Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Old Times on the Upper Mississippi

Old Times on the Upper Mississippi: Recollections of a Steamboat Pilot from 1854 to 1863

Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 326
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Old Times on the Upper Mississippi
    Book Description:

    George Byron Merrick chronicles the entire panorama of steamboat life he experienced in the mid-1800s, where he started as a cabin boy and worked up to cub pilot on the mighty Mississippi. Originally published in 1909, Merrick’s narrative matches lively stories about gamblers, shipwrecks, and steamboat races with rich descriptions of river life and steamboat operations. Fesler-Lampert Minnesota Heritage Series

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9364-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-12)
  3. Prelude
    (pp. 13-14)
    G. B. M.

    The majesty and glory of the Great River have departed;its glamour remains, fresh and undying, in the memories of those who,with mind’s eye, still can see it as it was a half-century ago. Its majesty was apparent in the mighty flood which then flowed throughout the season, scarcely diminished by the summer heat; its glory, in the great commerce which floated upon its bosom, the beginnings of mighty commonwealths yet to be. Its glamour is that indefinable witchery with which memory clothes the commonplace of long ago, transfiguring the labors, cares, responsibilities, and dangers of steamboat life as it really...

  4. Chapter I Early Impressions
    (pp. 15-19)

    Descent from an ancestry whose members built and sailed Ships from Salem, Newburyport, and Nantucket two hundred years ago, and even down to the early days of the nineteenth century, ought to give an hereditary bias toward a sailor’s life, on waters either salt or fresh. A score-and-a-half of men of my name have “died with their boots on” at sea, from the port of Nantucket alone. They went for whales, and the whales got them. Perhaps their fate should have discouraged the sea-going instinct, but perversely it had the opposite effect. A hundred men are lost out of Gloucester...

  5. Chapter II Indians, Dugouts, and Wolves
    (pp. 20-28)

    In that early day when my acquaintance with the Mississippi began, Indians were numerous. Their dugouts lay at the levee by the dozen, the hunters retailing the ducks and geese, or venison and bear meat, which had fallen to their guns, while the squaws peddled catfish and pickerel that had been ensnared on the hooks and lines of the women and children of the party.

    Situated as Prescott was at the junction of the St. Croix with the Mississippi, its citizens were favored with visits both from the Chippewa, who hunted and fished along the former stream and its tributaries...

  6. Chapter III On the Levee at Prescott
    (pp. 29-37)

    When we first knew it, Prescott was in many respects a typical river town. But in one, it differed from all others with the possible exception of Wacouta and Reed’s Landing. “Towing through” had not then been inaugurated. The great rafts of logs and lumber from Stillwater and the upper St. Croix, were pushed to Prescott by towboats from Stillwater, at the head of the lake. From there to Lake Pepin they drifted. They were again pushed through that lake by other boats, and from Reed’s Landing, at the foot of the lake, drifted to their destination at Winona, La...

  7. Chapter IV In the Engine-room
    (pp. 38-45)

    Before leaving the main deck, with its savory scents of scorching oil, escaping steam, and soft-coal gas, let me describe some of the sights, sounds, and activities which impressed themselves upon the memory of the young “cub” during his brief career as an embryo engineer.

    The engine-room crew of a Mississippi steamer varies as the boat is a side-wheeler or a stern-wheeler. In my day, a sternwheeler carried two engineers, a “first” and a “second”. The former was chosen for his age and experience, to him being confided the responsibility of the boat’s machinery. His knowledge, care, and oversight were...

  8. Chapter V The Engineer
    (pp. 46-51)

    It would be impossible to pick out any one man who handled an engine on the river fifty years ago, and in describing his habits and peculiarities claim him as a type of all river engineers of his time. The legendary engineer, such as Colonel Hay has given us, standing at the throttle of his engine on the ill-fated “Prairie Belle”, waiting for signals from the pilot house, his boat a roaring furnace of fire, and whose spirit finally ascended with the smoke of his steamer, was a true type of one class, and possibly a large class, of old-time...

  9. Chapter VI The “Mud” Clerk — Comparative Honors
    (pp. 52-58)

    The transition from the “main deck” to the “boiler deck” marked an era in my experience. It opened a new chapter in my river life, and one from which I have greatly profited. When I went upon the river I was about as bashful a boy as could be found; that had been my failing from infancy. As pantry boy I had little intercourse with the passengers, the duties of that department of river industry requiring only the washing, wiping, and general care of dishes and silverware. A “cub” engineer slipped up to his stateroom, and donned presentable clothing in...

