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The San Francisco call. [volume] (San Francisco [Calif.]) 1895-1913, July 23, 1911, Image 3

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The San Francisco Sunday Call
Steamboating
on the
Old San Joaquin
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Ate- Haiy [email protected]« ; .
H. J. Corcoran
ARECEXT news Item recites that
the steamer J. K. McDonald. In
charge of Captain Charles McMur
try, had completed a trip from Stock
ton to a point on the San Joaquin, near
Fresno. "Whatr memories of a glorious
past are awakened by. the reading.
Shades of departed pioneers come
trooping from out the long past years
when this stream was the highway on
which passed the vast commerce of the
valley-which bears it3-name. Thou&h
the years which mark the chapters in
the history,of the old Joaquin are com
paratively few. they are full of human
Interest. When, some day. they, are
written, tragedy and comedy will mix
and intermingle and romance will add
rest and Interest toy the solemn and
sober records of commerce.
The, steamer McDonald was named
In order to.honor, In a feeble way. a
roble and distinguished gentleman,
who spent a long and useful life upon
the banks of the Joaquin; whpefe life
history is inseparably linked with that
of the river, and who sleeps the long
sleep within sound of her murmuring
waters. Captain McMurtry is one of
the few remaining of the old guard
who braved the dangers of the river
in the years gone by, most of whom
have stood their last watch and now
rest where the throbbing of the engines
or the shrill sounds of the whistle no
longer disturb them.
The river alone has not changed.
Then, as now. she comes into her full
ness of power with the storms of early
winter and quietly subsides at the ap
proach of autumn. .For many years
her quiet has not been disturbed by the
noise of fast turning wheel or ruffing
exhaust as some steamer breasted her
current, laden with merchandise from"
the seaboard and intended \ for those
who : dwelt in the mysterious country
known as "up the river."
Anxious eyes no longer strain to catch
the smoke .which, rising in a dense,
black column straight Into the air,
proclaimed the coming of a steamer
when no other sign was manifest.
Crowds no longer gather at the land
ings to view with profound, ■ merest
this, to them, strange messenger of
commerce which cut so large a figure
In their lives and in the prosperity;of
their valley. „, For: they knew and rec
ognized the fact that herein :lay their
protection against the Impositions of
•railroads, and their defense against
monopoly of carriage. „'.,->
Every calling produces some strange
characters peculiar to itself, and boat
ing is no exception. The call of the
"fculck" water 13 fully as strong as the
lure or the deep blue sea, and!the river
boat man loved the old stream with
fully as 1 Intense an/affection. as was
felt by the sailor .upon the seven, seas
for the great ocean which ,was his
home in life and very"often hi* resting
place in ?death. When the river closed
for the season and the crews were paid
off and boats laid up in safety the men
thus thrown out of employment were
like uneasy spirits which revisit < the
scenes of their earthly existence.'/ Many
of them would come often to look at
the steamers- tied .up or 'at anchor,
while ' others would make their way ;to
the head of navigation. whence
they would come in skiffs or. rowboats
down the old channel. They said that
this [ni to | become familiar .', with . the
changes that might • have i. taken ' place,
but really it was because of ; the
strength of,the tie which bound them,
one and all. to the river.
Weeks would be used up on these
trips and as they passed the different
points of Interest some one would tell
the ' story connected with : them.; ' For
nearly 'every bend and reach has a his
tory, every sand bar has a number of
stories ' connected ; with it, while "/ the
various snag*, bridges ; and other . ob
stacles "never failed to ; provoke a
*yarrL'd_BßMßMp^pH|^n|_Qnß_|BPl
Here It was that "White Horse"
Brown pulled all night with his steam
er upon a tree \ stump to, which a deck
band had * made fast a line '. one dark
night. Instead of taking It to . the tow
ing bitta of th barge which 'was
aground. . Until the gray dawn the
steamer pulled and hauled without
avail, the while the ' offending, deck
hand slept peacefully. Upon this snag
a barge laden .with, 12.000 bags of grain
struck and .tore a..hole in -the bottom
planking SO feet long and one plank in
width. Two days later that same barge
was towed Into; Stockton; without -' the
loss ;or , damage j of ; a bag ,of • grain.
Verily, these- we: "resourceful men... ""*"/
/In this, reach/ it /was "that Scotia"
performed his remarkable achievement."
He was an exceedingly reliable., man
at certain kinds of work and ;when \ he
had worked as long as to him seemed
meet? and ' proper he - would Igo upon ,- a
spree until stern, necessity/ forced him
to go to Work once more.- In this his
toric Instance, , "Scotia* ;: held " chosen / a
time ; for his spree when *he ' was' badly
needed. '"-' The captain of - the steamer
concocted ai plot . by- which ihe was
coaxed -" on board while . the boat ■ was
engaged: at the ; landing,' and before he
realized what was happening the lines
were cast off and the boat was ■ breast
ing the current -of the broad river far
from : shore. ■: '/Scotia"_', soon ! discovered
what'was going on, and," rushing to the
upper 'deck demanded that the; steamer
put/ about to» allow him; to go ashore.
