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The Old Des Moines Rapids Canal

Now Buried Under Flood Waters of the Big Dam…Story of its Construction told by a Participant in the Work.

Capt. F. A. Whitney
Centerville , Iowa

Saturday Evening Post
Burlington, Iowa

Chapter I
February 2, 1924
In the spring of 1871, I left Burlington , Iowa , for Keokuk where the canal was being constructed around the Des Moines rapids which lies between Keokuk and Montrose. Dull and Williams had the contract to work out an appropriation of $350,000. Mr. James J. Dull was from Pittsburg, Pa., and Mr. George Williams from Keokuk, Iowa; Andrew J. Whitney, Superintendent, James Freu, Master mechanic , Michael Cahill, Superintendent of Excavation, John Braheny, Assistant.

The work was laid off in sections or pits, Rock excavation pits, at Price’s Creek and Ballinger extending to Nashville . The dirt pits were at Price’s Creek and Rickey’s Point-the outside embankment then under construction was nine miles long. A four-foot gauge railroad tract was built on the whole length of the embankment, also each pit had its track and switches. There were four locomotives on the job, named as track switches. There were four locomotives on the job, named as follows: General Wilson, J. Edgar Thompson, James Dull and the George Williams. The first three locomotives were built in Pittsburgh , Pa. , and the fourth one was built on the canal at the Sandusky shops. There were about 300 flat or rock cars and 200 dump cars in use. All the rock was excavated with hand drill and blasted with black powder, the steam or air drill had not come into use at that time. The dirt was first plowed, using horses hitched to the plow sometimes taking eight or ten horses. After plowing the dirt, it was loaded into dump cars by men with shovels-two men to a car. The steam shovel had not come into use at that time.

At Sandusky there was a shop for the locomotives-a machine shop blacksmith and car shops, at which all the cars were built and repaired. There were 200 men used in the dirt pits and 350 to 400 men in the quarries and 75 mechanics and railroad men in the rail- road department. At each rock pit there was a portable steam engine to do the pumping and keep the water out so the men could work.

There were three locks built on this canal, one at Keokuk and one at Price’s Creek and one at Nashville, now called Galland. These locks were constructed of cut stone, which was quarried out across the river at Sonora, Ill. by Patterson and Timberman and loaded onto barges and towed by the steamer Cricket, whose captain was Charles Gillespie, to the stone yards at Nashville and Price’s Creek, where they were cut and were handled by derrick when being put in place on the lock bottom. There was a steam hoisting engine that took care of two derricks, one on each side of the lock. As this work was carried on by government appropriations, sometimes there was delay in getting money to carry on the work. Therefore, it took a number of years to complete the work.

Chapter II
February 9, 1924
The construction of the canal carried on by appropriations made by the government under the river and harbor Bill, and the work let on contract to the lowest bidder. Dull and Williams were the successful bidders, except once when Kittle and Middleton got a large contract and had to furnish all new track and equipment with two locomotives. They constructed a three-foot gauge, a narrow track.

During the time when Dull and Williams had the works, there were very few accidents causing the loss of life. Only one instance I remember of and that was a man by the name of Wm. Dugan who was thrown into the canal and drowned when a car turned over when they were dumping a train of dirt. The head foreman or walking boss, Michael Cahill, lost a leg when a number of cars running down a grade struck a car he was pushing and crushed his knee. He recovered, and with crutches he continued to work until the job was finished.

There were three accidents that happened on the railroad. J. Edgar Thompson dropped a crown sheet when pulling thirty-five dump cars of dirt up the grade from the dirt pit. No one was seriously hurt, of which only a few minor burns suffered by the engineer and fireman. Wallace Hovey was the engineer, and Henry Leiscaring the fireman.

The next one was when an engineer by the name of Holbrook for Dull, was backing up with a train of forty rock cars, jumped the track and backed down the embankment to the edge of the river. No one was hurt, and afterwards a track was laid down to the engine and with two locomotives one pulling up the track and he other one pulling down the track, coupled up to block and tackle five stone block the dull was pulled up and taken to the Sandusky shops for repairs.

The last and biggest wreck when the George Williams, Edward Johnson, engineer, and F. A. Whitney, fireman, jumped the track, turned over, and landed wheels up in the air on the river edge. The tank went out into the water and only one corner of it could be seen. Like the other accidents, no one was hurt, as the engineer jumped from the engine when she left the track. The fireman went with the engine into the river being about swim to shore unhurt. This accident was caused by the track giving away on one side. The track had been raised about five hundred feet. The train was moving about six miles per hour, but the blocking was not strong enough and giving away, caused the wreck. This engine was turned back on its wheels and a track built under it and like the Dull, pulled out and taken to Sandusky shops for repairs.

Where the accident happened, just below Rickey’s station, there was a gang of section men working. When fireman Whitney reached the shore, one of the men, an Irishman, by the name of Ward, came up to him and said “Sure a man born to be hung never drowned.” Some consolation for a poor wet firman.

When Kittle and Middleton got the contract, Dull and Williams had taken a contract on the Mussel shoals canal on the Tennessee , and they moved all their locomotives, cars, derricks, pumping engines, tracks and other equipment to Florence , Alabama , ready to begin work on the Mussel Shoals.

Chapter III
February 16, 1924
The construction of the old Des Moines rapids canal was carried on by contract until the excavation, embankment, and lock were completed. After the main gates and sluice gates were in place, the locks were ready for the installation of machinery. The gates were opened and closed by hydraulic or water pressure and the pumping engines for this service were built by McEleroy and Arsmitage in their shops at Keokuk , Iowa . These engines, one of reach of the three locks, were of new design, nicely finished and highly polished. The engineers who operated his engines took great pride in keeping them nice and clean and there was quite a rivalry among them as to who would keep his engine, boiler, and engine house the neatest and best. At the time I knew them best, Mr. Thomas Hartley was engineer at the lower lock, Jack Russe at the middle lock, and Tom Harrington at the guard lock. The first two have gone to their long rest and Mr. Harrington is still living and employed by the government as engineer on the great locks at Keokuk, at the water power dam.

In a few years after the canal was in operation it was found there were places where the depth of water was getting low, caused by sand and mud being washed into the canal from the Price’s Creek above the middle lock, Lemoile Creek at Sandusky and a creek at Ballingers just below the guard lock. This mud was removed by dredge boats, loaded into dump boats and towed out into the river. The work was done sometimes by the government and sometimes by contract. At first the government used the old steamboat Hiram Price, named the No. 4. Then Capt A. J. Whitney had a contract and used the dredges Lowell and Hercules, and steamboats A. J. Whitney, Edith and Penguin.

Then the government again took up the job of keeping the canal clean, using a big Osgood dredge and the steamer Vixen: the dredging of the canal was a heavy expense, and some of this was taken care of by building a set of sluice gates in the outside embankment at Sandusky and during heavy rains and floods of the Lemoile Creek, the sluice gates were raised and this let a great deal of sand and mud flow out through sluices into the river.

During the life of the canal, a great many packets, tow boats, and raft bots passed through, from both north and south, all passing safely and with little delay. I don’t recall any accident ever happening to a steamboat as the rules governing the canal were so well made by Major M. Meigs, who had charge of the canal. If obeyed there could nothing happen. A call of four blasts of a steamboat whistle called for a lock, which was promptly made ready, and a signal given to enter.

Like the great dam at Keokuk, the canal was something every one wanted to see, and take a ride thru the locks and canal. There were many excursion boats and large packets made the trip and while the boat was looking through, many of the passengers would get off on the lock wall, visit the engine room and watch how those great gates could be opened and closed. The canal made a good winter harbor for boats and quite a fleet of boats and barges laid there winters at Keokuk. The canal was constructed for the purpose of getting steamboats over the rapids and surely was a great help and well patronized. But this wasn’t all this great canal was used for and in the next issue will tell of the rafting days.

Chapter IV
February 23, 1924
At the head of the canal at Nashville and up the river as far as Montrose there were several chains of rock which had to be removed before the canal could be used. The smaller patches were drilled, blasted and dredged out. At Montrose there was a long, wide, flat ledge of rock in the channel almost a mile long. This was removed by the government form a large coffer dam which was built around the whole chain from deep water to deep water. The rock was all drilled with hand drillers, three men to a drill, one man sitting on a keg holding he drill and two other men striking he drill with a three pound hammer. There was a railroad track laid down through the pit and up on the dump and two locomotives and fifty oars leased form Dull & Williams to do the work. Captain Anderson had charge, and there were about three hundred men employed, requiring about four months to complete the work. During that time Montrose was about the liveliest town on the river. All of these improvements being completed, the canal was opened up in grand style, with bands playing and flags flying on steamboats as they were gong through the canal.

Rafting days
During the ten years, from 1880 to 1890, the rafting business was at its peak. There were twenty-four raft boats towing rafts to down-river points below the rapids. When the stage of water was four feet, they could tow over the rapids one half a raft or about eight string wide at a trip. The rafts always had to be divided into two pieces to enable them to pass through the draw of the Keokuk Bridge .

In the year of 1889, Captains R. S. Owen and Sam Speake of Montrose bought the steamer Prescott to help get the rafts over the rapids. This was done by the Prescott going up the river and meeting the rafts. The big boat was moved over and the Prescott took the other half. The raft was then split in two pieces, the big boat going on ahead and the Prescott following with the other half. This enabled them to get a whole raft over at the some time, which was a saving for the lumber companies.

The rafting business growing more and more and the rafts getting deeper and longer, in 1884 Captains R. S. Owens, Sam Speake, Thomas Peel and F. A. Whitney built the steamer Park Bluff, a much longer and more powerful boat than the Prescott . This boat was built by the Kahlke Bros. at Rock Island . The engines and boilers were built at the Mc Elroy & Amnitage machine shop at Keokuk , Iowa . This was a very light draft and successful boat and was used in helping rafts over the rapids. When the water got so low that a raft could not be run on the outside, the Park Bluff was used as a tow boat and helped steer the rafts down through the crooked channel from Montrose to the guard lock at Nashville . This was done by the raft being cut into two pieces, the large boat attached to the stern of the raft and the Park Bluff attached across the bow. Capt. Owen or Speake would pilot the raft from the big boat and by signals, whistle to the tow boat. One blast of the whistle meant pull to the right, and the same signal also meant to stop. Two blasts signaled a pull to the left. This manner of handling rafts proved to be very good and were thus handled that way for ten years. The pilots had become so skilled and perfect in handling these large rafts over the rapids and into the canal that there was never a loss of life or serious accident.

