HOW I CAME TO BE A RIVER PILOT
(The Peoria Star, Dec. 14, 1930, transcribed by Gaile Thomas)
[We tried to keep true to the article, mispelled words, etc.]

 

Captain Detweiller, History of Peoria County (1902), page 198



Diary Kept by Capt. Henry Detweiller Pioneer Peorian, Reveals Interesting Events of His Life

(Editor's note: The interesting article printed below is copied from the personal diary of the late Captain Henry Detweiler, Peoria's pioneer river captain, a Civil war veteran, and business man. The autobiographical article is particularly timely in view of the fact that there is a noticeable revival of interest in the Illinois river. The diary is the property of Thomas H. Detweiller who gave Peoria her largest public park the gift being in memory of his distinguished father, Captain Detweiller.)


-----------------------------------------


     I was staying with my brother John who owned and ran the hotel known as the St. Croix Tavern on Water street above Liberty. Captains and pilots used to visit my brother and I became acquainted with a good many of those then running on the Illinois river.
     I was at that time a lad of 14 years of age, with a roving disposition and I took a great fancy to steamboating from mingling and talking with these river men. I tried every way to get work on a steamer as cabin boy or any thing else. I thought that if I was once on a boat I could soon learn to be a pilot but my efforts were all fruitless in procuring a berth on some steamer.
     My brother was strongly opposed in my going on the river and requested all captains to forbid me aboard their boats.


Plays Huck Finn


     One morning I concluded to run away. I went aboard the steamer " Motto" unobserved just as she was leaving the landing.
     Captain Grant who was in command of the "Motto" was a particular friend of my brother. After we got under way the captain saw me standing on the boiler deck and replied, "Hello youngster! What in the devil are you doing here and who told you to come on his boat?"
     I told him that I wanted to go to St. Louis to get a position on some boat. I was a quick and active little fellow and a favorite among the steamboat men, so the old captain said I might take a trip to St. Louis and back. His own son Alex was on board, a little fellow about my age, with whom I got to be great friends. He said he was going to learn to be a pilot and I was bound to be one too.


He Cuts Loose
 

     On our return trip to Peoria, however, the captain delivered me over to my brother, who at once advised me to learn a trade ashore. I told him emphatically I would not learn anything but steamboating, and I refused to stay any longer with him.
     I went to work for six dollars per month for C. W. McClellan, who was then keeping a shoe store on Main street between Water street and the alley. I also made my home at his house as one of the family. I stayed with him 6 months and then started to work for Mr. Semelroth in his clothing store, living at his house as one of the family and all the time watching every opportunity to get a situation on a steamer.
     I was well acquainted with Mr. John Frink of the firm of Frink and Walker of Chicago, the great mail and stage contractors of the Northwest, who were running stages north and south, east and west and also owned the steamer "Frontier," a daily mail and passenger packet running between Peoria and Peru in connection with the stages from Chicago.
     During the winter of 1840 Mr. Frink took a great fancy to me. I was a lively, ambitious boy and every time I saw Mr. Frink I would ask him to give me a situation on the "Frontier."
     One day he surprised me by asking what kind of a situation I wanted on the boat. I told him that I would do anything; I did not care what he would set me to do.


The Bar Episode


      He then proposed to give me the bar on the "Frontier" free of rent, promising to ask my brother to furnish the bar for me. This he said would give me a chance to make some money.
     I accepted the offer provided my brother would furnish the bar and I thought to myself, "Now is your chance," once on the boat I would work my way up as I had my mind firmly made up to be a pilot.
     My brother consented to furnish the bar on the opening of navigation; so on April 14, 1841 he filled the bar with liquors, cigars and tobacco.
     On the following day at 9 p.m. we started for Peru with a large number of passengers for our first trip of the season and with Capt. C. Walker in command. I was the happiest little fellow in the world.
     I took in two or three dollars during the first evening, closed up the bar about 11 o'clock and went up to the pilot house to see Mr. Milton Hasbrouck, a kind hearted gentleman, who was pilot on the famous little steamer.
     Mr. Hasbrouck took a fancy to me and said he would teach me the river. That was enough for me. I forgot all other attractions. I went to stearing for Mr. Hasbrouck and letting the bar take care of itself and in about thirty days I was busted up in business. I gave what little money I had taken in to my brother for the stock he had furnished me and I then turned the bar over to Mr. Lach Philips and he agreed to pay my brother the balance of my indebtedness.


