SUNBONNET DAYS - CHAPTER IV - STEAMBOATING UP-RIVER
Hardly had we stepped upon the dock in New Orleans before we were besieged by German- and French-speaking runners offering contracts of passage to our destination. But Uncle Christian in his letter had warned Father against these agents. He had written that they took advantage of the ignorance of foreigners to charge outrageous prices for steamboat fares. Declining their services, Father proceeded to the office of a steamship company which Uncle had recommended for its low charges. This line had a steamboat at the levee, loading freight, and it was scheduled to sail for St. Louis is two days. We moved our baggage aboard immediately, thereby providing living quarters without the expense of hotel bills.
During our two-day-stay in New Orleans we rambled through the old quarter built in the time of the French occupation of Louisiana, where we felt at home because the people spoke French and had French signs above their shop doors. We also called on the French-speaking woman whom we had met on ship board, and who had invited Mother to visit her.
At the French market we replenished our food supplies, buying unusually large quantities of green vegetables and white bread which we craved after our long voyage.
Arrangements for cooking on the steamboat were similar to those on shipboard. Each individual, American as well as foreigner, did his own cooking in accordance with the custom on low fare boats of that period.
There were two classes of steamboats at that time: express boats, voyaging at high speed, which stopped only at the larger points and therefore charged extra fares; and local boats, which stopped at nearly every town and plantation, took on and put off both passengers and freight, and charged low fares. So numerous were the stops made by our boat that it required two weeks to cover the distance to St. Louis. It was an interesting two weeks; the river was thronged with shipping; even at night we frequently met and passed other steamboats.
At St. Louis came a delay of one day while we changed to a steamboat for St. Joseph. This boat was another combination passenger and freight carrier, on which we slowly chugged up the winding Missouri channel while grand express steamers rushed ahead of us to disappear beyond the bends, throwing out clouds of smoke by day and showers of sparks by night.
It required a week to complete the voyage from St. Louis to St. Joseph in our slow steamboat, although such fast steamers as the Pole Star and the James H. Lucas made the upstream voyage in sixty hours. Steamboating was in its golden age in 1855. Without railroad competition or governmental interference, the boats charged such rates as they desired and operated their craft without adequate boiler inspection. Some of the boats had snow-white decks and the softest of Brussels carpeting for cabins and drawing rooms. Negroes who could sing were taken along for double service as deck hands and entertainers. The better boats carried pianos, and the more pretentious ones carried brass bands which blared upstream as they raced ahead of us. But passengers with a craving for luxury paid handsomely for it, a single fare from St. Louis to St. Joseph on a speedy packet being thirty dollars, which was as much as Father paid for his entire family on our slow boat. Our boat had no band, no piano, no negroes.
Not only were the fast boats expensive, but they were sometimes dangerous. For instance, while rounding the Missouri River bend at Lexington, the Saluda encountered so strong a current that it could scarce make headway. To satisfy the passengers who grumbled at the slackening of speed, the captain hung a keg of nails on the safety valve to keep steam from blowing off. Wood was piled into the furnaces until the boilers blew up, costing the lives of captain, crew, and more than one hundred passengers. Our steamboat, having no speed reputation to maintain, just dawdled along, picking up or putting off passengers or freight at every levee, or pulling ashore to take on wood, the fuel of the Missouri boats at that time.
Farmers living along the bank cut their timber and hauled the logs to the water front where they sawed them in cord lengths and stacked them in ricks, a cord to the rick. Whenever the steamboat fuel-bin ran low, our pilot steered the boat to the bank, while the engineer tooted the whistle to call the farmer to his woodricks. Deckhands and working passengers carried the wood aboard by hand. I can see them yet, running aboard with armloads of wood which they stacked in orderly ricks in the bin. Before the refuelling was complete, the farmer arrived to collect his due.
