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Article: Cornelia Meigs recalls girlhood on river, July 30, 1966 (Very Long) - Angela [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

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Article: Cornelia Meigs recalls girlhood on river, July 30, 1966 (Very Long) [Feb. 8th, 2008|07:36 pm]

This article is copyright the Daily Gate City newspaper, July 30, 1966. The text belongs to them. I'm just resurrecting it! Also, any errors in the article are NOT corrected here unless otherwise noted in italics.

Editor's note: With the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers celebrating its centennial on the upper Mississippi next month, Miss Cornelia Meigs, noted Keokuk-born author and daughter of Montgomery Meigs, long time engineer at the Keokuk office has written the following recollections on life in the Keokuk area during the 1890's and early 1900's. (Actually she was not born in Keokuk, but the editor of the paper apparently didn't know this or deemed it unimportant to the article.)

Actually the first government exploration of the Upper Mississippi was made by Zebulon Pike, then, I think, a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, but later General Pike. He was killed in the war of 1812 at what was then called York, Canada, which is now Toronto. In 1805 he was sent out by President Jefferson just after the dispatching of the Lewis and Clark expedition which explored the Missouri river. Pike was to do the same thing for the Mississippi and to find its sources.

His expedition started from St. Louis and went as far north as Leach Lake in Minnesota, which he mistakenly concluded was the original source of the river whereas Lake Itasca has since been agreed upon instead. His journals were published and are most interesting. Both his difficulties and his valiant perseverance were great. He was also to challenge the British fur-trading establishments, illegally operating on United States territory. His journals may be in the Rock Island or the Davenport Library; I know they are in the State Library at Iowa at Des Moines, for I have borrowed them several times. They are well worth reading.

A Little Girl

My personal memory goes back to the middle 1890's when I was a little girl growing up in Keokuk where my father was by that time in charge. He had succeeded Major Stickney, and people seemed to think that the man who held the office must be a Major, so he was always called Major Meigs, a purely courtesy title. As United States Civil Engineer he had no such military title; he never spoke of himself as Major Meigs, but popular usage was hard to argue with, and Major Meigs he remained. He had a long, and I am glad to say, very happy connection with the Government work at Keokuk. H had always had a special interest in boat building - one would call it now, marine architecture - and he superintended a great deal of the building in the dry-dock which was from the first attached to the system of locks and canals which bypassed the Des Moines Rapids. Their title is a little misleading. They were so called because they were just above the mouth of the Tributary Des Moines river.

As you know, of course, the canal was not a dug ditch like other canals, but a section of the river itself, cut off by an embankment seven and a half miles long, built before cranes and concrete were available, and faced on both sides by blocks of cut sandstone. When the canal was finally submerged by the power dam, some of this stone was brought away to build a house for the local government officer. My father lived in it, renting it from the government, for about five years before he retired.

Lumber Rafts

The early commercial activity on the river had passed by at the time when I can begin to remember, but the rafting of lumber was still very much in the ascendend. Almost every town had its sawmill, and its lumber yard along the river front, where tall piles of yellow cut lumber stood in endless rows drying and waiting to be purchased and shipped. It was a feature in the history of nearly every such town that at some time or other the lumber yards burned in terrific and unforgettable conflagration.

Rafting was a form of navigation entirely peculiar to itself. As of course you know a log raft is nothing but a frame work of logs pinned together and with the whole cargo of logs floating loose within its confines. For a man to walk from one side to another was a special accomplishment for each log, when stepped upon, ducked under water and an instant’s pause meant being submerged. Some rafts had a solid platform aft with a flooring of bricks upon which a fire could be made and cooking could be done.

A raft was of course an extraordinarily awkward thing to handle in the river currents, and before the canal was built many of them went to pieces on the rapids. With the coming of the canal such hazards were eliminated, although it took an immense length of time to get the clumsy structures through the canal and the three locks. The rafts were built in sections, each just the size to be held by the lock, and thus had to be taken apart and reassembled when it had passed through the final one. The lower lock ended some hundred feet above the Keokuk bridge and, since the current below the rapids was swift, there was still danger even after the great reassembled craft had left the lock. To make this part of the passage safer there was a great floating boom reaching from the lower lock gate to the bridge. This was built in sections and had to be taken in for the winter after navigation closed, for when the ice in the river went out toward spring it could sweep away the boom, snapping like packthreads the heavy chains that held it together and hurling the whole structure against the piers of the bridge.

