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"On the River"


Davenport Democrat and Leader

March 29, 1931


 By Capt. Walter A. Blair



    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 excursion boat.


 Four Burned in a Row

Fire Started on the Rafter Saturn Spread to Other Steamers


  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 excursion trade.

    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 Mississippi.

 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 called.

  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 1907

  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 Hawk.  

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.

 Conditions Change

   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 boats-St. Louis.

  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 and caution.

  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 May.

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 our operations.

  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.

 Remarkable Accident

   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 passengers.

   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 moved away.

 Associate Remembered 

These men were all pleasant and sensible associates in business and I will always prize their friendships and their memories.

  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.


Collected by Sue Rekkas

and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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