IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
From the Burlington Saturday Evening Post,
Transcribed by Georgeann McClure
Picturesque scenes on the Mississippi when it was a great highway of travel sailed by many splendid packets, as described by veteran steamboat man. The sumptuous meals with which passengers were regaled, at a lowness of cost which now seems incredible. Something about historic characters of the river and adventures which befell them. The old time Negro roustabouts, who have vanished along with famous steamers.
In the article, which follows, C. M. Berkley tells about the palmy days of steamboating on the Mississippi River. For 43 years his business life was connected with the river, and his picture of a vanished era is drawn from his own personal recollections. Mr. Berkley is secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis and Memphis Transportation Company.
One of the most interesting features of the article is the actual menu, which was served aboard one of those floating palaces of the old river days, a side-wheel packet. Such a banquet probably could not be prepared now, but $10 a plate would be a conservative estimate of its cost. And the passengers on that steamer ate as much as they wanted, and paid, it is estimated about 30 cents for it.
C. M. Berkley, in the St. Louis Dispatch
A trip on one of those palatial side-wheel passenger steamers was indeed a pleasure. The vessel would be crowded with the very best people of St. Louis and with cotton and sugar planters going to New Orleans. At 5 p. m. the excitement attending the scene reached its climax as the last packages were being stored away, the mate finished shipping up his crew of 50 or 60 roustabouts and the cabin was a lively scene as the well-dressed passengers scrambled with the first clerk for the best rooms.
Steward and cabin boys rushed about their work of setting the full-length table for the first supper out of port, while on the boiler deck, happy and excited passengers stood along the rail bidding good-bye to friends who came to bid them bon voyage. From below came the voices of roustabouts as they shot boxes of meant weighing 600 pounds or barrels of pork down the elevator to the hold. The roustabouts above would cant, “Look out below!” in a singsong manner, and the answer would come back, “Let your marble roll.” When the decks were cleared, the captain on the forward hurricane deck would give the order to “Let go”, and as the heavily laden boat slowly swung out into midstream the roustabouts would gather forward and sing a departing Negro melody.
The first supper over and the long table removed, the boat’s band, composed of Negro cabin boys, and would entertain the dancers. Some passengers would play at cards; others enjoy the moonlight on the outer deck. Thus, amidst new scenes, the steamer passed Cairo, Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez and Baton Rouge.
As the boat dropped downstream, taking on and putting off freight at many landings, the interest of the trip increased continuously. Here one would begin to smell the scent of the sweet magnolia or orange blossoms, or on a moonlit night could listen to the mocking birds.
After a delightful day the traveler would retire to his berth, and there be lulled to sleep by the purring of the tiller rope through the sheaves or the gentle splash of the big side-wheels.
Today there is not a steamboat operating out of St. Louis except the Cape Girardeau packet and the Tennessee River boat. Verily the steamboat men’s “occupation is gone.”
It may, however, be seen what an important factor in developing the commercial interest of the Mississippi Valley was the steamboat in early days.
Boats that plied the Mississippi and its tributaries, draining an area of 2,000 square miles (and there were hundreds of steamers, including regular packets for the Illinois, the Missouri, the Ohio, the Tennessee, the White, the Arkansas, the Red and the Ouachita rivers, and the bayous in Louisiana), have all passed away except for the Illinois and the Tennessee boats. There is now a much better channel in the river than existed 30 years ago, and with an increased population why could not boats be operated to good advantage? On May 17, 1849, 23 steamboats and their cargoes were destroyed by fire at St. Louis. Photos of these may be seen in the collection of the Missouri Historical Society at Jefferson Memorial.
In early days a Missouri River steamboat could be built for $60,000 to $70,000, and they often made the cost of construction in one trip to the mountains (an expression used by steamboat men.) Pilots were paid from $1500 to $2500 a year, and they spent it lavishly while the boat was in port.
The old steamboat captains, pilots, and clerks were prominent members of the Merchants Exchange.
Herewith is printed a copy of a bill of fare served on the steamer Monarch of the Cincinnati, Memphis and New Orleans Union Line.
Oyster a la Pleussy
Beef, Pork, Pig, Mutton
Turkey, Chuck Veal, Chicken.