Real Riverman
 

     A week or two afterward, Mr. Frink came down from Chicago and came aboard to go to Peoria. When he went to the bar for a drink and he found a new bar keeper he asked him where I was. Learning that I had sold out and was steering for Mr. Hasbrouck Mr. Frink came up into the pilot house and saluted me thus: "Ah you young rascal, what have you done?"
     I replied I detested to sell liquor and that my only ambition was to be a pilot.
     He asked me if Mr. Hasbrouck was paying me my wages, to which I answered, "No sir."
     When he asked me how I expected to pay board on the boat and get clothing, etc.
     I then told him if he would allow me to stay I would pay him as soon as I could earn some money. The result was Mr. Frink made a bargain with Mr. Hasbrouck to pay me ten dollars per month to steer for him while he taught me the river.


Change of Fortune


     Mr. Frink took a great liking to me and always was very kind. I was a little orphan boy only 15 years old dependent on myself to make an honorable living. He wisely advised me never gamble, play cards, get drunk, nor smoke and to be honest. I have always endeavored to follow Mr. Frink's advice and I really owe what I am to him.
     The first of July the river got low and we could not get any further than Henry. We laid up about the first of September and I went to spend the winter with my brother-in-law and on the opening of navigation April 10 1842 we again made a start.
     I was now promoted to second pilot. What a glory that was to me! I stood my regular watch during the season and everything went all right. Our time of leaving Peoria was 9 p. m. We ran through to Peru and at 2 a. m. made arrival at Henry. When the season was drawing to a close and the river was low we were making regular daily trips between Peoria and Henry in connection with the stages from the north.
     On the memorable morning of September 2, 1842, we left Peoria at 2:30 a. m. I was at the wheel. We were crowded with passengers and running along making good time. It was a cloudy, dark night as we were coming through the narrows. I ran up the left shore when we sighted the "Panama" commanded by Capt. David. When coming down I had noticed the "Panama" standing way outside the tow head which was hidden from view by the shadows of the high bluffs. I remarked to Mr. Stuart, the mate on watch, that the boat coming down would run on the tow head located opposite the small French village of Little DeTroit. (Editor's Note! This tow head would now be opposite the Ivy club.)


Some Excitement


     Just then the fireman on the "Frontier" swung open the fire door to throw in more fuel and the glare threw a light on the tow head.
     The pilot of the "Panana" saw his danger and gave her the wheel hard to bar board. Before he could turn the boat the collision occurred just as we were passing. The Panama struck us with her bow on our starboard side just as the after end of the boilers and ran clear into the cylinder timber. The boats suck together so the "Panama" in backing away swung the "Frontier" around head down stream. Our headway carried us along side of the steep bank where we began to sink. By hastily getting out lines and making fast to the trees we held her from sliding into deep water.
     The passengers had all been asleep but when suddenly awakened by the crash of breaking timbers. Realizing the situation they rushed from their state rooms, panic stricken with fear, through the deliberate coolness of the officers and crew they were enabled to get off the boat safely. They were taken aboard of the "Panama" and brought back to Peoria. The officers and crew stayed aboard until the next morning when Mr. East, the agent, sent stages up to take us back to Peoria.


Abandon Ship


     The work of removing valuables and machinery was commenced at once and taken. Then the lines were cut and the "Frontier" went down in deep water where her hull still lies imbeded in sand.
     It was hard for me to leave the boat and I did so with tears in my eyes.
     Mr. Frink informed me that the owners would start building a new boat, larger and finer, to take the place of the "Frontier."
     She was to be cut by spring and I was to be her chief pilot.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Another Chapter.


