Thursday, April 11, 2019

Whiskey Men and Their Steamboats

Foreword:  One of the great technological advances of the 19th Century was the steamboat.  No longer were vessels dependent on the wind for power.  The invention opened up America’s many rivers for commerce, an essential element in the country’s economic development.  Whiskey men were quick to see the advantages of steam, often locating their facilities within easy access to the water.  A handful ventured into owning and operating steamboats themselves, usually successful — but not always.  Here are short descriptions of four such endeavors.  

When Amiran Cole, shown right, arrived from New England in Peoria in 1835 he saw opportunity in its accessibility by road and water and decided to settle there.  Off-loading his trade goods, he opened a store on Main Street, the main commercial avenue.   Two years after establishing his general store, he sold out to one of his clerks and moved in an entirely new direction, becoming a steamboat captain.  

He bought a steamer, named the “Frontier,” and ran it as a passenger packet between LaSalle, Illinois, and St. Louis.  One of the first boats of its kind to ply the Illinois River, it has been cited as “intimately associated with the history of Peoria.”  Shown here is a photo of steamer traffic on the Illinois.  This foray onto the water brought Cole a lifelong title of “Captain.” 

Within several years, however, the Yankee tired of this occupation, sold the ship, and shortly after erected the first whiskey distillery in the history of Peoria, one capable of mashing fifty bushels of grain a day.  It was an inspired move.  By this time Peoria was experiencing considerable growth and would incorporate as a city in 1845.  Saloons were proliferating. Supplies of corn and other grains were abundant and easily accessed.  With Cole leading the way, distilling flourished.  In 1850, 5,685 barrels of whiskey were recorded coming from Peoria.  By 1859 distilling was the major manufacturing interest there, with hundreds of thousands of dollars invested.  Six distilleries and two alcohol works were in operation.

Born into an immigrant Scottish family, brothers Thomas, James and John Gaff found opportunity in Aurora, Indiana, to create a business empire of extraordinary size and breadth.  Founded on revenues from distilling whiskey, Gaff enterprises encompassed a brewery, a fleet of steamships plying the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Indiana grain and hog farms, a Louisiana plantation, a silver mine in Nevada, turnpike construction, railroad financing, banking, and what may have been the world’s first ready-made breakfast cereal. 

With their multiplying products, it was almost natural that the Gaffs would gravitate to shipping.  They built and owned a fleet of steamboats, among them the Diana, Mary Pell, Eclipse, J.W. Gaff, and Forest Queen.  Despite the pro-Confederacy feeling in southern Indiana, the Gaffs loaned the Forest Queen to the Union Army where it served for a time as General William Tecumseh Sherman's headquarters below Vicksburg, and later successfully ran the blockade there during the Civil War battle.  

Above are the Eclipse, left, and Diana, the latter involved in perhaps the longest, closest and most exciting contest of the steamboat era.  Challenged by the Baltic steamboat in March 1858 for a race 1,382 miles up the Mississippi River, the Diana kept pace but lost narrowly.  The resulting publicity helped thrust the Gaffs into the national limelight.

When Albert M. Root and Andrew J. Midler, buddies from Syracuse, New York, came to a booming Saginaw,  Michigan, about 1863, they started a liquor business aimed at slaking the thirst of the lumbermen thronging the city.  Their subsequent success provided them with the wealth to own and operate the largest fleet of steamboats plying the busy Saginaw River.  

As the liquor house of Root & Midler prospered, their wealth propelled them into shipping.  In 1872 the partners purchased the steamer L.G. Mason and the following year the Daniel Ball.  The partners’ final purchase was the Cora Locke, a side-wheeler used as an auxiliary ship on weekends when traveler demand was heavy.   As a result of their fleet, Root and Midler largely controlled the passenger business between Saginaw and Bay City, a monopoly the firm succeeded in maintaining for fifteen years.  Over time the they rebuilt entirely the L.G. Mason.  It was said to emerge “as fresh as a daisy” and remained a favorite river craft for many years, setting a record for Saginaw River trips.  

Not everything on the waters went well for the partners.  In October 1876 the Daniel Ball caught fire while on the way down river and was run ashore.  The passengers escaped unhurt but the aging craft burned to the water’s edge and sank, a total lost.  Undaunted, Root and Midler commissioned a new steamer from a Saginaw shipyard, shown below.  Launched in 1877, the ship was christened the Wellington R. Burt.   A side-wheeler weighing in a 252 tons, the Burt, shown here, was licensed to carry 500 people. 

Although the Wellington R. Burt, left, was said to be “a well patronized and popular boat” on the Saginaw River, it was the occasion of Root & Midler Co. being sued in 1885.  Apparently the custom of passengers was to jump on the boat as it approached the dock.  When a 48-year old Ms. Clinton made her jump to the gangway, she fell, broke her leg and sued the steamboat owners for negligence, asking damages.  After a lower court dismissed the suit, she appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.  That body ruled in her favor, indicating that the ship’s officers had not taken reasonable precautions against “an obvious frequent danger.”  

Charles Rebstock of St. Louis was one of the Midwest’s most successful whiskey merchants, with customers in a multitude of states.  He merchandised his whiskey through a series of trade cards -- some of them shown here -- that are both amusing and puzzling. Particularly opaque is one showing two young women examining the head of a man contemplating a beached and presumably wrecked steamboat. 

That image may seem less strange when we understand that Rebstock in 1880 had commissioned a Mississippi steamboat be built in St. Louis with his name attached. This packet was to carry his goods and salesmen to the lower Mississippi and its tributaries.  The venture apparently proved unprofitable and three years later he sold the boat at a loss.  It later burned and was junked. The figure represented on the card looks a great deal like Rebstock himself.  My interpretation is that the whiskey man is having his head examined about his disastrous venture into steamships.

Note:  More complete biographies of each of these whiskey men may be found on this blog:  Amiron Cole, February 1, 2019;  Gaff Bros., July 8, 2018; Root & Midler, February 14, 2018, and Charles Rebstock, September 6, 2011.

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