"On the River"
Davenport Democrat and Leader
March 29, 1931
By Capt. Walter A. Blair
THE COLUMBIA WAS BROUGHT HERE IN YEAR 1905
It was in the year 1905 that Capt
Blair bought the steamer Columbia of
C. H. Young and brought her to
Davenport. She was introduced and converted
into a combination packet and
CAPT. W. BLAIR RECALLS BOATS OF
Four Burned in a Row
Fire Started on the Rafter Saturn Spread to Other Steamers
HELEN BLAIR-ONE OF MOST
There was no more popular or
better known boat in this community than the
Helen Blair owned and operated by
Capt. Blair. For many years it was
engaged hereabouts in the packet and
In January 1889,
Frederich Dant, a merchant of Muscatine, was made vice president of
the Carnival City Packet Co. all the other officers were re-elected
and no changes were made in the board.
During the winter of 1898-99 we bought the
rafter Volunteer, then on the Le Claire ways. We extended the cabin
until she had 18 good staterooms, made other additions and a few
changes and when she came out in the spring she had cost us a little
over $9,000. She ran the season of 1899 alternating with the Young
every other day, giving daily service to Burlington which was both
satisfactory and profitable.
In the early spring of 1900 we started the
Young first. The Volunteer and our fine excursion barge Comfort had
lain that winter in the Kahlke Bros. harbor at the west end of Sixth
Avenue. Rock Island.
I had sent for Capt. D. W. Wishered to
bring his crew and get the Volunteer ready when a fire starting on
the rafter Saturn spread to the other steamers and completely
destroyed the Saturn, the Volunteer, the Moscobbe and the Comfort.
This was a loss of property that had just cost us $11,000. Although
we received $8,000 insurance, which softened the blow somewhat, we
could not replace the Volunteer and lost the season’s use of her.
The Young, on the run to Burlington, and the Silver Crescent, in the
Keokuk-Quincy trade, put in a long season that year-1900
Urania is Purchased
In midsummer, 1901, we bought the Urania of
Capt. William Bay, of Ironton, O. He turned the craft over to me
upon arrival in Cincinnati on a regular trip, competing with the
fine big sidewheeler Indiana. The Urania was only three years old
and had just reputation for speed on the upper Ohio. She was in
good repair, completely equipped and ready to leave for her new
homeport as soon as coaled.
On this trip to Cincinnati I had taken
Spence Burtnett, my engineer, with me. I kept part of the old
crew that wanted to come around on her. We stopped two days at
Paducah, Ky., to make some changes in her furnace to better suit her
for the fuel we would have to burn on the upper Mississippi. These
changes would have helped her whatever she burned.
Mrs. Blair went with me on this trip to get
the Urania. The weather was hot. Crossing Illinois and Indiana we
saw the corn curled up by the hot sun much of it never recovered.
During the days we lay at Paducah the temperature ranged from 103 to
107 degrees. We were glad to get under way when we headed up the
Into Service; Then fire.
We arrived at Burlington at 11; 30 p. m. July
25, and the next day left at 3 p. m. to ply alternate days with the
Young. We did some business on the way up and were given a nice
reception by our stockholders, patrons and friends when we landed at
Davenport on the night of July 26, 1901, at 11 o’clock.
The Urania had a nicely remodeled oak hull
161x29x5 feet. She was 21 feet longer and one foot wider than the
Young. She had a good texas, a fine plot wheel and the most musical
whistle on the river.
The engines were large, being 18 inches in
diameter with a five foot stroke, and she drew only 30 inches of
water. The dry, hot weather was in our favor and we did an
excellent business-until one evening (Thursday, Sept, 5) as were
preparing to leave Muscatine, fire broke out in the laundry system.
Rebuilt as Helen Blair
I think the chambermaid must have spilled a
quantity of gasoline, as our hose lines had no effect. I called the
Muscatine fire department, to hall our passengers and their baggage
ashore, and while the cabin, texas and pilot house were burned we
saved all below, the cabin floor-or the “boiler deck,” as it is
We took her to Kahlke’s yard to Rock Island
and when rebuilt she came out better than ever. This was in the
spring of 1902, She was renamed the Helen Blair and had the
prettiest cabin I ever saw on a small steamer like her.
I was in charge of the Helen Blair on her
tri-weekly run to Burlington and the W. J. Young, running alternate
days, was in charge of Leonard Suiter with Bert Lovett
as pilot. I had great confidence in these two young graduates of my
“school” and they fully sustained it by their excellent work.