     I stayed in Peoria until the close of navigation November 11, 1842, when I left for the country to stay with my sister during the winter. It was the longest and coldest winter that I ever experienced. The river froze up November 11 and opened again as far up as the foot of Main street April 1, 1843, but the lake did not open until after April 15. There was a thaw in January when the ice broke up and the river became clear from here to St. Louis. The steamer "Lebanon," having been frozen up on the night of November 11, started when the thaw came and made a trip to St. Louis and return. She froze up again on the night of arrival having made the trip in five days.
     I am satisfied that we had as much cold weather as ever was known in this part of the country and as deep a snow. We had no thermometers around here in those days consequently could not tell just how cold it was, but it was so cold that the trees cracked wide open and many a fine orchard was destroyed.
On May 14, 1843, the new and beautiful steamer "Chicago" commanded by Capt. Walker arrived from St. Louis. I was installed as first pilot of the finest and fastest boat on the Illinois river receiving a handsome increase in wages which was very good for a boy not quite eighteen years old. I am happy and delighted with my new position and have much to be thankful for to Mr. Frink. We started on our first trip to Peru May 18, time to ???? [couldn't read] five hours. Four records were made. This is the fastest times on record.
     We made our regular trips during the season and did a good business, then laid up September 30 on account of low water. I stayed on board and took care and watched during the winter.


With "Chicago"


     April 1, 1844 the "Chicago" started out on her regular trips between Peoria and Peru. June 17th the "Chicago" was withdrawn from the mail trade and was put to being a passenger packet between St. Louis and Peoria making two trips per week with myself and Hasbrouck as pilots. on June 11, The "Chicago" was sold to some parties from Mississippi and taken south to enter the Memphis and Vicksburg trade.
     Myself and Hasbrouck shipped on board the stern-wheel steamer "Raritan" with Capt. A. B. Hoff, going in the Illinois river trade between St. Louis and Peru as a regular weekly packet. She left St. Louis June 18 at 4 p. m. for Peru with a good trip of passengers and freight. The river was riding fast. We arrived at Peoria, June 9, at 11 p. m.; landed and discharged our freight, took on a lot of wheat and corn and considerable other freight and left again for St. Louis at 6 a. m. June 10. We arrived at St. Louis June 11, at 3 a. m. and commenced unloading cargo of freight and loaded up again and left at 10 a. m.; arrived at Peoria, June 12, 4 p. m.; left for Peru at 8 p. m., arriving at Peru, June 13, at 7 a. m. and laid there until June 15, taking on freight. We left at 7 p. m.; arrived in Peoria June 16, 8 a. m. lay there all day taking on freight and cleaning boilers; left at 10 p. m. for St. Louis, took on considerable freight at Pekin, June 17. We left Pekin 7 A. m., landed at Havana at 9 A. m. took on board 1, 600 sacks of corn and some other freight, left at 7 p.m., took on some freight at Frederick Landing and laid at Beardstown all night. We left Beardstown June 18, at 8 a. m.; arrived at St. Louis 3 a. m.; landed, and commenced to discharge our freight; all unloaded at 11 a. m.
     That morning the river reached the highest point ever known at St. Louis. It was there fifteen miles wide at 1 o'clock, we ran across the river to Cahokia, Ill., and took the people off the roofs of the houses and brought them over to St. Louis where we landed them at ? [couldn't read] p.m. and started taking on freight. We left again for Peoria June 30, at 7 a. m. Just as we were passing Portage DeSue I noticed a signal of distress so ran over to the little French village and took the people off the roofs of the houses there bringing them then over to the Illinois bluffs for safety. We left again enroute for Peru. We continued our regular trips until September 15, when we laid up the "Raritan" at St. Louis and I went home. Messrs. Frink and Walker were building another boat expressly for a Peoria and Peru daily mail and passenger packet to be called the "Gov. Briggs." She was to be side wheel and withal a very fine steamer. I was to be her pilot.