The big raft boat which pushed her great tow down-river usually had a small steamboat as a tender, which helped to separate and reassemble the sections of raft when it went through the locks. When the water over the rapids was higher than usual some raft boat captain would seek to save time by running the rapids, which if luck failed in the slightest degree, could end in disaster. I myself have seen the whole river dotted with little piles of logs, caught on the various reefs after the ill-started raft had gone to pieces.

Dazzling Ice

In spite of the swift current, the whole river could freeze over in winter a mile-wide expanse of ice rough and uneven, but dazzlingly white. The ice in the canal was smooth, splendid for skating and readily lending itself to the cutting into blocks and storing in the dark ice-houses, smelling of wet sawdust. When warm weather came on, the rough and varied white of the river ice would begin to change. One could realize that it was softening and growing rotten, and then some day, all of a sudden, the whole vast surface would break up, bright blue water would appear, and the whole mess would go sailing downstream, an enormous jostling and tumbling mass to disperse finally in the wider reaches of the water below.

For the removing of what was a great hazard to navigation, the Rock Island District had its own snag boat, which served the whole upper river. The first was the General Barnard, succeeded by the General McKenzie. A great tree or a ragged stump, carried down in a flood and caught by some rocky crevice in the river bottom could be a fearful menace to passing boats, appearing suddenly and splintering the shallow-draught wooden bottoms. Some snags were so big that they could only be dislodged by dynamite. Their final elimination after long effort was a great service to navigation.

Snags and rapids, however, were not the only threat to the safe passage of the river. Islands would come into being, rapidly and totally uncharted. A big tree might lodge against a shallow bar, silt would wash up against it and make a patch of solid soil, birds would drop seeds and willows and underbrush would grow up. Then with a sudden flood or a roaring storm of wind and angry water, the whole would wash away.

Shifting sand bars

Sandbars were constantly forming and shifting their shape and extent, the twisting channel would alter without warning and what was once a safe crossing would be safe no more. It is an unrecorded part of my father’s work that he had the whole picture of the river channel so fully in his mind, with his almost day to day information as to what the mighty Mississippi was about that he felt himself able, where other men would be in doubt, to take the wheel of the big passenger and cargo boats, carrying several hundred people, and pilot them himself down through some treacherous reach of the channel, often rising from his bed at night to do so. He was accepted as a welcome aide by the regular pilots whoi must know the long stretches of the river but could sometimes not be quite sure in the particularly difficult and rapidly changing channel.

The boat-of-all-work under the command of the Keokuk office was the Lucia, built under the incumbency at Rock Island of (then) Major Alexander McKenzie and named after his daughter. A small, rear-wheel steamboat, she was capable of every task in the administration of her section of the river. She moved dredges and barges, she got in the boom in winter, always a precarious task. She brought in the quarter boats, she transported bargeloads of sandbags in time of floods to raise the level of submerged levees or to close some roaring crevasse in a broken one; she carried distinguished visitors. In that period of the river’s history floods came often and with devastating results. The northern stretch of the Mississippi is in many places bounded by bluffs, but just below Keokuk, was the Des Moines, a wicked little river running through fertile bottom lands and bringing down flood and silt and refuse into the Mississippi.

Alexandria flood

At Alexandria, the small town at the mouth of the Des Moines, many houses near the water were built on pilings in resigned recognition to the fact of what the Des Moines and the Mississippi between them could do in flood time. Every household owned a boat, moored ready in the back yard to be at hand in such time of need. It is quoted concerning a not very highly educated visitor that he declared the scene reminded him of “Venus, with its little goldarners everywhere.” But I remember sitting on the Lucia’s deck near a house where people were still living, and seeing the building teetering on its piling, just ready to float away. Nor could I ever forget seeing, a few moments later, a rowboat go by with a little white coffin laid across the stern. A child had died, probably with scant chance of any medical attention, and was being rowed away to some spot dry enough for burial.

In times of flood, appalling as they are, people are singularly reluctant to leave their homes. There is always the hope, uncertain but obstinately pursued, that the rising waters will stop when they reach their own doors. Women are unwilling to leave their household goods to the mercy of the muddy waves, farmers are heartbroken over leaving their stock to possible drowning. Horses are not difficult to rescue. A long line of them, headstall fastened to the tail of the one ahead, will follow, swimming as a boat leads them to safety. Cows are, however, a very different proposition. They thrash from side to side when tied behind a rescuing skiff or, if at a shallow point, they chance to get their feet on the ground, they immediately attempt to climb into the boat.