Sells Young; Buys Columbia
In June 1903, we sold the Young to a company
in Louisville, KY. That used her in excursion work until she burned
In March 1905, we bought the Columbia of C.
H. Young, of Clinton, IA. The Columbia was almost new and somewhat
larger than the Helen Blair, her engines being 14 inches with a six
foot stroke. She had been running out of St. Louis on a local trade
route but had been laid up at Paducah, Ky. for the winter. We
removed 10 forward staterooms and fitted her up for a combination
packet and excursion boat. She fitted the plan excellently.
Capt. S. R. Dodds of Davenport was in
charge of her from the day we bought her in Paducah. He
superintended the work down there, brought her home and ran her all
season in excursion work between here and Quincy.
Honor Chief Keokuk
In the summer of 1907 we bought the old rafter
Musser, which had been put on the ways of Samuel Peters and Son of
Wabasha, Minn. We took over the contract made by her former owner,
Governor Van Sant, of Minnesota, for a new and larger hull. The
Musser had excellent engines and boilers: the cabin was easily
repaired and extended to suit our purpose. She was near enough
finished to pass inspection and come to Davenport in November. We
named her the “Keokuk”- for the Indian chief, not the town.
In October of the same year we had bought the
Eloise, which had been running between Burlington and Keokuk,
connecting at the end of her run with our boats. We saw more
advantage in owning this connecting link ourselves. After repairing
and repainting the Eloise she was renamed the Winona.
Early in the season of 1909 we took the
Silver Crescent to the Peters yard in Wabasha for a new and larger
hull and when she came out the next spring she was renamed the Black
1909 Biggest Year
The peak in the life of our little company
was reached in 1909. That year we carried 114,857 passengers and
16,896 tons of freight. Our five boats were laid up for the winter
in the harbor at Rockingham.
The next year was different. It was a year
of extremely low water. Fred L. Howe was in charge of the
Helen Blair with John Monroe as purser. On July 13 she left
Davenport and Rock Island with a good load of freight and passengers
and sank at Rockingham after hitting a rock right in the middle of
the channel. The rock had been missed by the engineers who marked
out the new channel for us. The water was not deep where she
rested. We took off the freight that evening with the Winona and a
barge, and also carried to their destination what passengers had not
been transferred to train. It cost our company nearly $5,000 to
raise and repair the Helen Blair.
One cold night in October 1910, the Winona
hit something and had to be run ashore below Pontoosac where she
settled in good shape with a little water on her deck and in the
engine room. She was easily raised and finished the season.
Conditions began changing against us just
when we had gotten into good shape to handle the business and give
good service between Davenport, Rock Island, Muscatine, Burlington,
Fort Madison, Keokuk, and Quincy and-by connection with other
The Muscatine N. & S. to Burlington and the
Rock Island Southern Electric (which are now only memories), lasted
long enough to hurt us badly and kill a daily service. We had a
fine business with Muscatine, although the Rock Island and Milwaukee
railroads had nine passenger trains each way a day to and from the
Tri-Cities. The freight service was also good and the rates low,
but the interurban from her to Muscatine hit us a hard blow.
Winona Other Boats Sold
In October we sold the Winona to a man in
Caruthersville, Mo. For $4,500 and delivered her to St. Louis. At
that time she had already had a checkered career, but I still
hustling down around Cairo.
In January 1912, we sold the Columbia to
Capt. H. F. Mehl of Peoria Ill. For $14,500, which was nearly
what she had cost us seven years before. Capt. Mehl spent a lot of
money on her and made a lot of money out of her, and she finally
ended up in a tragedy which cost the lives of 89 passengers. It was
not due to any weakness or fault of the boat. The poor pilot lost
his mind and Captain Mehl his good boat for want of a little care
The Helen Blair did not abandon the
Burlington trade until October 1919, when we sold her to a company
in Memphis, Tenn., where she burned lying at the levee the following
Only One Left in 1919
As the Black Hawk had been lost in the great
ice gorge in January 1918, we had only the Keokuk left. She was
doing well in the Burlington Keokuk-Quincy trade and was in charge
of Capt. Hugh McKenzie. The seasons of 1920 and 1921 were
not only our best years in that trade, but also the best years for
any one of our boats in any trade at any time during the 32 years of
Along then the paved roads were being
completed between our best towns. With trucks and busses coming
against us, the Keokuk lost money in 1923 and we laid her up and
advertised her for sale.
