Harry G. Dyer

The Log of Harry G. Dyer: Steamboatman, Upper Mississippi, 1881-1902 Excerpts from Upper Mississippi River Rafting Steamboats Edward G. Mueller, Ohio University Press, 1995.

1885 The DAN THAYER and CLYDE Race

After putting in about three months on the towboat SMOKY CITY towing coal from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, we were forced to lay up in the "Duck's Nest" at the mouth of the Tennessee River at Paducah, Kentucky, March 30, 1885. Low water in the Ohio River was the cause of the lay up. I went over to St. Louis and soon shipped on the BART E. LINEHAN, a Knapp Stout boat, William Slocumb, master; Jack Bradley, second pilot; William Eagan, chief engineer; Bob Scritchfield, second engineer; and George Langdon, mate.

Our work was to meet the other Knapp Stout boats, the LOUISVILLE, HELEN MAR, and MENOMONIE, take their rafts, and go to St. Louis while they went back after another. Captain Slocumb had more experience on the "lower end" and was better acquainted with the St. Louis landing than the other Knapp Stout pilots. Mr. Langdon wasn't a mate, he just thought he was. He wouldn't ship a steamboat man if he could get anyone else. At one time we had a crew of two "rivermen," my partner, Dick White, and myself, and five men out of a St. Louis rolling mill. Nice crew, all friends of the mate, but when he tried to make Dick and I do their work, he had trouble.

One trip we had to take four strings of lumber down to Crystal City, Missouri, where there was a big plate glass factory a short distance up Crystal. We delivered the lumber and were "taking off the kit." I was coiling down the check line and Langdon came along and said, "When you get that check line coiled down, straighten up those breast lines." When I got the check line coiled down, Dick said, "Let's go up to the glass factory a few minutes," that he knew some fellows up there. The captain and clerk had gone up, so we went. When we got back, I went back on the guards and was washing out one of the skiffs that was pulled up on the guards. Langdon was sitting on the bits on the forecastle and motioned to me to come out there. I went out and he said, "I told you to coil those breast lines and you went off and paid no attention to it." I said, "I supposed he had men that knew enough to coil down a breast line besides me." He said, "I'll fix you, you " and grabbed a sharp axe out of the rack and came at me and if there was ever murder in a man's eye, it was in his. I was scared stiff and thought it was all up with yours truly, but he tripped on the breast line and pitched forward. I don't know how I did it, but I grabbed him by the throat and shoved him back onto the stairs and I hit him right on the bridge of his nose.

As soon as I got him down, two of his rolling mills boys jumped on my back. An "old-timer" named Kelley came along just then, picked up the axe and said, "Hang on to his wind, Harry, he'll squeal if you let up, and if one of you rolling mill yaps put a hand in this, I'll cut him in two." I pounded him until I was tired and left him laying there on the stairs. The captain came aboard and there wasn't a man in sight. He looked at Langdon lying there on the stairs. Never asked a question and went up and "backed her out." Langdon finally came to and told me I had better get off the boat and right now, but Dick White told him to go up and get his gun and he would shoot it off for him.

I got off when we arrived in St. Louis and went to work the next day for Captain Slocumb's nephew on the Knapp Stout landing. The Knapp Stout boats all laid up Sundays and sometimes when we were going up river and happened to be forty or fifty miles from some town where some of the crew lived, we would run a few hours overtime so they could have a Sunday at home. One Sunday we laid at Canton, Missouri. Both engineers lived there, also the watchman. That day engineer Eagan's tenyear-old son had supper on the boat. We had a cook that summer from the lower river where he had been a packet cook. Every case like this when one of the crew brought a friend aboard at meal time, that meal went down in the cook's little black book. I don't know how Captain Slocumb heard of it, but one day we were lying at St. Louis all ready to go up the river and John H. Douglas, Secretary of the Knapp Stout Company, came down to the boat. Captain Slocumb went out on the bank and walked up to him and said, "Mr. Douglas, I don't care whether I go up in the doghouse and back that boat out or not, but that cook and I don't go out on the same boat." They didn't, but Captain Slocumb wasn't the one that got off.

Fourth of July I found myself in Keokuk, Iowa, and a few days after that I shipped on the steamer DAN THAYER owned by the P. S. Davidson Lumber Company, LaCrosse, Wisconsin. I. H. Short was captain; Chas. Short, second pilot; Chas. Burrell, chief engineer; Jas. Ferguson, second engineer; Dave Judson, mate. While on this boat I was in the hottest race I was ever in on any steamboat. The THAYER came out a new boat in the fall of 1884. That same fall, Turner and Hollingshead brought out the steamer CLYDE. This company also owned two other boats, the ABNER GILE and the LILY TURNER, and was towing lumber to Hannibal, Missouri. The THAYER was towing logs to Keokuk, Iowa.