Scallop of Chicken with Mushrooms & Green Corn, … of Oyster a La Buchmer.
Tendons of Veal a La Dumpling and Green Peas.
Fillets of Pork with Mushroom Sauce.
Mutton Garnished with New Potatoes
Vegetables of the Season.
Mutton, Country Ham, Corned Beef
Turkey, Tongue, Chicken
Radishes, Oyster Catsup, Green Onions
Spanish Olives, Worcestershire Sauce
John Bull Sauce, Lettuce, Chow-Chow
French Mustard, Raw Tomatoes, Chives
Horseradish, Cucumbers, Shrimp Paste,
Cold Slaw, Celery, Pickles,
Pate Chaud of Pige a La Chausieur
Teal Duck Braised a La Mandeira
Pies-Apple, Whortleberry, Peach, Cherry,
Gooseberry, and Mince.
Cabinet Pudding, Custard Sauce, Lemon Ice Cream, Russian Cream, Apple Tarts with Quince Macaroons, Jelly Pie Ornaments, Boiled Custard, Apple Meringues, Naples Biscuits,
Boston Cream Cake, Orange Jelly.
This bill of fare was not unusual, as all the boats in those days served about the same. To think that such a meal cost the passenger only about 30 cents! For about one-half of the total fare paid by a passenger went for his meals, and the average price of the banquet tabulated here-with, and similar spreads, was about three dimes.
Cooks from steamboats were sought by all first-class hotels, because the service on the packets in those days could not be obtained at any hotel in the land. Besides three fine meals a day, they served 4 o’clock coffee and cake and a mid-night lunch. The Anchor Line consumer 21 days on a round trip to New Orleans, the fare was $36, including meals and berth. Today (1924) a boat like the ones they used, giving a similar service, would charge $100, and get it.
The steamer Grand Republic was the largest and finest boat on the river. She was owned by Capt. William H. Thorwegan and cost $325,000. She could not be duplicated now for less than a million. Capt. Thorwegan also owned the bars on 60 steamboats, from which he derived a net revenue of $1500 per day.
In the early ‘70’s, the Russian Grand Duke Alexis and his retinue chartered the steamer Grand Republic to make the trip to New Orleans, but before the boat could be brought to St. Louis she went aground and Capt. Thorwegan was forced to charter the steamer James Howard at Memphis. On the latter boat the visitors were taken to New Orleans and were to have paid $1500 for the trip. They were entertained royally. Amongst the party were several women whom the Grand Duke had invited to make the trip. There was full supply of champagne and other liquors and the best brands of cigars. Every delicacy in season and out had been prepared for them.
All went well until the boat passed Baton Rouge, when it was intimated to Capt. Thorwegan that he could expect trouble in collecting his charter. Armed with a revolver, he approached the Grand Duke and demanded his charter. After hot words were exchanged he succeeded in collecting $5000, with the promise to pay the balance when the boat arrived in new Orleans, but the captain had to attach all their baggage before he could effect a settlement in full. A few years later, Capt. Thorwegan had as a passenger, Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil, from New Orleans to St. Louis, on the steamer Grand Republic. Dom Pedro was a very likeable man, simple in his ways and taste. The captain and he became lifelong friends.
A boat would arrive at St. Louis from New Orleans with a cargo of from six to eight hundred tons of freight, unload and reload 1600 tons in one day, then depart for New Orleans, a trip of 1250 miles, and make from 100 to 200 landings. Those were times when the officers and crew had to stand watch for three days and night without sleep and when the second clerks, meeting at either end of the route, would argue which boat had the longest and prettiest freight manifest.
There was much gambling on the river in those days, and the play was for high stakes. Southern planters often wagering their slaves and sometimes winning or losing an entire cotton crop. Surrounded by such an environment, it is no wonder that the steamboatmen fell into such an environment, it is no wonder that the steamboatmen fell into the same habits. One captain tells me he won $40,000 at one sitting and lost $43,000 at another, in New Orleans.
From 1870 to 1885, the St. Louis and St. Paul Packet Co. owned and operated 16 side-wheel boats between St. Louis and St. Paul. These boats are very popular and maintained a daily service from St. Louis and St. Paul, carrying a very large number of passengers. They had the most beautiful scenery on the Upper Mississippi, for between Dubuque and St. Paul; the river is dotted with numerous islands. The scenery of Lake Pepin, 30 mile long and six wide, has often been said to surpass that of the Hudson River.