It was fascinating to watch the firemen stoke the furnace. I often stood on the main deck, below the passenger deck, looking on. They shoved the wood endwise into the firebox. If the billets were especially heavy, two men might be needed to stick them in. It required an immense quantity of wood to keep up steam, and two smokestacks were necessary to carry off smoke and sparks. I liked the Missouri River better than the lower Mississippi; for while the latter generally flows between low-lying banks with only occasional hills to break the monotony, the Missouri passes through a beautiful country with every varying scenery. Lovely cliffs and bluffs line the bottom lands or come right down to the channel. At every break in the bluffs we saw farm lands and farm buildings pass in an ever-changing vista.
An exciting event of the voyage, which was often repeated, was the passage of danger points. Every day I had occasion to hold my breath as the man at the wheel skillfully tempted the perils of that untamed river. What with half-floating trees, whose jagged branches might suddenly rise to snag the boat; shifting sandbars, whose position changed so frequently that the channel could not be charted; and overhanging cliffs, which might cave in at any moment, navigation was one constant adventure. The nature of the Missouri is such that the deepest channel often abuts the most precipitous bluff. As the current eats under the bluff, it creates an overhanging cliff, which constantly grows more menacing until the undermining water caves it in. The highest paid pilot was he who could take the boat near enough to the cliffs to avoid sandbars, yet far enough away to avoid being caught should the bank cave in.
Night and day we voyaged despite the fact that the river was unlighted and the only illumination on the boat was the glow from the furnace fires. Because of the skill required, some Missouri River pilots drew as much as twelve hundred dollars a month, a princely wage, especially in a day when a mechanic was lucky to draw one dollar a day. The best Mississippi pilots were paid only a quarter of the Missouri River salaries.
The wharves of the Missouri were unpaved earthen banks, generally without any other improvements than nature had provided. When our steamboat drew alongside a dirt levee, a line was cast shore to be looped around a tree or stump. In spite of our frequent day and night stops to take on or put off passengers or cargo, I have no recollection of any of the harbor towns on the Missouri, for none of them was of consequence. Even Kansas City was then a mere village of five hundred people living along a dirt street running from the water front back to the forest. To us it was merely another landing, and I have no recollection of seeing it at all. No one in that day or for several years to come imagined that Kansas City would ever be as important as St. Joseph.
Our river journey came to an end on May 6. On that morning we were standing on the steamboat deck, unappreciative of the double row of verdant bluffs which line the Missouri, and whence in May come perfumed breezes made fragrant by the nectar of millions of wild grape and basswood blossoms. We were unmindful of the beauties of Nature, because word had been passed that just beyond a crook in the river was the goal of our three months' journey. With eyes turned toward the bend, each passenger was eager to catch the first view of the metropolis.
Above a bluff at the point of the bend, we could make out a cloud of smoke, but whether it was the smoke of the city or of another steamboat we could not say. Suddenly a passenger pointed and shouted, getting all the momentary glory he could out of the fact that he had been first to see church spires, "There she is!" Others took up the shouting. Deliberately we rounded the bluff, and there lay the city along the water front and pushing back between the Blacksnake Hills.
The levee was already crowded, for they had heard the bass whistle of our engine and had seen the fumes from our stacks before we came into view. As we drew near the dock, the whistle sounded again and again and the bell clanged continuously. This noise brought out barroom loafers from the saloons and customers from the waterfront stores. A man could buy merchandise and drinks at any time, but a steamboat's arrival could be seen only when it arrived. Mingled with the loafers were business men coming to look after their cargoes, hotel runners in quest of guests, and other citizens to meet friends.
We scanned the sea of faces along the levee. Strange faces they were of an alien people among whom we were to make our home. For the most part the men wore cowhide boots and slouch hats, but here and there was a silk-hatted merchant. Suddenly Mother pointed at a face on the levee.
"There's Uncle Christian!" she cried.
At the same instant he recognized us and waved a greeting. I do not recall how he knew when we would arrive, but there he was, and you can well believe we were a happy family that day. Uncle took us to his boarding house where he introduced us to Aunt Christine, who welcomed us with kisses and bade us make ourselves at home.