Lucia to rescue

The little Lucia was at the height of her usefulness as she would go up and down the innundated area, rescuing people from windows or the tops of houses or from the roofs of sheds. Rowboats would follow and bring their refugees to her safe but very crowded deck. She had as tender a very early power boat, a “naphtha launch”, which sputtering away, could stem currents and reach difficult places where an oarsman alone could not stem the fierc current. Once my father, in this small boat, came across an elderly farmer and his wife, who had been obliged to abandon their house, shaking on its foundations, and to take refuge in a huge tree in the dooryard. The tree was a locust of the variety that bears enormous thorns on its truck and branches, but in spite of these the two had clambered to scarcely comfortable safety. When my father came below and wanted to rescue them, the woman flatly refused to get down, and her husband would not leave her. The reason, she pronounced, was that “them kind of boats ain’t safe”. At night, when darkness came down on a great waste of waters with every landmark obliterated the Lucia would lie as close as was safe and would turn her searchlight straight up to the sky as a beacon to those little boats which were going here and there doing their rescue work in the blackness.

The Lucia was of such moment in the work of caring for this section of the river, that she came to be greatly beloved and almost assumed a personality of her own. Her pilot-captain Billy Adams and her engineer Tom Noonan, had served faithfully for 20 years, but without speaking to each other in all that time for they were sworn enemies. In one of the very few tornadoes which ever hit Keokuk, the Lucia was capsized just above the bridge. Billy Adams happened to be safely absent, but Tom Noonan died at his engine trying to keep up power enough to get her to the shore.

Dam changed picture

The building of the power dam at Keokuk finally changed the whole picture of that stretch of the river. There had been long talk of such a scheme, since the rapids were a very obvious source of possible hydroelectric power. Nor were there any great physical obstacles in the way of construction. But there had been much resistance to the idea, on the ground that it would fatally obstruct river navitation. Opposition, therefore was very great, even though, by that time, the old glories of the early river traffic had waned and the amount of transport was of no large proportions. The Power Company made faithful undertaking that navigation would not only be not harmed, but that it could go on steadily even during the construction of the dam. The largest problem was the building of the new lock which was to supersede the old three which would be submerged. It would have to be carried through in one winter, between the closing of the navigation of one season and the opening of the next. For building the power house the whole surface that it was to cover was laid bare by a great cofferdam, which at one terrifying moment was furiously threatened by ice and flooding and had to be build up several feet higher with sandbags. It was curious to see that bare base of smooth limestone, planed by a glacier and scratched where harsh boulders had scraped along it. When construction had proceeded far enough the cofferdam was blown up with a tremendous eruption and the river bottom disappeared into ancient history again.

In the end the Power Company paid damages to one of the lines of river packet boats for a week’s delay in the opening of the lock Reducing the process of three lockings to one, even though it meant a far higher and lower lift and descent, made, however, for much greater simplification of the whole process. And presently after the dam was built and operation had begun there emerged another quite unheralded advantage. If, in a season of low water, a steamboat got stuck on a sandbar downstream, a message of distress to the operators of the dam would open extra sluicegates and release a wave of water which, after a few hours, would reach the vessel in trouble and set her afloat.

Hugh Cooper

The carefully arranged provisions to insure the non-interference with steamboat traffic were fully obeyed. Mr. Hugh Cooper, the very distinguished engineer who had not only designed the dam but had promoted the whole enterprise, was faithful in carrying out the agreements. It was my father’s not very easy responsibility to see that this was done. In spite of some reasons rather to the contrary, he and Hugh Cooper became fast friends. There were some occasions when the hazards and unexpected complications of construction made for delay and for problems in performance but they were all brought under control in the end. There were consequently a few hot moments of criticism and insistence on one side, and vigorous protests on the other. But the friendship did not falter, and when my father died in 1931 Hugh Cooper and Mrs. Cooper came all the way from New York to attend his funeral.

Many changes have followed this very great one. The Middle West was just coming into a period of prosperity unknown before. It became apparent that, as business on the river increased, the freight rate for railroad carriage north and south in the Mississippi Valley was considerably less than east and west across country, owing, obviously, to the competition of water traffic. New ideas, new experiments burgeoned. The old raft boat model gave way to something more adapted to general traffic. The diesel engine succeeded the old steam boilers with their constant stoking. But there have been lost nothing of the dignity and majesty of a great boat breasting all the forces that Old Man River can bring against her.