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

By George Byron Merrick | Go to book overview

Chapter XXVIII
Improving the River

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 a mistaken supposition, and they were disabused of the idea only by experience.

The mill owners of the upper river and its tributaries, who had by this time begun to “tow through”—that is, push their rafts of logs and lumber with a steamboat from Stillwater to St. Louis, instead of drifting—were assured of quicker trips and greater safety if the river was dressed up somewhat, insuring greater profits upon their investments. Both of these parties in interest were engaged in legitimate trade, and while there was no intention of dividing the profits that might inure to them from an investment of several millions of dollars of other people’s money, precedent had legitimatized the expenditure in other localities and upon other rivers. They were well within the bounds of reason, in asking that their own particular business might be made more profitable through the aid of government.

A greater influence than any arguments drawn from commercial necessities was found in the political interest involved. For years, members of congress elected from districts in which there was a harbor or a river which by any fiction might be legislated into a “navigable stream”, had been drawing from the

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