When the water was at a low stage, both gates at the guard lock stood open. This was quite convenient as all boats could pass thru without stopping.

Chapter V
On all the rock piles between Nashville and Montrose, also at the guard lock there were lights placed in position and these lights burned from sunset to sunrise, as a signal to pilots where there was danger to navigation. Elihu Cooper and Wm. Kock of Montrose , Iowa , were tenders of these lights for many years, and were well known and well liked by all the pilots on the river.

The steamboats could safely go to the canal and through it day or night. But all log or lumber rafts cold be handled only in daylight to avoid danger of breaking up or loosening logs or lumber. The way to avoid danger of breaking up or loosening logs or lumber. The way of towing a raft through the canal was done by first landing the whole raft of sixteen strings wide at Montrose. The large boat was moved over onto the outside piece of eight string wide, and the steamer Prescott was fastened across the bow of this eight string piece. The raft was then divided and started on its way by the skillful handling over the rapids by pilots Sam Speake and R. S. Owen. When they reached the guard lock, the Prescott was removed from across the bow and was turned lengthways so as to pull the raft through the guard lock as both gates were wide open. In this position, one boat pushing and the other one pulling the raft was towed abut seven miles to the middle lock at Price’s Creek. Here the raft was first landed. The Prescott was then locked through to the lower level to be ready to pull out the pieces of the raft as they were locked through. The next operation was to cut the raft up into sections about seventy feet wide and there hundred feet long, as these pieces were sometimes towed and at other times pulled into the lock by men using a steam capstan and lines. It took about one half a day to lock an eight string piece through both the middle and lower lock. As these several pieces were locked thru, they were towed along the shore below the lock and made up ready to be towed on to the lower lock where the same manner had to be gone through as at the middle lock. After the raft was through the bridge at Keokuk it was landed below the elevator there, to stay until the other half could be brought through. This way of rafting below Keokuk, at points such as Quincy, Hannibal, etc., was a slow process and quite expensive, but it was the only way to keep the great lumber interests moving in those stirring times of the eighties.

During the rafting days through the old canal, Major M. Meigs of Keokuk was in charge. John Carpenter and James Cody were lock masters at the Keokuk lock, Nick McKenzie lock master at the middle lock and Capt. Joe Farris was lock master at the guard lock. These men stood very high in the esteem of the owners, masters and pilots of the rafts, and men who used the canal. It was due to their kindness, service and generosity, and the able assistance they gave that enabled the lumbermen to get the millions of feet of lumber that was brought down the Mississippi to its destination. Those years and days of rafting are like the old saying, “Those days are gone forever.”

As the great dam at Keokuk was completed and ready to turn on its mighty electrical power, and when the wickets were closed, the great river above the dam began to rise and became deeper and deeper until in a few days the locks, sluices, embankment and walls wee all submerged and out of sight, ever to remain conquered subject to that great power electricity.

Chapter VI
Final Installment
When the grand old canal was hid underneath the waters of Lake Cooper , now called Lake Keokuk I believe, the whole country was changed and one traveling along its shore can hardly realize the great changes that were made.

The swift flowing river between Montrose and Keokuk where the water tumbled and eddied along over the several chains of rocks, is now a great wide deep lake, and when during a storm its white-capped waves roll high. At Sandusky station where the railroad bridge was located, also the depot and the old Page Dodge Store and many garden plots that were there are all covered with water and the great C. B. & Q. R. R. had to pull up its bed and retreat farther back from the water. The depot is now located in the yard of the Carter place. At Price’s Creek or the middle lock, great changes have been constructed a great lock equal to the Panama book on that great canal, and a dry dock that can take in the largest river boats for repairs or new ones to be built. There is a new, and well equipped office and machine shop, forge shop and carpenter shop, adjacent to the dry dock. On the outside or river side of the great lock lies the power house of the large and wonderful dam.

Although the old canal has gone and the rafting days are over, by the great lock at Keokuk all excursion boats, tow boats or packets can be locked through with safety and dispatched. Major Meigs still has charge and his able assistants, Wm. Huele and Tom Harrington manipulate those great gates, which enable the boats to go on their way. With the great improvements the government has made on the Mississippi Valley Water Way , the Mississippi river, it should be taken advantage of by packets plying between St. Louis and St. Paul .

This story of the old Des Moines Rapids Canal is written as I saw some of those old days and as its memories come back tome once more. I hope the readers of these several articles were pleased and interested and I hope someone may write his story as he remembers those old canal days.


Transcribed by Georgeann McClure


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