Pioneer Days On The Mississippi
By S. W. Mc Master

The first steamboat that landed at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, was the Virginia, Captain Crawford, in 1823. She was one hundred and eighteen feet long and twenty-two feet wide. At that early day the conveying of supplies to the forts on the upper Mississippi was about all the traffic there was. During the few years immediately following the arrival of the Virginia there was but one boat a year. The Neville came in 1824; the Putnam in 1825; the Lawrence in 1826; the Fulton in 1827; the Eclipse in 1828, and the Black Rover in 1829. The Red Rover, Captain Thochmorton, made her first appearance in the Galena trade in 1830. The master of this boat built and commanded the Warrior in 1832 and participated in the Black Hawk war at the battle of Bad Ax. He always carried on his boat two four-pounders. His passenger cabin was a keelboat towed along-side. He was a genial man and a great favorite with all the officers at the forts. Captain Thochmorton also built and commanded a number of other boats during his long career as a steamboat officer. The last craft he commanded was a government boat, the Barnard, some time during the seventies.

The steamers Josephine, Captain J. Clark ; and the Missouri Fulton, Captain Culver, were in the St. Louis and Galena trade in 1828 and 1829. In 1836 the Missouri Fulton, Captain Orrin Smith; and the Frontier, Captain Smith Harris, came up. The latter craft was built for the Rock River trade. The Palmyra, Captain Cole, also arrived bearing a pleasure party of some thirty ladies and gentlemen, and there was the St. Peter, Captain Thochmorton, with a party of St. Louis ladies, and the Rolla, bringing a delegation of the Sioux Indians on their way back from Washington, where they had made a treaty by which the valley of the St. Croix was opened to the whites.

From 1836 there were steamers passing up and down the river almost daily, taking sup-plies for the various small towns below Galena and Dubuque. The boats that were in the trade between Galena and Fort Snelling in 1837 were the Palmyra, Dubuque, Gipsy, Pavillion, Emerald, Wyoming, Olive Branch, Ariel, Heroine, Rolla, Burlington, Galena and Irene. The boats during that season were the Dubuque, Rolla, Emerald and Heroine. The steamer Brazil in 1841 was sunk on the Rock Island rapids.

Between the latter date and 1847, a large number of boats were engaged in the trade between St. Louis and Galena. Among them were the Ione, Captain LeRoy Dodge; St. Croix, Captain Hiram Bersie; War Eagle Captain Smith Harris; Falcon, Captain L. Morehouse; Rock River, Count A. Harasky; Monona, Captain E. H. Glevin; and Iowa, Captain D. B. Morehouse. In 1847 the Argo, Captain William Lodewick, started as a regular packet between Galena and Fort Snelling. Captain Ludewick was an uncle of Mrs. Bailey and Mrs. Boyle, of Rock Island. In 1848 he was in command of the Dr. Franklin with Captain Russell Blakely, my old-time friend, as clerk. The Franklin was the first boat belonging to the Galena and Minnesota Packet Company. Most of the stockholders in this company were Galenans. This steamer, the Franklin, was the nucleus from which grew the fleet of the Galena and St. Paul Packet Company, the first organized steam-boat company on the upper Mississippi, which in after years became one of the most powerful. companies on the great river, bringing out from year to year as the trade increased, many new and finely built boats.

In 1854, when the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad reached the river here a big excursion was run, bringing some 1,200 eastern men, including many prominent statesmen and newspaper men, and the Minnesota Packet Company met them at the Rock Island wharf with the steamers Golden Era, Captain Hiram Bercie; G. W. Sparhawk, Captain L. Morehouse; War Eagle, Captain Harris, and the Galena, Captain D. B. Morehouse. On .these magnificent packets about 1,000 of the excursionists took a free ride to St. Paul. During the trip the stage of water was good and at times the boats would be lashed together in pairs so that the passengers could pass from one to the other. Taken all together this affair was most far-reaching in its effect in bringing to the notice of prominent eastern men the vast possibilities of the north. This magnificent excursion has never been equalled in size and results in the history of the river. A vast tide of emigration soon afterward began setting westward.

The Galena and Minnesota Packet Company was at the summit of its career from 1856 to 1860. It had a fine and large fleet of boats running at that time. Two daily lines of packets were run from Galena, a daily from St. Louis to St. Paul, a daily to Rock Island and a daily between the upper and lower rapids.