In the spring of 1885, all the talk on the river was of the race that was to be run between the DAN THAYER and the CLYDE and the chances for and against each boat. Finally, the time came. The THA YER was on her way up the river and we met the CLYDE going down with a raft at the foot of Nine Mile Island, below Dubuque. A short time before, perhaps an hour, we had passed the ABNER GILE, also on her way upstream. Captain Short knew that the CLYDE would turn her raft over to the GILE as they had been doing so all that season. We went on up the river and landed at Hurricane Island, eighteen miles above Dubuque, and pretended to cut windlass poles, really to wait for the CLYDE. We didn't have long to wait and Short let her go by and then pulled out after her. Before we caught up with her, the CLYDE landed and they claimed afterward that she "blew out a joint" on her steam line. We went on up the river and at Glen Haven, Wisconsin, rang down to a slow bell. Then, with our wheel barely rolling, we proceeded to get ready for what was to come. In a short time, the CLYDE came up alongside and her captain, Jerry Turner, went up and took the wheel, leaned out of the pilot house window and said, "Now come on Short, I am ready for you." When he ran the THAYER off the slow bell, it seemed to me that she jumped about one hundred feet before she hit the water again.

For about ten miles, it was nip and tuck, but the CLYDE was on the larboard side and on the crossing below Clayton, Iowa, she got a little behind and got into our stern swells and could not get alongside again. I looked at the steam gauge in the firebox and it read 265 pounds, then I went back to the engine room. Engineer Burrell stood there with his hand on the throttle valve and he said, "Harry, get out on the sharp end, she is liable to come back in here any time." His steam gauge showed 275 pounds. We were allowed 165 pounds! At McGregor, Iowa, we were about three miles ahead and we had to land. Our "doctor," or boiler feed pump, wasn't putting any water into the boilers and about half of our wheel had been thrown off. When we got to LaCrosse, Captain Short hurried to the office of the LaCrosse paper with his account of the race and I'll bet that my partner and I pulled a skiff one hundred miles on our next trip taking a copy of the paper ashore to show to his friends. Our next trip up the river he brought the paper down and had me wrap a lump of coal up in it. Then he said he would "run in close at Port Byron, Illinois, and for me to throw it ashore, where, a particular friend would get it but I guess I only had one thickness of paper on one side of the coal. I threw so hard the coal went ashore and the paper dropped in the river. Short was a good pilot, but he spoiled it by always telling how good he was.

We landed in Clinton, Iowa, one day on our way up the river and he said we would be there about two hours. I went uptown to mail a letter and was gone about one-half hour, but when I did get back, the boat was making the crossing below Lyons and I didn't have a coat, vest, or a cent and had to "railroad" to LaCrosse. Nice man. He was one of a family of five brothers, all pilots; Jerome E., Allen M., George C., Chas. M., and Ira H., better known as "Windy," all good pilots and all have made "their last landing." There were three of us left at Clinton and it took us two days to "brush the bumpers" and then had to nearly have a fight with Mr. Holmes, the secretary of the company, to get our money and then didn't get it all but if they were satisfied, we were. We balanced the books.

I was in LaCrosse one day and then shipped on the good steamer DEXTER owned by McDonald Brothers, LaCrosse, Wisconsin. John O'Connor was captain; George Nichols, second pilot; John Orait, chief engineer; Chas. Davidson, second engineer; and John Mills, mate. Our towing was logs to Quincy, Illinois and Hannibal, Missouri. It was getting late in the season, but I think I made three trips on the DEXTER and to this day I can't tell how she was kept afloat.

She was built at Osceola, Wisconsin, in 1867 and was dismantled at LaCrosse, Wisconsin, in 1888 and twenty-one years is a long life for a Mississippi raft boat with no more repairs than the DEXTER got. She came into LaCrosse late in 1888. Her kit was taken off and she was taken up into Black River to McDonald's boat yard and thirty-seven minutes later she was sitting on the bottom of Black River. The steam had gone down and the siphons had quit and "Old Faithful" was at rest. Peter O'Rourke, James Newcomb, Bony Lucas, Andy Lambert, and "Lome Short" are some of the pilots who did good work with the DEXTER and Jack Orait, James, and Henry Tully, Joseph, and Frank Dillon were some of her engineers. Peace to her ashes.