Burlington Saturday Evening Post
Capt E. H. Thomas
WHEN MONTROSE WAS A LIVE TOWN
LIGHTERING FREIGHT SHIPMENTS OVER LOWER RAPIDS.
Circus Gangs and Other Bad Men Who Were Beaten Up in the
Attempt to Terrorize the Town.
During my time on the river the rapids at Rock Island and Keokuk were serious
obstructions to navigation. But little work had ever been done to improve the
channel. On a down stream run it was difficult to make all of the short angles
and crooks with a boat, and we frequently bumped the rocks. At a low stage there
was more water on the upper rapids than on the lower one. Before the war R.E.
Lee, then a government engineer, did some work on the lower rapids. For the
greater portion of the distance the channel was along the Illinois shore. Leeís
plan to widen and deepen the channel appeared to have been to take the rock from
the bed of the river and pile it on the west side, and near the channel. The
rock piles were circular in shape and ran up to a peak. This work widened the
channel but it did not increase the depth to any extent. The rock piles appeared to scatter the
water. To throw a portion of it into the channel and a great deal of it to the
west of the stone piles. At a low stage the boats could bring a fair load over
the upper rapids but on the lower one there would be from 15 to 24 inches of
water. At such times the freight from above was transferred to lighters and
manned by oars, these boats were floated to Keokuk. The lighter was a long wide
flat boat which would carry a good load on little water. When there was
sufficient water these lighters were towed back to Montrose by the steamer Dan
Hine. When the Hine could not make the trip the lighters were towed back along
the shore by horses. The steamer Dan Hine was a light draft stern wheel boat,
with good power. Her bottom was of six inch lumber and she could crack the rock
without breaking the plank. However, she wore out three of such bottoms during
the years she operated on the rapids. Capt. Patton was her commander and Robert
Faris her pilot. It was conceded by all that Faris knew more about the lower
rapids then any man.
The transfer of freight at the head of the lower rapids furnished employment
to a large number of men and in those days Montrose was a live town. These
freight handlers were a healthy, well developed bunch of fellows and thorough
believers in the doctrine of home rule. Outsiders were not permitted to
interfere with their ideas and customs. A raft crew landed there one day and
after taking some drink, intimated that they could run the town and paint it
bright red. In this they were mistaken. The war cry of the Montrose legion was
heard and the men from the lumber regions of the north were thoroughly whipped,
driven on to their raft and the raft cut loose and started over the rapids.
A circus gang under the management of one Grady arrived at Montrose one
morning and after loading up with whiskey at Fred Greenís saloon announced that
they were bold, bad men and that they were looking for some of the noted
fighting men of that town. And a few hours later they found them. It so happened
that the writer was present on this occasion and witnessed the entire contest.
Tho. Burns of Montrose, was a trained fighter and had seen much service in the
ring. He passed the word around that the Grady gang must be licked and he led
the attach on the showmen. The tents were all torn down, the circus men severely
punished, driven onto the ferry boat and forced to leave Montrose without giving
a performance. The boss canvas man was so badly disfigured by Burns that he
looked as though he had been run through a corn sheller.
At one time during the progress of the battle I discovered that the air
around my head was full of tent stakes, stones and other missiles and in front
of me I could see the glittering steel of knives and the business end of a
number of guns. As I was not there to be either killed or wounded, I fell back.
The line of battle was moving toward me, and I took a new position behind a
tight board fence, where I could see just as well and be in less danger. I had
learned this much in the Army that when a position could not be held, the thing
to do was to retire or fall back. My reverse movement on this occasion was
strictly in accordance with military science as we had it from Grant and
Sherman. At least this was my defense in after years when Wm. Spain, Wm. Owens,
Steve McBride, Charlie Patton and the rest of them accused me of showing the
white leather on the day they gave the circus gang such a drubbing. These
handlers of freight at the head of the rapids were good fellows when let alone.
The steamboat men had no trouble with them. But it was not a safe proposition
for a non-resident gang to come in there and attempt to run Montrose.
The passengers who congregate around the pilot house of a steamboat are
usually loaded up with questions for the pilot. Among other things the travelers
want to know are the following: The depth of the water? Does the pilot run by a
compass? What is his object in crossing the river so many times? Why does he not
take a straight course and keep it? Why does he toot his whistle when meeting
another boat? Why does the boat go so slow at certain times, etc. On one
occasion I heard an interesting conversation between a passenger and pilot O.M.
Ruby. The pilot answered all the foregoing questions and then the passenger
wanted to know if he would not rather work on a faster boat. (We were going
against the current and a head wind and towing two barges.) Ruby answered this
last question in the negative and said that he would prefer the slow boat for
the reason that it gave him a better opportunity to get acquainted with the
farmers along the