Old Times on the Missouri


THE Missouri River as you see it on on the map is the picture of a stream that has been forever dissatisfied with its channel, and, like a man who chafes under the conditions of his lot, it has a crooked career. It is always traveling sideways by the operation of eating away one of its banks, and thus on one shore or the other it has leveled the landscape as far as eye can see. There is not a season in which it does not succeed in calling the map a liar and teaching a pilot to swear. It takes away a man’s farm, and adds what it pleases to the possessions of the man on the opposite shore, and in a general way does as it pleases, — that is, until it comes to one of Missouri’s rock-ribbed hills in its sideward journey. It bares the hill to the bone, and when it can go no farther it impatiently doubles its speed and hurries along to the end of the obstruction. Then it strikes off and builds prairie until it comes to a range of rock on the other side. It cleans the rocky wall as bare as a Thanksgiving turkey, and leaves it as fiat as the side of a sky-scraper, but often much taller. Thus the lower river is shored with toppling walls and alluvial prairie facing one another, the scene alternating to opposite shores many times in a day’s journey. And every foot of this prairie has at some time been in succession shore and channel of the river. On the down trip the steamer hugs the hills and makes good time as it shoots along in dangerous proximity to the rocky wall, where the channel is deep as well as swift, and where there are no sand-bars. But what with crossing and recrossing to hug the hills alternately the pilot has to know much of the shifty bottom. On the up trip it does not pay to face the swift current next to the rocky wall, so you keep nearer the middle and trust to Providence for a channel. Some time you will strike a sand-bar and stop with a swash and a grind on bottom like “ a rusty nail in monumental mockery.” The black roustabouts put out the spar in front with rope and tackle, and start up the “ doctor ” engine in the bows, and you crawl back foot by foot and work the boat sideways after the manner of pulling the same rusty nail. For half a day the boat is loaded to the hogway with impatience and profanity. I have blushed in my day to know that a country preacher was a passenger on the General Meade.

Few craft now navigate this muddy drain except for short trips between the small towns. When the Pacific railways were built, the long cigar-shaped craft that used to make the twelve-hundredmile trip were thrown out of employment, and sank one by one in the service on the lower river. In ’86 the General Meade had long been the last of the race, and the only true Missouri boat afloat, plying from St. Louis in vast superiority to the little boats of the river towns, and so old that she had become a burlesque on Fate and insurance companies, for the companies have refused to take risks in those waters. Few passengers now know the Lower Missouri. In '86 the steward had occasion to make a few extra bunks in the long line of unused staterooms, and at the old bar over the boilers the captain kept one jug of peach brandy which could be partaken of without cost. If you had taken this route out of St. Louis, I could have assured you of being a distinguished guest. While you were aboard, the steward and Aunt Mary would have pie, — prune pie and mock-apple pie, of dry bread and vinegar, — a marvelous imitation. Thus you would have had an insight of the old days of Indians, and risky woodpiles, and the long Fort Benton trip, of which Aunt Mary was a sole survivor. And while the roustabouts sat along the hogways with tin pans of delicious peach cobbler, the steward would get out his package of corn-starch, preserved for special occasions, and he would prepare for a season of custard pie “ kase dey is a passengah abo’hd.”

The Missouri fleet of long, lithe craft was built during the war of the Rebellion, and especially designed to encounter the dangers of navigation between St. Louis and Fort Benton in Montana. They were built extra long so that the bows could run high on a sand-bar, and yet leave the stern in deep water with a chance to get off immediately by means of the wheel. There was no fancy flummery of storied cabins and jig-sawed woodwork. The boats were intended to carry freight and passengers who were to be pioneers; to take necessities of life to the men at the fort and bring back booty of the plains.

Long before ’86 all the fleet had succumbed to snag and sawyer and the dangers of fire and water. The long trips were a thing of the romantic past. In reaching the Northwest it was first the Oregon trail, then the Missouri fleet, and then the Pacific railways. But for a quarter of a century the General kept on regardless of the proprieties of history or the fact that she ought to sink or burn or blow up. She took farm machinery up river, and on the way down stopped for the piles of wheat sacks wherever a farmer displayed a red shirt on a pole. Whenever she sank it was in medium water, and she was soon at it again in victorious competition with the locomotives that whirled along the banks.

I used to wonder how she kept afloat twenty-five years on these most dangerous of waters, but now I only marvel how a boat could go through a single summer after the manner of the Meade. But I did not worry about the summer at the time. One need not worry on a boat that has run twenty-five years. When you figure on her sinking, there is only one chance in twenty-six for her to go down. And when a boat has gone through all sorts of perils unscathed, one need not worry about taking dangerous chances. So life aboard the Meade went on in a careless and happy manner.

I recall several instances. It was considered dangerous for a boat to turn into the Osage River. One boat had met her fate by turning out of the muddy Missouri and taking into her pumps the clear aguish water of the Osage. The mixture caused the boilers to foam and sent boat and crew to the four winds. The General turned into the Osage every week. On but one occasion were there serious results. It was my duty to fill the water barrels with Missouri water before turning in, and I forgot. Shortly afterward, the boat was laden with chills and fever, in blue shirts and red, from drinking the Osage water. Along the long hog ways of the hull two roustabouts would meet, one going to the warm boilers in the bow, and the other to look with longing eyes on the ice-box in the stern. Thus the crew circulated from stem to stern and stern to stem, always one to get warm and the other to get cool according as they had chills or fever. My excuse to the captain was that I had been giving the steward a lesson in arithmetic when the whistle blew for the Osage, — then the trees of the Osage brushed the smokestacks and it was too late. I did not wonder that the other boat blew up.