Another Change


     The "Gov. Briggs" arrived at Peoria May 5, 1845. She was a beautiful steamer with saloon cabin richly furnished. We left on our first trip May 10 at 8 a.m., with Capt. O. H. Pratt in command. In addition to the mail we had a fine trip of passengers. We stopped at our regular landings Rome, Chillicothe, Lacon, Henry, Hennipin and Peru. Arriving at Peru, 1 p.m., we had made a 70-mile run in 5 hours. Leaving Peru at 3 p. m. with mail and a good trip of passengers and freight we arrived at Peoria 3 p.m. We left Peoria every morning at 7 a. m. and Peru at 12.
     On June first we changed our time and left Peoria at 9 p.m. took on board our wood on our way up and left Peru at 7 a. m., landed our passengers at Peoria before dinner. On August 1, the river became so low we could not get over Henry Bar and Frink and Walker ran the stages to Henry and we travelled in connection with them from Peoria to Henry making regular trips until October 1, when the river became so low we could not get over Crow Creek Bar. We had to lay up for the season. All hands were paid off except myself. I remained on board as watchman.
     On April 1 1846, we received orders from Frink and Walker to ship up crew, have machinery put in order and boat cleaned up, and that Capt. James E. Star would arrive April 3 as our captain for the season. I take the berth as pilot.


Free Again
 

     Left on our first trip for Peru April 12 and ran until May 25, when Frink and Walker withdrew the "Gov. Briggs" from the Illinois river we were ordered to St. Louis for repairs. Leaving Peoria for St. Louis May 26 at 8 p. m., we arrived at St. Louis May 27, 4 p. m. On May 28 at 9 a.m., we had our boilers inspected and did some other repairs. Mr. Frink came aboard and said he was going to put the boat on the upper Mississippi to carry the U. S. Mail between New Albany and Galena, Ill. on the Fever river where the large lead mines had been opened. Mr. Frink insisted on me staying on the boat. I told Mr. Frink that I could be of no use to him on the Mississippi river above St. Louis as I did not know the river. The only answer I got was, " Stay where you are and I will pay your wages the same as on the Illinois." On June 1 at 4 p. m., we left for Galena, arrived at Galena, June 3 at 6 p. m.
     The pilot we had did not suit Mr. Frink. He was a dissapated man and after the second trip from Galena to New Albany, I was promoted as first pilot on the "Briggs" and the regular pilot paid off at New Albany for getting drunk and running the "Briggs" aground. There I was in a pretty fix, pilot on a strange river. I told Mr. Frink I was not competent to perform the duties as a pilot on this river as I knew nothing about the channels. But Mr. Frink replied that he would rather trust me than a drunk man at the wheel. So I told Mr. Frink I would do the best in my power to get the boat along.
     I was a pretty good judge of the draft of the water and I left New Albany at 4 p.m. and started the "Briggs" on her way by using the leads and sounding the channel. As the reefs showed very plain we arrived at Galena at 11 p.m. all safe. After this night I put her through every day and never ran aground during the three months the "Briggs" run in that trade. Connecting with the stages from Chicago we were doing a splendid business and making money. But the Mississippi was falling very fast and finally got so low we had to lay up at New Albany. The water was also very low in the Fever river.


Big Order
 

     We were all paid off. Mr. Frink gave me a pass on the stage to Chicago. On arrival there I went to the office of Frink and Walker to report. Mr. Frink escorted me to the Tremont House where I took a room and stayed at Chicago two days. Chicago was quite a small place with streets in fearful condition. Then I took it into my head to take a trip to Buffalo. I went to Mr. Frink and told him where I was going. He gave me a letter to the captain of the "Str. Niagara." I went to pay my hotel bill was told it had been paid. After we got under way I went to pay my passage and was told that it was all right. I had every attention given me aboard the boat.
 

