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

By George Byron Merrick | Go to book overview

Chapter XV
Incidents of River Life

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 just as the great boom in steamboating commenced, and following the opening of Minnesota Territory to setdement, he naturally gravitated toward the life of a steamboatman, taking his first lessons in piloting in 1852, on the “Ben Campbell”, under the tutelage of Captain M. W. Lodwick. The next season (1853), he worked on the “War Eagle”, under William White and John King, two of the best pilots on the upper river. Under their teaching he soon obtained his license, and henceforth for thirty years he piloted many of the finest boats running between St. Louis and St. Paul. His crowning achievement was the taking of the “City of Quincy” from St. Louis to St. Paul, Captain Brock being his partner for the trip. The “City of Quincy” was a New Orleans packet, that had been chartered to take an excursion the length of the river. Of sixteen hundred tons burden, with a length of three hundred feet and fifty feet beam, she was the largest boat ever making the trip above Keokuk Rapids.

Two or three incidents of his river life, among the many which he relates, are of interest as showing the dangers of that life. One, which he believes was an omen prophetic of the War of Secession, he relates as follows:

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