This being refused,' he promptly sprang
into -- the " river," and /.with ■" steady and
certain'/ stroke- 1 swam / ashore -; to '"■ the
town *- of j Grayson," where, r 'as ;he i ex
pressed it," he "finished - his vacation."
Those /. who '■'; found _ themselves Z in 5. the
swift; waters .were riot all so fortunate
a* Scotia. Che young man who shipped
I as ut] tow line tender and ; who, iln spite
of repeated ' warnings, ',' persisted-,• in
• standlnr.upon the " : . wrong aide of the
tow line when It was drawn taut by,the
towing steamer,' was caught under the
chin by the rope and was thrown far
out, into , the shallow water , whence he
was recovered, with a broken neck,
:stone,dead." „';- '.'".•■* "-;../'
At tMs landing It was. that a little
steamer and ; barge, '■ operated by a man
named Braun, a * total stranger to the
river and Its ,customs, remained; tied to
/.the bank t for • weeks. When {in f Stock
ton he went/ to tan intelligence office
In search of a crew of deck hands. ' A*
well go to hades for Ice cream. He
was provided with a,crew of about 20
men, who were/broke and glad to get
; out of town j with " a few,, square meals
stowed away, where they would do the
most good.
After steaming two days and tying
up at night, as the.steamer carried a
single 'crew of office- they came to
this point.' The morning after-land
. ing : : the < entire crew on deck. Including
the fireman, left' the steamer -and went
_.to_ work among the farmers near by.
Braun finally got his outfit back "to San
Francisco, and the old San Joaquin saw
him no more. -
t As they move •lowly down the stream
they come;to- the,bend where the barge
Diamond went to the bottom In 20 feet
of :iter, :laden-^ wit 5,000 bags "of
/grain.: not ; one bag of" which was in
_ sured. ; The - owner, who" was" a "tramp,™
left the river and died soon after broken
hearted because of _ the? losses' he: had'
: caused > to/f all upon a riumber 'ofpoor;
% farmers .who < had * Intrusted their grain
vto 1 him.'which grain he had allowed to
/ be [lost : because he * refused to heed. his
Icompetitors, who called ; his attention to
4 the condition of his barge and warned
him of the danger.
; To a certain; willow : tree the chief
engineer .of the ; steamer ■ Empire City
clung; with one :" arm ' for * two hour* on
a -bitter cold December night, with /his
body Immersed in the ley .waters of the
river, his * other * arm ; broken '"< in two
places and * the'; lower jaw /upon ( one side"
torn away.'; Going out :to th* wheel :to
Oil he \ had slipped and waa struck by,
the crank ; and cast Into the river.
Floating down": with the * current, ; he
happened to grasp a willow and, clung
to it 1 until rescued by | the steamer from
which he was missed when he failed to
answer the = signals of the pilot. They
took s him to * San Joaquin , City, sum
moned - a physician, and lie lived ?to a
green old age, . but the river knew him
no more. ... .
• Yonder stands a house brought from
the Atlantic seaboard on a brig which,
sailing through the Golden gate, passed
on to the point where the Joaquin flows
Into Suisun, bay, where they stopped to
found the city ;of "New ". York on the
Pacific." J " - -
This became "New York' Landing,"
then "New, York," i and ' then , it ; disap
peared. Such Is .the record of the rise
and fall of One historic city. * The voy
ager* kept on; past Stockton | until 'they
grew J Impatient of their slow progress,
abandoned ; their ship ; and struck over
land for the gold i mines, where, let •us
hope, they,were smiled upon by. fortune,
for they deserved It. ,
'"Beneath that clump of willow''trees
a man camped "one. night on his way
from V the / southern ■ mines to ■ the 1- old
Mission San Jose. He was unable to
cross : the river j without swimming his
horses s and ■ intrusting his wagon to a
flimsy raft. Human {beings were taken
across in" skiffs. ": He was Informed that
the nearest available ferry boat 20
miles away.' In the mottling he bought
out all the rights of the man then In
the usiness, went to Stockton "and
had built a suitable boat, which /would
carry."several ; hundred * sheep:at ;a/load
and" which was f repelled •" from - side: to
side", by -.the ?cu ent. Fortune smiled
; upon " him,- though -at the ' expense /of
many others. The dry season of *1564
came '/soon * and J cattle ;; and sheep by
thousands and tens of thousands were
taken from central and' southern/Call-:
fornia to the lowlands and , the 1 Sierra.