  10. Chapter VII Wooding Up
    (pp. 59-63)

    As second clerk, I was early taught to hold my own with the pirates who conducted the woodyards scattered along the river, from which the greater part of the fuel used on old-time river boats was purchased. There was a great variety of wood offered for sale, and a greater diversity in the manner of piling it. It was usually ranked eight feet high, with a “cob-house” at each end of the rank. It was the rule on the river to measure but one of the end piles, if the whole rank was taken, or one-half of one end pile...

  11. Chapter VIII The Mate
    (pp. 64-70)

    In writing of life on the main deck of a Mississippi River steamboat fifty years ago, a prefatory note may be in order. The reader must bear in mind that times have changed; and men, in the mass, have changed, and that for the better, in the years that have elapsed between 1860 and 1908. Slavery then held sway on the west bank of the river, from the Iowa line to the Gulf. On the east side in the State of Illinois even, the slavery idea predominated; and on the river there was no “other side” to the question. Slavery...

  12. Chapter IX The “Old Man”
    (pp. 71-77)

    It would be interesting to trace the origin of this term, which is universally applied to the captain in nautical circles, either on shipboard, among deep-sea sailors, on the great lakes, or on the inland waters. He may not be half as old as the speaker; still, in speaking of him, not to him, he is the “old man.” It is used in no disrespectful sense; indeed, it is rather an endearing term. In speaking to him, however, it is always Captain, or Sir. But in detailing what the Captain has said or done the narrator says that the “old...

  13. Chapter X The Pilots and Their Work
    (pp. 78-91)

    We come now to the consideration of that part of river life of which I was an interested observer, rather than an active participant. Had not the great war burst upon the country, and the fever of railroad construction run so high, it is possible that I might have had my name enrolled in the list containing such masters of the profession as William Fisher, John King, Ed. West, Thomas Burns, Thomas Gushing, and a hundred others whose names were synonyms for courage, precision, coolness in danger, exact knowledge, ready resource, and all else necessary in the man who stood...

  14. Chapter XI Knowing the River
    (pp. 92-99)

    To “know the river” fully, the pilot must not only know everything which may be seen by the eye, but he must also feel for a great deal of information of the first importance which is not revealed to the eye alone. Where the water warrants it, he reaches for this information with a lead line; as on the lower river, where the water is deeper, and the draft of boats correspondingly great. On the upper river, a twelve-foot pole answers instead. The performance is always one of great interest to the passengers; the results are often of greater interest...

  15. Chapter XII The Art of Steering
    (pp. 100-105)

    Every pilot must of necessity be a steersman; but not every steersman is of necessity a pilot. He may be studying to become a pilot, and not yet out of the steersman stage. “Cubs” begin their studies by steering for their chiefs. Many boys become quite expert in handling a boat, under the eyes of their chiefs, before they are sufficiently acquainted with the river to be trusted alone at the wheel for any length of time.

    At first thought, one might imagine a number of favorable conditions as prerequisite to the ideal in steering: a straight piece of river,...

  16. Chapter XIII An Initiation
    (pp. 106-110)

    I have said that in addition to “knowing the river”, and knowing that he knows it, the young pilot must also be fortified with a large measure of self-reliance, or all else will go for nothing. The time of trial comes to every one, sooner or later, and the manner in which it is met usually determines the standing of the young novitiate in the estimation of river men. The reputation of every man on the river is common property the length of his run, from St. Louis to St. Paul. It was proverbial that river men “talked shop” more...

  17. Chapter XIV Early Pilots
    (pp. 111-116)

    “How did the first steamboats find their way up the hundreds of miles of water heretofore unbroken by steam-driven wheel?” No voice out of the past will give an answer to this query. The imagination of the trained pilot, however, needs no written page to solve the problem of how it might have been done; and he can picture to himself the satisfaction, akin to joy, of the man at the wheel, picking his way amid the thousand islands and snaginfested channels innumerable, guided only by his power to read the face of the water, and his knowledge of the...

  18. Chapter XV Incidents of River Life
    (pp. 117-125)

    Captain William Fisher, of Galena, Illinois, is probably the oldest living pilot of the upper Mississippi. At the time of this writing (1908), he is spending the closing years of his life in quiet comfort in a spot where he can look down upon the waters of “Fevre” River, once alive with steamboats, in the pilot houses of which he spent over thirty years in hard and perilous service.