One of the characters among early steamboatmen was “Old Bill” Henderson, an Upper Mississippi River steward. Bill’s boat, one year, was the last of the season from St. Paul. She did not reach St. Louis, having to lay up at Alton on account of heavy running ice. She arrived at Alton about 10 p. m., and the crew got the St. Louis newspapers, wherein Henderson read that the banking firm of Page & Bacon had failed the day before. In this bank were deposited all his life’s savings.
“Old Bill” armed himself with a butcher-knife and started to walk to St. Louis, there being no train scheduled for the next 24 hours. He crossed the river on ice at St. Louis, completing his trip at 3 a. m. At the bank he found the front door locked, but saw two large covered trucks at he side door, which he proceeded to investigate and found that all the cash was being taken away. He walked into the bank, locked the door, put the keys in his pocket, drew his butcher knife and demanded his money or their lives.
It is needless to say that he was paid all his money, in gold, and he wrapped it in a bandana handkerchief. As he left the bank, he had to pass a grating on the sidewalk, He slipped and the bandana and the gold dropped into the grating. It was still early in the morning; so he laid down to await the porter who arrived in due time and found Bill asleep. Upon telling his story to the porter he was allowed to gather his small fortune and carry it away with him.
Among the veteran steamboatmen on the Missouri river was Capt. Massie, who owned and commanded a number of steamboats, and knew many thrilling stories, which showed some of the dangers with which the early steambaotmen had to contend.
“It was in the late 40’s,” said Captain Massie, “that I was going up the Missouri and was hailed by another boat, coming down. We stopped and the pilot told me to keep a lookout in the vicinity of Tobacco Point for an engineer of their boat. I don’t remember his name now, but they said he had left the boat with a man with a gun to go hunting, and had either gotten lost or been killed by Indians.”
“The engineer’s boat had whistled and whistled, but during a wait of five hours he failed to show up. As we approached Tobacco Point, I heard the discharge of a rifle, apparently near the top of a rock bluff, and looking up, I saw the smoke from the shot. On looking again, I saw a man and realized that he was the missing engineer.”
“He was nearly starved, his clothes were torn and he was generally dilapidated from his experiences in the two days. I took him to the cookhouse, told the cook to give him some food and while he was eating he told me of what had happened on the night previous.”
“He knew that the country was full of wolves and other animals and had to protect himself from them as well as from the Indians. He had but one round of ammunition, and intended to save that to shoot himself, rather than to fall into the hands of the Indians and be scalped. To protect himself, he sought a ledge of rock near the top of a precipitous bluff. As soon as night came on the wolves gathered about the bluff. They could not get to him, but they stayed about, howling at him at night.”
“About daylight he saw the shadow of something on the bluff and looking up, discovered a grizzly bear a few feet above his head. The bear could not get down to him but there he was, with the bear above and the wolves below. As day dawned, the wolves slunk away, one at a time, but the bear remained on guard until he fired the shot to attract our attention on the boat.”
Another experience related by Capt. Massie a few years ago was as follows:
“It was in 1861. We were on the way down the Missouri River on the steamer Spread Eagle and stopped at Old Fort Pierre, an American Fur Co. Post. The Indians were numerous. They came on board and asked to see Charles P. Chouteau, the head of the fur company. They squatted around in the cabin and one of the chiefs lit his pipe and handed it to everybody to smoke. When all had puffed he began to speak.
“He told Mr. Chouteau that the fur company had been hunting and collecting furs for a long time and was getting rich off his country, and people, and he wanted Mr. Chouteau to make him a present. Mr. Chouteau asked what he wanted and he said some fat meat, hard bread, sugar, coffee, powder and lead. Mr. Chouteau told him that the trader at the post had plenty of all such things and that the Indians could take their furs there and exchange them. But this would not do.
“They got insolent and made demands. They put a guard on the line, so that no one could let the boat go. One of the Indians, showing too much friendship for the whites, was shot down by the guard. They held the boat there until we rolled out what they wanted, but for a time they looked squally.”
