Saturday, March 15, 2008

By Steamboat Up the Mississippi: Galena, Illinois

At Galena, Robert and William booked a six dollar passage on the steamboat Nominee, a 212-ton sidewheeler that advertised weekly round trips to St. Paul. In April 1850, when Robert and William Watson came aboard, the Nominee was making its first run up the river.

Captain Orrin Smith

The captain of the Nominee was a man named Orrin Smith. Robert Watson describes Captain Smith as “a genial Christian gentleman, very approachable and willing to give information, with a dash of humor… He was asked all sorts of questions by the passengers, many of them foolish; I wonder he did not get tired of answering them.” He was a religious man—he refused to run his steamboat on Sundays—but he was also a shrewd businessman and a skillful captain. In 1852, he made the round trip from Galena to St. Paul, with stops, in a record time of fifty-five hours and forty-nine minutes. Few steamboat captains were willing to go head to head with Captain Smith and the Nominee.

Galena, Illinois, in the 1850s.

E. S. Seymour, who travelled through Galena, Illinois, in 1849, wrote: “Galena has been regarded by some as a rough and ugly-looking town. In our humble opinion, however, there are few cities in the West which present to the eye of the traveler such a commanding appearance, and such interesting and romantic scenery as Galena, when approached by the way of the river.” In the 1830s, Galena had become an important center of lead mining. Galena, in Latin, means “lead ore.” In the peak year of 1845, nearly 85% of the nation’s lead came from Galena. In the late 1830s, the Harris family of Galena began running steamboats up and down the river, south to St. Louis and north to Fort Snelling. Their first steamboat, appropriately enough, was called Smelter.

For a while in the 1850s, Galena was the terminus of the Illinois Central Railroad. Because the powerful steamboat companies wanted to keep out the competition from the railroads, the terminus was eventually moved to Dubuque. Railroad hubs like Chicago prospered, while Galena, and the steamboat trade, quickly declined. But when the Watsons arrived for their trip on the Nominee in 1850, Galena was a thriving city of nearly fourteen thousand, and the busiest port on the Upper Mississippi between Rock Island and St. Paul. The river was crowded with steamboats and barges carrying loads of lead south to St. Louis and New Orleans. Immigrants thronged the wharves, waiting for the steamboats that would take them to the new Minnesota Territory.

“The steamer was crowded,” Robert Watson recalled later. “A great many kinds of people were aboard: lumbermen, hunters, sight-seers, health-seekers, settlers intending to make new homes, and so forth. They were a jolly, jubilant lot for the most part, and oh, so hungry! What a rush there always was to get a seat at the first table when the bell rang! The table was bountifully filled and the food was good and varied… Everything was new and fresh to most of the passengers: the great swollen river; the numerous wooded islands; the grand, high, even-topped bluffs now close upon us and anon receeding far back, the ancient boundaries of the great river. Lots of ducks and other water fowl swarmed on the sloughs and inlets. All was young, fresh, and fair, as just from the Creator’s hand.”

The three day journey up the river was spent enjoying the sights on the river and the food served on board. The steamboat was outfitted with two ten by twenty foot kitchens, one for meats and vegetables and one for pastries. In these two small kitchens, meals were prepared for as many as three hundred passengers. The entire operation of preparing and serving the meals was overseen by a steward, who often earned as much as the captain himself. Supplies—fresh vegetables, eggs, fresh meat—were laid in at the various stops along the way, but chickens were kept in coops on board and slaughtered as they were needed. The food, as Watson remarked, was generally good. George Merrick, a river pilot on the Upper Mississippi in the 1850s, wrote: “Most of the passengers…never in all their lives lived so well as they did on the trip from Galena to St. Paul… Certainly, after reaching their destination in the Territory of Minnesota, the chances were that it would be many long years, in that era of beginnings, before they would again be so well fed and so assiduously cared for…” For many of the passengers who were going on the settle in the Minnesota Territory, there would be many meals of nothing but pancakes in the months ahead.

Many of the passengers on board, like the Watson brothers, were young bachelors, including some veterans of the recent Mexican War who held land warrants entitling them to claim free government land in the new territories. In the new territory, these young men “kept batch” for several years, establishing their farms before settling down to family life. Waterford, north of Northfield, was first settled by two bachelors, Warren and John Atkinson. Their first log cabin in Waterford was known as “Bachelor Hotel,” because of the hospitality it offered to the other bachelor farmers who came to settle in the area.

Robert Watson recalled: “All the bachelors were expected to be ‘at home’ to all their brotherhood. When anyone called and found no one in, they made themselves at home by taking possession, entering by the door if they could; if not, they could usually effect an entrance by the chimney.”

One of the bachelors on board the Nominee was a member of the fraternal organization known as the Odd Fellows. Robert Watson overheard him ask Captain Smith, “Are there any Odd Fellows in the Minnesota Territory?”

“Oh, yes,” Captain Smith answered. “Lots of them, all waiting for the girls to come out so they can be made even.”

1 comment:

Bleeet said...


These settler stories have been great reads. I hope you'll continue the series. What source material have you been using? Watson's memoirs get a mention in the Oaklawn Cemetery post, but I was curious what else you've been referencing.

Keep it up, and I hope they get published in some Minnesota history book or books, maybe a sesquicentennial edition?

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .