One-Way Ticket to Kansas, the autobiography of Frank M. Stahl, as told and illustrated by Margaret Whittemore. University of Kansas Press, 1959. Transcribed by John D. Meredith


VIII – Heading up the Missouri

Our packet, the New Lucy, was a marvel of beauty, a dazzling white palace floating on the water. Her hull was 225 feet long, with 33-foot beam. She was built in St. Louis in 1852 and had the reputation of being about the fastest boat on the Missouri. When running light on long summer days, she could go from Jefferson City to Kansas City between daybreak and dark.

Progress on our trip in March was much slower. The boat was heavily laden, taxing her freight capacity of 416 tons. Two tall smokestacks, ornamented at the top, threw out clouds of smoke as she chugged steadily upstream against the current. The vessel was frequently brought to landings to receive or discharge cargo or to take on wood for fuel. This had been sawed into cord lengths and stacked by farmers at convenient points along the river bank.

On the main deck of the boat were four cylindrical boilers, having a steam pressure of 165 pounds—high for those times. They were placed over huge wood-burning furnaces. Two smoothly running engines supplied motive power to rotate two immense paddle wheels, twenty feet or more in diameter, one on either side. By backing down on one wheel and going ahead on the other, a twin-engined sidewheeler showed great maneuverability and could practically turn in its own length.

The years 1855 to 1860 stand out as the "golden era" of steamboating. An endless stream of people made their way up the river, intent on building an empire in the West. The rush to Kansas was on. Our deck was crowded with all sorts of merchandise, household goods, and farm tools, as well as a motley array of emigrants. Although I had a first-class ticket, I wondered whether I could find a spot to lie down on at night. As it turned out, Holman and I had a comfortable stateroom together.

Looking over the deck rail, I was amazed at the countless shore birds—ducks, geese, and plovers—fringing the sandbars. The water was literally alive with winged fowl. Flocks of wild turkeys fed along the banks.

"Quite a spectacle, isn't it, son?" remarked someone at my side.

A tall pleasant-faced gentleman, who smiled down at me, proved to be thoroughly familiar with this river. He knew all about steamboats and the grand old captains who manned them. From him I learned that Captain Tom Brierly of St. Joseph owned and operated the finest, fastest, and most beautiful side-wheel steamers that ever plied the Missouri. The New Lucy was one of them, and he was master on many of her trips. The clerk on our boat, Captain James Kennedy, spent his entire life on river craft. I learned later that, at the age of ninety-three, he was still serving as wharf master in Kansas City.

We were running twenty-four hours a day and I wondered how we managed to avoid snags at night.

"That's the supreme test of a pilot's skill," my companion explained. "Boats under full steam narrowly escape snags and shifting sandbars even in full daylight. A good pilot develops an unerring memory for landmarks. He often determines his location at night by the echo of the steam whistle as it resounds from the bluffs. Only an expert can cope with this untamed stream."

Our steamboat tickets included meals; as I was about to question my new acquaintance on this subject, he remarked, "The steward will soon announce dinner. If you stay close to me, I'll see that you get a good seat."

I was only too glad to accept his offer. We took our places at a long table in the cabin. It was an elegant room, painted in pure white, and equipped with the very finest furnishings. Our meal was a hearty one, with wild turkey for the main dish. After the tables were cleared, a stringed orchestra played lively tunes while gaily dressed ladies in hoop skirts and innumerable flounces joined their partners in the Virginia Reel.

Gambling often went on in such boats day and night. Not only gold and silver pieces, but watches and jewelry went into the jackpot. A few Southern planters became so excited that they even bet their slaves in a game of cards. Many incidents arose from the slavery question. Most people were wary about expressing any opinions, for party spirit ran high and there was no way of knowing whether the stranger at your side was proslavery or free-state, friend or foe.

Most of the wood carried aboard was handled by Negro roustabouts. At landings along the bank our first mate seemed to consider it his duty to curse and strike the Negroes as they struggled up the gangplank under their heavy burdens. Up to this time my knowledge of slavery had come entirely through reading and hearsay. The brutality I now witnessed added fuel to the flame already kindled. I realized that Uncle Tom's Cabin was not mere fiction.

When the New Lucy finally docked in Kansas City, the passengers were hurried from the vessel just before supper under the impression that they might otherwise be carried on to Leavenworth. Holman and I made our way along the levee past boxes, cartons, and all kinds of merchandise piled wherever space could be found. Slaves were everywhere. There was a moving mass of wagons, animals, and men. The cracking of ox whips, cries of drivers, and braying of mules all added to the confusion. Facing the wharf were a few brick buildings that served as warehouses and outfitting stations for emigrants. Behind these rose high precipitous bluffs, seamed by hollows where blackjacks had taken root.

Backing into the bluff was a boarding-house or hotel where we engaged a room for the night. Since my funds were getting low, I decided to go without supper. Then it suddenly occurred to me I might be entitled to another meal on the New Lucy. I returned to the levee, where members of the crew were still busy unloading freight. Dashing up the gangplank, I boldly entered the cabin and took my place at the table. I gulped down the food, all in a tremble lest the boat should get under way; and even wrapped some morsels in a napkin to serve for another meal.

When I returned to the hotel, Holman had just finished his dinner. This popular place, kept by H.W. Chiles, was known then as the Western Hotel, and later as the Gillis House. During the years 1856 and 1857 it is said to have had 27,000 customers. One of these was Andrew H. Reeder, first territorial governor of Kansas who had participated in the formation of a provisional free-state government. In May 1856, when proslavery leaders brought indictments for treason against him, he concealed himself in the Western Hotel and later escaped, disguised as a woodcutter. He took passage on a Missouri River steamboat bound for Illinois.

Just two months after my voyage on the New Lucy, she carried Kansas' fourth territorial governor, Robert J. Walker, to Leavenworth to take over the reigns of office. The boat stopped at Quindaro, where a waiting crowd at the wharf demanded a speech. They applauded as the new governor appeared on the upper deck and spoke briefly to his first Kansas audience.

Late in November of that same year, 1857, when the New Lucy was held up by the ice floes near DeWitt, Missouri, she caught fire through the carelessness of a watchman, and quickly burned to the water's edge. What little remained sank to the bottom of the channel. During her brief span of five years she had endeared herself to the people of the lower Missouri valley and was long remembered as one of the finest boats that ever plied the river.

 

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