Those who stayed at the trade longer than we
did fared worse. Only a short time ago the Louisville and
Cincinnati Packet Co. went into bankruptcy owing a lot of money and
with only $22.80 in the treasury. It was the oldest line on western
rivers and had a continuous existence for more than 100 years. It
had owned and operated many fine steamers in its day and had paid
good dividends. But the hard roads and trucks and busses got them
as they did the others-all victims of evolution in transportation.
Columbia Goes “Special”
In September, 1907, John Sagle of Keokuk
chartered the Columbia to carry a large party of friends in the
Roosevelt “parade” from Keokuk to Memphis, Tenn. Governor Van Sant
of Minnesota, his wife, and Mrs. Blair were with me-the Van Sants
only to Keokuk and Mrs. Blair to St. Louis, where I turned the
Columbia over to Capt. William Dipple, who could stand a
pilot’s watch to Memphis.
During the exercise preceding the start from
Keokuk governor Van Sant insisted upon presenting me to President
Roosevelt at a favorable time, and since then I have been very glad
that I had that opportunity.
The Helen Blair made several long special
trips away from Davenport. One was to Pittsburg, Pa; two thru the
Cumberland River to Nashville and Celina, Tenn. two to Riverton,
Ala., on the Tennessee River; one to Clarendon, Ark., on the White
river, several to St. Paul and Stillwater, Minn., and the last one
to New Orleans, in October 1916.
In this last trip we picked up a snag that
give us a bad scare. It was a remarkable accident. It tore away 60
feet of the guards on all three decks on one side-main deck, boiler
deck and rook deck-making a great crashing noise but doing no harm
to the hull or cabin. This occurred at 3 a. m. when three miles
above Helena, Ark.
The same night the big stacker Lee sank to
her pilot house six miles above Memphis, and the large side-wheeler
Cape Girardeau sank in deep water in Okan chute above Chester. We
viewed these wrecks with real interest and also with gratitude for
our own good fortune.
Record of 32 years
During the 22 years of
our company’s service between Davenport, Rock Island, Burlington and
Quincy with nine different boats we carried a total of 1,758,607
And 320,869 tons of merchandise as freight
without losing or injuring a single passenger and with scarcely any
loss or damage to freight.
During this time there were very few changes
in our board of directors. As stated before, Major Marks succeeded
Captain Bryson in 1894; F. W. Smith succeeded F. W. Downs in 1896.
Also, George Bechtel took the place of Capt. August Reimers in 1909
and L. M. Marks that of his father in 1911.
In 1920, after the passing of Frank W. Smith,
his place was taken by Alex Naeckel, and when L. M. Fisher was
called in 1921 his chair was taken by T. F. Halligan. The same
year, J. B. Phillips was elected to succeed L. M. Marks who had
These men were all pleasant and sensible
associates in business and I will always prize their friendships and
J. B. Phillips was the secretary from 1892
until the dissolution of the Carnival City Packet Co. In 1926, I
have much to remember of his kindness and loyalty during these
years. In concluding this sketch of the Carnival Packet Co. I wish
to emphasize my appreciation of some of our personnel who were so
loyal and faithful and strove earnestly to help carry out our plans
and please all our patrons and co-operate with me.
Captain Dodds, H. E. Swanson, Harry Mangan,
Le Grand Morehouse, Capt. William Dipple, Capt. Hugh
McKenzie, Perry Pettit, Stewart Lyman, Capt. Parm Lancaster,
Frank Kitchen, Henry Alford, and the engineers, James Stedman,
the Burtnett boys, Edward Wright, William Shoels and John
Kerkering-all earned my confidence and affection and gave me the
best they had in them, and I hope that I gave them some
encouragement while we were working together.
Cooks and Watchman, too
And I do not forget some of the good cooks we
had, like Charlie Moore, John McClung, Fred Foy and
Mrs. Spicer-of whose meals we never tired. And I remember too,
some of our faithful watchman who kept awake and guarded us- boat,
passengers, crew and cargo-while we slept, and then had us all up at
the right time to proceed in the morning. Charles Vogel was
my “old reliable” for many years. He never failed us. (Some times
and at some places he had his troubles but he took care of them.)
I liked our boats and took a pride and a
pleasure in keeping them in good shape. It was hard to give them up
but it would have been foolish to stay in a game that was surely
doomed to defeat.