    As a young man Captain Fisher had served five years on the Great Lakes on a “square rigger”, at a time when full-rigged ships sailed the inland waters. Coming to Galena...

  19. Chapter XVI Mississippi Menus
    (pp. 126-131)

    It was a saying on the river that if you wished to save the meals a passenger was entitled to on his trip, you took him through the kitchen the first thing when he came aboard. The inference was, that after seeing the food in course of preparation he would give it a wide berth when it came on the table. It would be unfair to the memory of the average river steward to aver that this assertion was grounded upon facts; but it would be stretching the truth to assert that it was without foundation. Things must be done...

  20. Chapter XVII Bars and Barkeepers
    (pp. 132-137)

    In the old days on the river, whiskey was not classed as one of the luxuries. It was regarded as one of the necessities, if not the prime necessity, of life. To say that everybody drank would not be putting much strain upon the truth, for the exceptions were so few as scarcely to be worth counting. It was a saying on the river that if a man owned a bar on a popular packet, it was better than possessing a gold mine. The income was ample and certain, and the risk and labor slight. Men who owned life leases...

  21. Chapter XVIII Gamblers and Gambling
    (pp. 138-142)

    Volumes have been written, first and last, on the subject of gambling on the Mississippi. In them a small fraction of truth is diluted with a deal of fiction. The scene is invariably laid upon a steamboat on the lower Mississippi. The infatuated planter, who always does duty as the plucked goose, invariably stakes his faithful body servant, or a beautiful quadroon girl, against the gambler’s pile of gold, and as invariably loses his stake. Possibly that may occasionally have happened on the lower river in ante-bellum days. I never travelled the lower river, and cannot therefore speak from actual...

  22. Chapter XIX Steamboat Racing
    (pp. 143-151)

    It is popularly supposed that there was a great deal of racing on Western rivers in the olden time — in fact, that it was the main business of steamboat captains and owners, and that the more prosaic object, that of earning dividends, was secondary. There is a deal of error in such a supposition. At the risk of detracting somewhat from the picturesqueness of life on the upper Mississippi as it is sometimes delineated, it must in truth be said that little real racing was indulged in, as compared with the lower river, or even with the preconceived notion of...

  23. Chapter XX Music and Art
    (pp. 152-160)

    In the middle of the nineteenth century, many an artist whose canvases found no market in the older cities, found ready bidders for his brush, to decorate the thirty-foot paddle-boxes of the big side-wheelers with figures of heroic size; or, with finer touch, to embellish the cabins of Western steamboats with oil paintings in every degree of merit and demerit.

    The boat carrying my father and his family from Rock Island to Prescott, upon my first appearance on the Father of Waters, was the “Minnesota Belle”. Her paddle-boxes were decorated with pictures the same on each side, representing a beautiful...

  24. Chapter XXI Steamboat Bonanzas
    (pp. 161-173)

    How it was possible to derive any profit from an investment of from $2o,ooo to $40,000, the principal of which had an average tenure of life of but five years, has puzzled a great many conservative business men from “down east”, where “plants” lasted a lifetime, and the profits from which may have been sure, but were certain to be small. A man educated in such an atmosphere would hesitate long, before investing $25,000 in a steamboat that was foreordained to the scrap pile at the end of five summers; or where one out of every two was as certainly...

  25. Chapter XXII Wild-cat Money and Town-sites
    (pp. 174-183)

    Both of these specimens of natural history were bred, nurtured, and let loose in countless numbers to prey upon the people in the early days that witnessed the opening of the Northwestern territories to settlement. The wild-cat dollars waxed fat upon the blood and brawn of the settlers who had already arrived; wild-cat town-sites found ready victims in the thousands of Eastern people who desired to better their fortunes, and who lent ready ears to the golden tales of unscrupulous promoters, that told of wonderful cities in the West, whose only reality was that blazoned in the prospectuses scattered broadcast...

  26. Chapter XXIII A Pioneer Steamboatman
    (pp. 184-189)

    The same year and the same month in the year that witnessed the advent of the first steamboat on the Upper Mississippi, likewise witnessed the arrival in Galena of one who was destined to become the best known of all the upper river steamboatmen. In April, 1823, James Harris⁷ accompanied by his son, Daniel Smith Harris, a lad of fifteen, left Cincinnati on the keel boat “Colonel Bumford”, for the Le Fevre lead mines (now Galena), where they arrived June 20, 1823, after a laborious voyage down the Ohio and up the Mississippi.