Capt. Massie also related that he was often forced to lay his boat at the bank until a herd of buffalo has swum across the river. The crew would shoot one or two of the big animals and haul the carcasses aboard, which would mean fresh meat the rest of the journey. When they ran short of ice he would land against a bluff bar and send his roustabouts ashore to dig for ice that had been buried in the sand since the previous winter.
Another veteran steamboatman was Capt. Dozier, father of the late “Bud Dozier, who owned the steamer Rowena in the Missouri River at a time when frontiersmen were bad. One of them named Tibbs, headed a gang of outlaws who held up the steamer, taking from the clerk of the boat, Ross Powell, something like $5,000. While Tibbs, was sticking it in his overcoat pocket, Capt. Dozier appeared on the scene and invited Tibbs and his party to take a drink at the Boat’s bar. The invitation was accepted and as they were drinking, Capt. Dozier slipped one of the $20 dollar bills out of the package.
The highwaymen then requested the captain to land the boat and put them ashore, after which the steamer proceeded up the river.
Three years afterwards Capt. Dozier met Tibbs at the corner of Fourth and Pine streets, in St. Louis. He introduced himself something like this. “Your name is Tibbs, I believe. You robbed one of my boats.” Tibbs, thereupon placed his hand upon his hip pocket and answered” “I robbed so damned many boats, which one was yours?” Capt. Dozier replied that he just wanted to take Tibbs across the street to the “Hole in the Wall” and buy him a drink.
Tibbs consented, and whilst they were drinking Capt. Dozier told about getting the money out of Tibbs pocket and said he owed the latter $20, which he insisted on Tibbs taking. As Tibbs was “dead broke” just then, he accepted the offer with profused thanks.
With the passing of the side-wheel steamboat, the old-time roustabout has gone, with his ginger bread tucked between his skin and undershirt on a hot day, at which he would nibble as he ‘toted” a 300 pound oil cake or helped raise a 600 pound cask of bacon to the top of Port Hickey or Port Danger, as the “rouster” would say, against a slipping bank. It was hard work and long hours, which none but a superman could stand, but the steamboat roustabout did his share of the heaviest work to be found anywhere and at the end of a 21 day trip he would “shoot craps” until the boat blew her whistle for New Orleans or St. Louis. Then he was “broke” and would ship up on another trip. Always a happy and always original, he was an endless source of diversion to the passengers.
In the year 1888, when there was much rivalry between the Anchor Line boats as to which was the faster, the City of Monroe (on which boat the writer was chief purser) and the City of Cairo had been testing their speed between Natchez and ‘Vicksburg. The City of Monroe beat the City of Cairo’s time and the rustabouts immediately improvised a characteristic song, the first verse of which was:
The City of Cairo is a pretty big gun,
But lemme tell you what the Monroe done,
She left Natchez at half past one,
And rolled into Vicksburg at the setting sun.
You have often heard that the pilot should know every foot of the river, on both banks, on the darkest night, as he knows his home. Not only this, but he should be familiar with every landing and there are 2,555 landings between St. Louis and New Orleans, 1250 miles. He should know every sand bar, every snag and every crossing.
To illustrate, Joseph E. McCullough, who could drive a spike with a steamboat, was pilot on a packet boat that took aboard a passenger from his hunting camp, situated in the thickly wooded district of southeast Missouri. The passenger soon discovered that he had forgotten his eyeglasses, which were lying on a log at the camp. In distress, he made his way to the pilothouse and asked Captain McCullough what he should do.
“Why,” said McCullough, “I will pick them up for you on the up trip, without landing the boat, but it will be after midnight.” So that night the passenger went back to the pilothouse. It was so dark he could not see his hand in front of his face, but pilot McCullough blew a short landing whistle and threw out his searchlight at the landing, where he saw the glasses on the log, looking as big as the boat’s headlight.
Having been connected with every steamboat company whose headquarters were in St. Louis and having steamboated from St. Paul to New Orleans on the Mississippi River, and on the Illinois, Missouri, Red, Ohio, and Tennessee Rivers, I have known many steamboatmen. I am glad to count myself one of those soldiers of commerce in up building of the Mississippi Valley, 95 per cent of who have died, but whose efforts have been noted.
The river, which, during the past 20 years has undergone a naval holiday, will before another generation, become the biggest asset of the country.