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

By George Byron Merrick | Go to book overview

Chapter XVII
Bars and Barkeepers

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 of steamboat bars willed the same to their sons, as their richest legacies. Ingenious and far-seeing men set about accumulating bars as other men invested in two, three, or four banks, or factories.

“Billy” Henderson of St. Louis was the first financier to become a trust magnate in bars. He owned the one on the “Excelsior”, on which boat he ran between St. Louis and St. Paul. Later, he bought the lease of the bar on the “Metropolitan”, and still later, when the Northern Line was organized, he bought the bars on all the boats, putting trusty “bar-keeps” aboard each, he himself keeping a general oversight of the whole, and rigorously exacting a mean average of returns from each, based upon the number of passengers carried. This system of averages included men, women, and children, and “Indians not taxed”, presupposing that a certain percentage of the passengers’ money would find its way into his tills, regardless of age, sex, or color. What his judgment would have been had one of the craft been chartered to carry a Sunday school picnic from St. Louis to St. Paul, will never be known. Such an exigency never confronted him, in those days. The judgment rendered was, that he was not far off in his conclusions as to the average income from the average class of passengers carried.

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