    A word in passing, regarding the keel...

  27. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  28. Chapter XXIV A Versatile Commander; Wreck of the “Equator”
    (pp. 190-195)

    While some men were to be found on the Mississippi in the sixties who did not hesitate to avow themselves religious, and whose lives bore witness that they were indeed Christians, the combination of a Methodist preacher and a steamboat captain was one so incongruous that it was unique, and so far as I know, without a parallel on the river. There appeared to be no great incompatibility between the two callings, however, as they were represented in the person of Captain Asa B. Green. He was a good commander, as I had personal opportunity of observing at the time...

  29. Chapter XXV A Stray Nobleman
    (pp. 196-205)

    Of the many men whom it was my good fortune to meet while on the river as a boy, or as a young man, there was none who came nearer to filling the bill as a nobleman than Robert C. Eden, whose memory suggests the title of this chapter. Just what constitutes a nobleman in the college of heraldry, I am not qualified to assert. “Bob” Eden, as his friends fondly called him — Captain Eden, as he was known on the river, or Major Eden as he was better known in the closing days of the War of Secession — was...

  30. Chapter XXVI In War Time
    (pp. 206-211)

    In the early spring of 1861 the “Fanny Harris” was chartered by the United States government to go to Fort Ridgeley, up the Minnesota River, and bring down the battery of light artillery stationed at that post, known as the Sherman Battery, Major T. W. Sherman having been in command long enough to have conferred his name upon the organization, and by that it was known at the time of which I write. It is three hundred miles from St. Paul to Fort Ridgeley by the river; as a crow flies, the distance is about half of that. A little...

  31. Chapter XXVII At Fort Ridgeley
    (pp. 212-220)

    The officer in command of the battery when it left Fort Ridgeley was Captain and Brevet Major John C. Pemberton, U. S. A. He had won his brevet by gallant services in action at Monterey and Molino del Rey. He accompanied the battery as far as Washington, where he resigned (April 29, 1861), and tendered his sword to the Confederacy. He was rapidly promoted until he reached a major-generalcy in that army, and had the distinguished honor to surrender his army of thirty thousand men at Vicksburg to Major General Ulysses S. Grant, July 3, 1863. Pemberton was born in...

  32. Chapter XXVIII Improving the River
    (pp. 221-228)

    It was not until commerce on the upper river was practically a thing of the past, that any effort was made to improve the channel for purposes of navigation. A number of interests united to bring about this good work when it did come — some meritorious, others purely selfish. The steamboatmen, what was left of them, entertained the fallacious idea that if the river were straightened, deepened, lighted, and freed from snags and other hindrances to navigation, there would still be some profit in running their boats, despite the railroad competition that had so nearly ruined their business. This was...

  33. Chapter XXIX Killing Steamboats
    (pp. 229-239)

    The upper Mississippi has always been, comparatively, a remarkably healthy stream for steamboats. A great proportion of the craft ending their days there, have died of old age, and have been decorously consigned to the scrap pile instead of meeting the tragic end usually assigned them by writers. In many cases where it is supposed or known that a steamboat of a certain name met destruction by fire or snag, the historian who attempts to verify such statement will have great difficulty in deciding just which boat bearing the name was the victim of that particular casualty. The fact is,...

  34. Chapter XXX Living It Over Again
    (pp. 240-254)

    One day in the spring of 1881, after having finished the business that had called me to St. Paul from my home in River Falls, Wisconsin (where I was a railway agent and newspaper proprietor combined), I was loafing about the Grand Central Station, killing time until my train should be ready to start. The big whistle of a big boat drew me to the adjacent wharf of the Diamond Jo Line. The craft proved to be the “Mary Morton”. As soon as the lines were fast, the stages in position, and the first rush of passengers ashore, I walked...

  35. Appendix A List of Steamboats on the Upper Mississippi River, 1823-1863
    (pp. 257-294)
  36. Appendix B Opening of Navigation at St. Paul, 1844-1862
    (pp. 295-295)
  37. Appendix C Table of Distances from St. Louis
    (pp. 296-298)
  38. Appendix D Improvement of the Upper Mississippi, 1866-1876
    (pp. 299-299)
  39. Appendix E Indian Nomenclature and Legends
    (pp. 300-303)
  40. Map of the Mississippi between St. Louis and St. Paul
    (pp. 304-304)
  41. Index
    (pp. 305-323)
  42. Back Matter
    (pp. 324-324)