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(authors icon)1918


from Wisconsin Authors and Their Works   1918
by Charles Rounds

The editors of this volume have been struck many times with the element of grouping that seems to have asserted itself in Wisconsin literary efforts, as in those of America, or England, or perhaps any country. Centers seem to be formed from which radiate light and glow of literary activities. Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the great literary center of our country in the middle fifty years of the nineteenth century. The Lake Region was such a center for English production in the preceding fifty years. In Wisconsin, naturally enough, the University has been the fountain from which has flowed much that is most worth-while in the literature of our state. It should be noted that not only those who are formally grouped here with the University as their center may justly be thought to be vitally indebted to that institution for the impulse to write. ...

The next most important source of inspiration to our authors seems to have been our rivers. The beautiful bluffs bordering the Mississippi; the charm and grace of the sweeping lines of Lake Pepin; the tumbling rushing waters of the Wisconsin, with their thickly-wooded hills and their green slopes of prairie and their October sunsets, seen through crimson oak and maple leaves; or the numerous falls of the upper Fox,--all have stirred the hearts of the fortunate people privileged to live within their influence. Hence, at Stevens Point, La Crosse, Appleton, and a few other cities in the state with similar surroundings, we have a literature with charming local flavor. ...

...We desire to acquaint our readers, at this point, however with a brief excerpt from what is perhaps the most careful and faithful depiction of the Mississippi itself,--Mr. Merrick's "Old Times on the Upper Mississippi." The author lived for many years amid the scenes that he depicts, and for nine years was a pilot on an upper Mississippi boat. The romance and adventure of that life helped more to rouse and challenge the imagination than any other single feature of early pioneer days, and Mr. Merrick, though now what many would consider "pretty well along in years," is still young enough in the remembrance of those days. Like many another hard-working pioneer, he caught the spirit of his work, and he here has faithfully set down the most careful record of river annals in existence, from a historical standpoint, and at the same time one which grips the interest of the reader.

Merrick in Madison


The recollections of a steamboat pilot from 1854 to 1863, by George Byron Merrick. Copyright, 1909, by the author. From Chapter XXX, pp. 241-247.

Mary Morton

I knew that I had not yet been weaned from the spokes, and doubted if I ever should be. I said that I would try, and I did. I filed an application for the first leave of absence I had ever asked for from the railroad company, and it was granted. I found a man to assist the "devil" in getting out my paper, he doing the editing for pure love of editing, if not from love of the editor. We set our house in order, packed our trunk and grips, and when the specified fortnight was ended, we (my wife, my daughter, and myself) were comfortably bestowed in adjoining staterooms in the ladies' cabin of the "Mary Morton," and I was fidgeting about the boat, watching men "do things" as I had been taught, or had seen others do, twenty years ago or more.

The big Irish mate bullied his crew of forty "niggers," driving them with familiar oaths, to redoubled efforts in getting in the "last" packages of freight, which never reached the last. Among the rest, in that half hour, I saw barrels of mess pork--a whole car load of it, which the "nigger" engine was striking down into the hold. Shades of Abraham! pork out of St. Paul! Twenty years before, I had checked out a whole barge load (three hundred barrels) through from Cincinnati, by way of Cairo. Cincinnati was the great porkopolis of the world, while Chicago was yet keeping its pigs in each back yard, and every freeholder "made" his own winter's supply of pork for himself. The steward in charge of the baggage was always in the way with a big trunk on the gangway, just as of old. The engineers were trying their steam, and slowly turning the wheel over, with the waste cocks open, to clear the cylinders of water. The firemen were coaxing the beds of coal into fiercer heat. The chief clerk compared the tickets which were presented by hurrying passengers with the reservation sheet, and assigned rooms; all "the best," to others who had no reservations. The "mud" clerk checked his barrels and boxes and scribbled his name fiercely and with many flourishes to the last receipts. The pilot on watch, Mr. Burns, sat on the window ledge in the pilot house, and waited. The captain stood by the big bell, and listened for the "All ready, Sir!" of the mate. As the words were spoken, the great bell boomed out one stroke, the lines slacked away and were thrown off the snubbing posts. A wave of the captain's hand, a pull at once of the knobs of the wheel frame, the jingle of a bell far below, the shiver of the boat as the great wheel began its work, and the bow of the "Mary Morton" swung to the south; a couple of pulls at the bell-rope, and the wheel was revolving ahead: in a minute more the escape pipes told us that she was "hooked up," and with full steam ahead we were on our way to St. Louis. And I was again in the pilot house with my old chief, who bade me "show us what sort of an education you had when a youngster."

Mary Morton

Captain Burns

younger Thomas Burns

Despite my forty years I was a boy again, and Tom Burns was the critical chief, sitting back on the bench with his pipe alight, a comical smile oozing out of the corners of mouth and eyes, for all the world like the teacher of old.

The very first minute I met the swing of the gangplank derrick (there is no jack staff on the modern steamboat, more's the pity), with two or three strokes when one would have been a plenty, yawing the boat around "like a toad in a hailstorm," as I was advised. I could feel the hot blood rushing to my cheeks, just as it did twenty years before under similar provocation, when the eye of the master was upon me. I turned around and found that Mr. Burns had taken it in, and we both laughed like boys--as I fancy both of us were for the time.

But I got used to it very soon, getting the "feel of it," and as the "Mary Morton" steered like a daisy I lined out a very respectable wake; though Tom tried to puzzle me a good deal with questions as to the landmarks, most of which I had forgotten save in a general way. * * *

A mile or two below Hastings I saw the "break" on the surface of the water which marked the resting-place of the "Fanny Harris," on which I had spent so many months of hard work, but which, looked back upon through the haze of twenty years, now seemed to have been nothing but holiday excursions.

Prescott Levee

At Prescott I looked on the familiar water front, and into the attic windows where with my brother I had so often in the night watches studied the characteristics of boats landing at the levee. Going ashore I met many old-time friends, among whom was Charles Barnes, agent of the Diamond Jo Line, who had occupied the same office on the levee since 1858, and had met every steam boat touching the landing during all those years. He was the Nestor of the profession, and was one of the very few agents still doing business on the water front who had begun such work prior to 1860. Since then, within a few years past, he also has gone, and that by an accident, while still in the performance of duties connected with the steamboat business.

Mary Morton

Diamond Jo

Dropping rapidly down the river, we passed Diamond Bluff without stopping, but rounded to at Red Wing for passengers and freight, and afterward headed into a big sea on Lake Pepin, kicked up by the high south wind that was still blowing. We landed under the lee of the sandpit at Lake City, and after getting away spent the better part of an hour in picking up a barge load of wheat, that was anchored out in the lake. * * *

Mary Morton at LaCrosse

I turned in at an early hour, and lay in the upper berth, listening to the cinders skating over the roof a couple of feet above my face, and translating the familiar sounds that reached me from the engine-room and roof--the call for the draw at the railroad bridge, below the landing; the signal for landing at Wabasha; the slow bell, the stopping-bell, the backing bell, and a dozen or twenty unclassified bells, before the landing was fully accomplished; the engineer trying the water in the boilers; the rattle of the slice-bars on the sides of the furnace doors as the firemen trimmed their fires; and one new and unfamiliar sound from the engine-room--the rapid exhaust of the little engine driving the electric generator, the only intruder among the otherwise familiar noises, all of which came to my sleepy senses as a lullaby.

"George Byron Merrick." Wisconsin Authors and Their Works Madison: The Parker Educational Company, 1918. 159-163.
From the GLS Department of Special Collections reference room: PS 283 W6 R6 1918.