Seeing "World"


     When we arrived at Milwaukee I was not feeling well and got off the boat concluding not to go on my trip. Milwaukee was a beautiful place, a city of flowers and not of mud like Chicago. We left Milwaukee August 31, at 9 a. m. on the New steamer "Saratoga" It being her first trip to Chicago. We arrived at Chicago during the night September 1 and at 7 a. m. took passage on a Frink and Walker stage to Peru. We arrived at Peru 7 a. m., September 2. The steamer "Helen" of Captain Sweeney was in port. I went aboard and took passage to Peoria, leaving Peru at 4 p. m. When I went to my stateroom and went to bed I was a very sick man, we arrived at Peoria September 3, 9 a. m. I was taken ashore to Keppenbergers hotel and sent for Dr. Frye. I was sick for 2 weeks but was well taken care of and came out all right.
     I stayed in Peoria during the fall and winter. On March 16, 1847, I received a letter from Mr. Frink ordering me to take the "Gov. Briggs" to St. Louis. He would meet me there.


Land ---- Lost


     March 18 at 8 a. m. I left Peoria on a lumber wagon with driver and myself and mail on board. The roads were so bad the stages could not go through. The wind was from the North and getting very cold. At 5 p. m. it commenced to snow and was freezing by 7 p. m. A regular blizzard set in. We were out on the prairie and no house within 30 miles we got off of the road in this fearful storm. The snow was drifting and blinding us. We became lost and did not know where were going. We were nearly froze and were like sailors on a ship in mid-ocean without a compass; but we kept on towards morning we ran against the corner of a fence, we got out and tied our horses to the fence. We had two large buffalo robes with us.
     Spreading one in the bottom of the wagon we lay down and covered up with the other one and went to sleep. When I woke up the day was just breaking and we proceeded on our way. We arrived at Monmouth, March 19 at 9 a. m., nearer dead than alive. We got warmed up and had our breakfast. I made some inquiry about getting to Rock Island. I was told that the Rock river was very high and full of running ice and impossible to cross so I concluded to wait until the next morning, March 20.
     The weather was getting warmer and snow was melting. March 21 I hired a buggy and left for Rock Island. I arrived at the Rock River crossing at 5 p. m. The high water and ice had carried the ferry boat away. I was in a fix! I walked up the shore and found an old dug-out with a piece of old board for a paddle. I sent the buggy back to Monmouth. It was now nearly dark and the current very strong and dangerous undertaking, but there was no help for it. I had to get across if I had to swim. I go in the dug-out and started. The current carried me down stream 300 yards but I made the shore safely by the time it was dark. It was 3 miles to walk to Rock Island, where I arrived at 7 p. m. and stopped at the Rock Island house.


Water Again

 

     On March 22 after breakfast I paid my bill and hired a man with a buggy, paying him 10 dollars to drive me to New Albany. Arrived there at 2 p. m., went aboard the "Gov. Briggs" and took charge. I told Mr. Reed, the engineer, to ship up some men and get the machinery in order and pump up the boilers as soon as possible. I went up town, bought 200 bushel coal and had it hauled down to the "Briggs."
     On March 23 I hired a cook and told him to get stores and meat aboard. Mr. Reed told me that he would be ready by morning so I went to look for a pilot to take us to St. Louis. I finely found a raft pilot but as he did not know how to handle a steamboat I told him I would handle the steamer myself if he knew the channel of the river.
     March 24, at 7 a. m. we cast loose. I took the wheel and we left New Albany for St. Louis. After we got under way I asked my pilot if he knew a pilot at Montrose that could take us over the upper rapids. He replied he knew one by the name of Capt. Harris. We arrived at Montrose at 3 p. m., landed and I went ashore to find Capt. Harris. I found the captain and hired him for 20 dollars. We found we would have to lay over till morning on account of the wind blowing too hard and it being too late. Capt. Harris came aboard so as to be on hand in the morning.
     March 25 we left Montrose, Iowa, at 5 a. m. We got along all right until we reached Gypsy Patch where we struck a rock and came very near sinking. We got over the rapids. I took the wheel again, and put Capt. Harris ashore.


Second Rapids


     I asked my raft pilot if he knew the channel over the lower rapids he said he knew it just as well as any of the rapid pilots but did not know how to handle the steamer. I told him if he would point out the the break of the main rocks. I would take chances of taking the "Gov. Briggs" over myself. We got to the head of the lower rapids at 5 p. m. and tied up for the night.
     March 26 we left for St. Louis. I took the wheel again and started for the rapids. My pilot proved to be first class. He knew the channel perfectly, and I never met the man that could beat me handling and steering a steamboat. When we were drawing about all the water on the shoals. I took the steamer over safely after we got over the rapids my pilot remarked that he never seen a boat handled as I handled the Briggs. We went down the river a-flying and arrived at St. Louis at 8 p. m., landed and tied up for the night.
     March 27 after breakfast I paid off my pilot and I waited for Mr. Frink to come. He arrived at 4. p. m., and asked me about the necessary repairs the steamer needed. I told Mr. Frink that she would have to go on the docks for we had struck a rock coming over the upper rapids and she was leaking badly and her machinery needed a general overhauling, and painting all over. We went on dry docks March 20. April 10 at 4 p. m. we landed the Gov. Briggs and April 15 at 7 a. m. left St. Louis for Alton on our first trip with James E. Star as her captain and Henry Detweiller pilot.


Mail Packet


     The "Gov. Briggs" soon was running as a regular daily mail and passenger packet between St. Louis and Alton in connection with the stages from Chicago, Peoria, Springfield, to Alton. Messrs. Frink and Walker put her in the Alton and St. Louis trade in opposition to the steamer Luella. The regular fare had been 75 cents from St. Louis to Alton. Mr. Frink put it down to 50 cents. Captain Lamothe of the Luella put it down to 25 cents and Mr. Frink reduced to 10 cents. There is plenty of fun for the people to travel but no money for the boat and owners. Mr. Lamothe reduced the fare to 5 cents.
     Then Mr. Frink gave orders to carry the people free of charge until further orders. At that time the United States was at war with Mexico. We were crowded with soldiers and taking stores to Jefferson Baracks. Mr. Lamothe now made a proposition to form a company which was accepted and both boats continued in the trade. The Gov. Briggs left St. Louis in the morning at 7 a. m. and the Str. Luella left Alton at the same time every morning. The passage was raised again to the old price 75 cents on June 15.
     Later on Mr. Frink was not satisfied with the captain and promoted me to his place. My place as pilot was taken by my friend Capt. J. A. Breenner of Alton.
     Mr. Frink gave me instructions to leave St. Louis promptly every morning at 7 a. m. and wait for no one no matter who it might be. I got along nicely, Mr. Frink called me his boy and complimented me on making better time and satisfying the trade better than it was under the old management.
     One day Mr. Frink told me that he would go up to Alton with me the next morning. I told him all right. The next morning I kept looking for Mr. Frink, it lacked 2 minutes of 7 a. m. and he was not in sight. When the 2 minutes were up I told the pilot to back her out. Just as she got out into the stream I noticed Mr. Frink coming down the levee waving his handkerchief but I paid no attention but kept on. When we returned to St. Louis in the evening Mr. Frink came aboard, "good and mad," he came up to me and asked "why did you not stop for me? I had some important business at Alton to attend to. I want you to understand that I am the owner of this boat and to be left by you and everybody laughing at me on the levee is more than I can stand. You come to the office and get your money and get ashore."
     I said, "I am ready to go sir. But Mr. Frink do you remember the order you gave me when I took charge of the Gov. Briggs? Your order was to leave St. Louis promptly at 7 a. m. and wait for nobody no matter who it was and I obeyed your order. It was your fault and not mine. If you had been on time you would not have been left." When Mr. Frink said, "My boy you have obeyed my orders according to my instructions. You did right, I was wrong. Had I been as prompt in getting down to the landing as you in leaving I would not have been left. You now have been in my employ a number of years and I have always found you honest and attending to business. Come down to the office with me."
     He then told the clerk to raise my wages 10 dollars per month and you stay aboard the boat as her captain.
      Business now commenced to be dull and the Luella was withdrawn. We continued alone.
     In the following spring, the Gov. Briggs was sold to Memphis parties and taken south. While in the various trades, she always proved to be a popular boat with the people and a money maker for her owners.


Any contributions, corrections, or suggestions would be deeply appreciated!

Copyright Janine Crandell
All rights reserved
Updated October 24, 2005