried there was also a coal yard to supply fuel to their own boats and others.  John McGee, father of Captain Con McGee of Davenport, was in charge of the coal yard.  He was a bright sociable and very popular “Son of Erin,” who could always give us the latest river news and gossip to entertain the customer captain while the crew hurried on the coal.

     One reason, in fact the main reason, why the Diamond Jo boat store and the coal yard were so well patronized by the dozens of raft boats that were steady customers, was that they all knew or soon learned that all Diamond Jo business was done on the square, there given good quality, full weight and measure, and the linesman sent ashore in a skiff got it at just the same price as the captain, clerk or owner would have paid.

     In the spring of 1878 the Josephine came out new from the Diamond Jo yard at Eagle Point and took the place of the old Diamond Jo in the run, between Fulton and Burlington, Capt. Ben Congar and some of his crew from the old boat were on the new and pretty Josephine.  J. L. Carver and “Little Jim” Davenport; were her engineers.  They carried her hot and she soon acquired a reputation for speed.  Washington Hight and Dick Stevens were her pilots, both fine gentlemen and both regular rapids pilots.

     The season of 1878 was dry and the river was very low in the fall. Fortunately the Diamond Jo line had sold the Arkansas and the Tidal Wave to the Davidsons for their Yellowstone expedition, and following the new Josephine, which came out in April, they bought out the Libbie Conger in September with Captain John Killeen and his old crew of the Josie on her.  The Libbie was very light, had a very handsome cabin, well furnished and she enjoyed a nice profitable business form the start. 

      The Josie and Josephine were a little smaller than the Helen Blair, which was a very popular Davenport and Burlington tri-weekly packet from 1902 to September 1919.  The Diamond Jo and Libbie Conger were slightly larger than the Helen Blair.

      This line, in 1880, built and brought out the Mary Morton, a much larger boat, for the St. Louis and St. Paul trade, which had been extended by the Josephine and Libbie Conger in 1879.


Buys Two Boats


      In 1881 Mr. Reynolds made two remarkably fine purchases on the Ohio river-the Sidney and the Pittsburg-both almost new and admirably adapted to the upper Mississippi as they were of light draft, had excellent passenger accommodations, and were much larger than even the Mary Morton.  The Pittsburg was very fast and after making several records left the Ohio River with the reputation of being the fastest sternwheeler that Ohio River yards ever turned out.  She maintained her reputation when in the upper Mississippi, Captain Killeen knew just how to load and trim her so she would handle and run well, and his favorite pilots, Levi Williams and Stephen Dolson hold her in the best water, steering by hand. 

      The Pittsburg was 256 feet long, 40 feet in beam, and had engine 22-inch diameter, by seven-foot stroke.  She would go thru Moline, Duck Creek and Smith’s Chains on the rapids in low water on a slow bell without hesitation when we had trouble getting thru with some of our rafters.

      Diamond Jo never had bars on his boats when all the others had them.  He discouraged drinking and gambling and set a good example himself.  With those officers who would occasionally “step over” he was patient and forgiving.  He paid good wages to good men, provided well, and gave steady employment for long seasons, and it was considered an honor to have a berth in his line.

    Mr. Reynolds had a son born in 1860. Blake Reynolds was greatly interested in his father’s mining interests in Colorado and Arizona, but he was not very strong and died in 1885,


Seldom seen in Public


      Mr. Reynolds kept a close rein on his steamboat business, but even by sight. There was a mystery and charm about this man, Diamond Jo, who was doing so much business on and along the river yet seldom, appeared himself.

      I never saw him but once.  That was on the Mary Morton when she was leaving Dubuque (where she was built) on her maiden trip to St. Louis. The cabin was crowded with nicely dressed people, passengers who were going and friends to see them off.  Diamond Jo in hi shirtsleeves, and with hammer, chisel and plane, was quietly working on the stateroom doors that bound on the top or bottom.  He was fond of tools and enjoyed using them when he had a chance.

      When Mr. Reynolds began steamboating back in the late “sixties” Commodore Davidson and his brother, Peyton, had control of nearly all the steamers on the upper Mississippi.  They advised Mr. Reynolds to stick to his grain business and leave steamboating to those who knew something about it.  I think this talk aroused all the fire, energy and ambition Mr. Reynolds had in him for he made great strides in the next decade. And by 1890 all of his competitors had faded out of the game and the Diamond Jo line was supreme on the upper Mississippi.



Built on the Ohio River, dimensions 225 by 36 by 5 ½.  Engines 17 by 5 ½. 

Three boilers.  Light on fuel, light draft and a fine handler, until the line was sold to the Streckfus Company in 1910. 

The Streckfus people converted her into a first class excursion steamer.  Dismantled in 1921




Collected by Sue Rekkas

and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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