In 1857 Captain Davidson organized another line of steamers to run on the upper river. This line ultimately was to swallow up and destroy in the end all others except the Diamond Jo Company, which still exists. This was known as the White Collar line. During this year the St. Louis and St. Paul steamboat men decided to inaugurate a daily service by running in rotation with the Canada, Captain James Ward; W. L. Ewing, Captain M. Green; Denmark, Captain Dick Gray; Metropolitan, Captain T. B. Rhodes; Pembona, Captain Thomas H. Griffith; Northerner, Captain P. Alford, and Lucy May, Captain J. B. Rhodes. Along in the early sixties these different boats were united under the ownership of a stock company, and the Henry Clay, Captain Charles Stephenson, was taken in. There were then more boats on the Mississippi River plying to and from St. Paul than ever before or since, some ninety-five in all. I might give the names but that would require too much space.

From 1856 to 1860 there was a very large amount of excursion travel coming from New Orleans and St. Louis to the cool shady retreats found around the lakes near St. Paul, many of the excursionists staying two or three months. Often the .boats would have their upper guards piled full of trunks. At night after eleven o'clock the cabin floors would be filled with cots. From eight to ten the colored cabin boys would get out their violins and dancing would be indulged in. With good boats, attentive and obliging officers and good table fare the time passed pleasantly. No hurry, no care, beautiful scenery all the way, particularly along the banks of the upper river. How many happy hours I have passed in this way on the many trips I have taken since I first came west.

The Keokuk and McClure line which plied between St. Louis and Keokuk, united with the Northern line. After Davidson had wrecked the lines on the upper river and after the death of John McClure this line was left to be sold. Davidson bought it, thus acquiring control of the old reliable Northern" line and of all the steamboat interests on the river. The holders of a majority of the stock in the Northern line applied for a receiver to manage the business. Davidson was compelled to fight for his property. This took so long that the cost of the litigation left him with little of value. The business was ruined, his health was broken, the commerce of the North line was destroyed and the remnants of what had been a grand industry in building up the commerce of the northwest was no more.

From 1846 to 1863 I was actively engaged in business in Galena. Later I bought wheat, flour and corn along the river in large amounts and shipped to St. Louis. . In connection with my business I necessarily traveled often on the river between St. Louis and St. Paul, and became well acquainted with many of the prominent captains and clerks and other officers of the boats. I was a stockholder in the Northern line, also a director and stock-holder in the Galena and Minnesota Packet Company.

Among the river men I knew I desire to especially mention Captain Russell Blakeley, of Galena and St. Paul, and say that I am indebted to him for much of the information presented, which has been gleaned from a pamphlet he read before the Minnesota Historical society in 1.898. He was a prominent citizen of St. Paul for many years. Two years ago he died. The title of the pamphlet he wrote is "The History of the Discovery of the Mississippi River and the Advent of Commerce in Minnesota."

Before closing this sketch of steam boating on the upper river in the olden times I would mention a few of the men I knew best. . Among them were Captain Orrin Smith of the Brazil and Nomonee, Captain S. D. Harris of the War Eagle and Gray Eagle, Captain Hiram Bersie of the St. Croix, Golden Era and Northern Light, Captain W. H. Gabbart of the Sucker State, Captain James Ward of the Metropolitan, and Captains Thomas Buford, T. B. Rhodes and John W. Rhodes. Among the clerks was Daniel V. Dawley, who filled this position for over fifty years (I knew him first in 1838 as clerk on an Ohio River boat, the W. W. Wells, and afterward in that position on the Sucker State) ; George R. Melville, Robert Melville and George C. Brish.

But few of these old-time friends are left. I know of only Captains Bennett of Moline, Captain Thomas Buford of Rock Island, Captain W. H. Gabbart of Davenport, and Captain John Rhodes of Savanna.

When I look back over the sixty-nine years I have passed on the upper Mississippi and think of the marvelous changes that have taken place in the great northwestern country, I feel that, if years were reckoned by the changes that have occurred during this time, I might well be two centuries of age.

 

Early Settlements of Rock Island County 

 

Source: Historic Rock Island County, pub. Kramer & Company, Rock Island, Illinois, 1908

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