And there was the St. Charles bridge, which, according to all logic, should have sent us to the bottom. The current was swift there, and the piers obstructing the channel made it swifter still. Our only competitor — a high-cabin Mississippi boat—managed to make the passage and so did we. A train of freight cars ran off between the outer piers, still more obstructing the channel and increasing the current of the middle piers. As a result our competitor was " stalled ” at a critical moment; the rudder failed to control her as she stood motionless with a full head of steam on; she swung against the masonry and sank.

This obstructed the channel still more. But the General Meade kept on running, and each trip managed to pull past the piers with extra firing. Sometimes when we were almost stalled between those piers, when the “ niggers ” were shoving the cordwood under the boilers, and we were running with forced speed and yet hardly moving, I would ramble astern and covertly take a look at the axle of the wheel. This piece of mechanism — an immense octagonal shaft of wrought iron — had been broken in the old days, and was mended with a ponderous casting clamped on with bolts. The blacksmith at St. Louis used to come down with big wrenches and screw it up whenever it had worked loose during a trip. Sometimes the axle sagged, and as it hung down continuously while the wheel went round, I felt with mechanical insight the grind and wrench in that place that meant something, especially between the piers. But the sweating backs managed to shove in the wood that sent us ahead foot by foot as though they were running a race, —which in fact we were. And in every race with that stone wall the General Meade won.

It was against the laws of our country to steam down the Missouri at nighttime, but the General Meade always ran nights on the down trip. It was by this means that she broke her own record and was presented with a locomotive headlight by the wheat-loving men of the St. Louis elevators. Not only did we ply the Osage, but on one trip with much close steering in the bends we went up to where the trees brushed the smokestacks on both sides, and we came across a farmer who had never heard a steam whistle. Consider for a moment that only one who knows steam power has ever heard this loudest voice of all, and imagine if you can how the noise would inspire an aguish human soul of the quiet woods to its first sensation of boundless power.

And suppose that you who lived in the backwoods with your sallow ’Lize, and who had never heard Barnum’s calliope or seen an elephant or a locomotive, should have this wondrous creation come round the bend and stop all on account of you, and raise its voice to hail you and your pile of wheat sacks, — what would you think about it? The farmer jumped up and down and yelled, “ Toot her agin, boys; toot her agin. My wife ’Lize is sick up to the house, and kain’t come down to see, but if ye ’ll toot her agin fer ’Lize I ’ll give ye a pair o’ deer horns.” Oh, deceitful humanity! The captain knew that John only wanted to hear it again himself. He turned her open on the siren blast, and added the deer horns to the headlight.

Not only did she end the last of her race, but with a part of the old crew in the person of Aunt Mary, the aged darky who helped the steward and baked the jar full of cookies for the spoiled captain whom she “ brung up ” in her slave days. And to him of a later generation than those who ran the Meade to Montana she used to tell the story of the time when the Meade came down from the fort with the smallpox aboard and Indians along the shore, and how she got into St. Louis with most of the crew buried along the Missouri.

Many river boats burn up. There was the queen of the rivers, the beautiful Natchez, — her immaculate white engineroom a triumph of mechanism.

How she used to walk up the current with seemingly no more slip to her paddles than if she were wheeling on land. Yet she (watched and tended like a queen) burned up with her gay passengers.

Not so the Meade. Her sheet-iron stove smoked up the cabin every morning when I made the fire, and the lids were so warped that you could always see without lifting them when to put in more wood. The cook often remarked, as he threw a handful of salt from the pantry into the kitchen so that the exact amount always fell into the soup-pot, that he would not trade it for any stove he ever saw.

The Meade did not burn, neither did she blow up. The corroded bell wire that ran all the length from the towering pilot - house to the engines in the stern, and went around divers corners into unseen places, never broke at a critical moment in all those years. When a roughening wind came, her long hull would bend lithely on the waters ; she seemed to be getting better as time passed. Whenever she sank it was always in shallow water, — merely a sort of delay.

The insurance companies declared those waters unnavigable, in spite of the government snag-boats and the government lights on the whitewashed posts at the bends. Certainly they did not get their statistics from such boats as the General Meade. However, when I left her in ’86 I had a secret idea that her time would soon come. Coming back after a couple of years in the South, I lost track of her. But she had not sunk or come to a violent end ; she had simply disappeared. Lately I made it my business to ascertain what had become of her. She is not only afloat, but bearing on her back much of the cargo that goes down the Mississippi. She has been dismantled of engines and upper works and turned into a wharf-boat at St. Louis.

She now bears as much freight as dozens of other boats, — momentarily wheeled across her immortal buoyancy. During her life many a man who thought he had a fixed home on land has seen his farm eaten away and his house tumbled into the river. But the dangerous abode of the captain on the Missouri stuck like a mortgage on the waters.

The only conclusion I can draw is that it is dangerous to be safe.