The revenues -from _ his :' ferry ■' in 5 that
year made him independent for life, and
when 'it was * over he ; retired": upon . his
'earnings" and bought a' beautiful estate'
In Contra Costa * county. Upon many
days;the: money he took in amounted'to
three *.times ■ his total":investment. . To
day a splendid steel bridge spans the
river where the historic i ferry . crossed
I and recrossed in the good old days. ,
/ > Not ; far , below our wayfarers * came
i to" San' Joaquin /island, where ; during
low water stages the 4 boatmen always
looked: for trouble, and usually found
It. This Island so divided the channel
-as :to cause a sandbar to form, and
upon this _ sandbar *it was \no unusual
sight to. see half a dozen vessels I stuck
hard and faat. When each one * had
tried In vain to liberate himself they
made common causes and In a - brief
time all .were free. It was ""an-, un- 1
written but known law that those who
were helped :'/ over | first : must j remain
until /all were ; over. Only once" was
- this law violated. Then the offending
captain "steamed away,; to, Stockton and
left his fellows to get out as best they
could. • A few i days • later,- this man was
/coming •: down ; " stream * with *•a barge
loaded with grain In tow, when he. met
a steamer bound up In charge of a
man " named' George Hunt He slowed
down to ask Hunt upon which side of
Fisherman's "reach .he could and, the
channel, as it ; shifted from side to side
- with varying conditions. * He was told
*to"-follow,:the' starboard channel, .which
he did at full speed, when to his utter
amazement 'his boat piled up on the
sandbar and the barge narrowly miss-
| ing the steamer piled up alongside. It
took six days of wearing work to g*et
that outfit ' and cargo over the bar Into
.deep/water,, and when .It was accom
plished that captain had learned a val
uable lesson, which was emphasized by
the fact that /every passing, steamer,
captain tooted his whistle -in derision'
at the predicament of his fellow.
Instances like 5 th's were ; the excep
tion and were so extremely rare 'as to
be historic. Asa rule, "good: feeling
prevailed between „ pilots as- well as
owners and J they" were * quick ;to come
to one another's assistance.- For all ;of
this,': rivalry was exceedingly keen, and
at the I opening *of the 3 grain season,
when grain : was .'coming In ", in small
quantities, it was usual for "prices to
be cut to a low figured As the water
fell and the quantity, of grain -upon" the
hanks 'Increased,-prices went up until
it became (a question of ; how much i the
traffic would , stand. , /It happened once
that a certain I captain 1: went to Crow's
Landing to load a boat and barge with
a- combined capacity; of ?: 6,000 bags,
while there were five. times that, num
ber /.'awaiting/: shipment. The ';;: season
was growing late The water j was fall
ing. The farmers were anxious, 'sit
happened that the captain f;of, this
steamer _ had engaged all this * grain i at
$3 ' a /ton '■'. freighL * Each"; shipper. 4 de
manded J that, his »" grain fbe ." given the
preference, ; and ' matters; were «fast; be
coming * ; serious/when / the ■; purser, a
young ■• chap " from' Missouri,-' mounted
the hurricane deck and, addressing*the
farmers, - proceeded -to auction'; off * the
privilege of loading* the outfit. Bidding
was active and 1 the': right was finally
knocked down for $1,000,-which, with
the regular freight money, made a;nice
earning } for/" the / boat for *""■that,/ trip.
Subsequently/ the river : held," owing, to
cool weather, and -, every bag :of : grain i
was -carried ouL*_B_H_|H9_llHS*_-hM
/Some,of the-;veteran boatmen were
strangely constituted mentally./ One ;of
the 1; most ; valuable ;; pilots was J a"/ man
who had a maxv*r*~n e-^wM- A** "-**,«/.
ing the water." as . finding , the channel
in low water, is called. By reason of
his extraordinary talent he commanded >
a: good salary and waa,eagerly sought
after. He. would work only- for one
company, and no proffer of higher
wages would cause him to forsake "this
employer. When the last trip was made
and the men paid off he disappeared as
completely as If swallowed up by the
sea, but 'the day the river opened he
was on handbroke.. "i_j_|K
valuable man was from Arkan
sas. When a child he ran; away from
home to become a boatman, • and had
never been in a schoolroom. He could
neither read nor write, and one of the '
singular vagaries of his mind was that
he had no conception of the relation of
numbers or ; quantities. For Instance,
he knew of such a number as a hundred,
and of a j thousand, but as to whether
the hundred was more or less than the
thousand his mind was a perfect blank.
Added to this was a fatuous obstinacy,
which caused him to insist upon load
ing his vessels heavier than the depth
of water in the river, would justify, and
these two characteristics frequently led
to his being, called Into the office for a
lecture. Upon • one of -thesf occasions
he was feeling unusually (franky, and
when the lecture was over he turned to
his superior and j said: /"Give me my
money, and ' take your —d old steam
boat. I am going back to Arkansas;to
teach schooL", Needless to say, the edu- '
cational system of Arkansas had to
struggle | along without; hl# assistance,
for, he remained upon the river until the
jingle i bell "was rung, which" signifies
"all done."
„ Romance there was also upon the old
stream. One steamer had a young and
handsome pilot who became acquainted
with ; a farmer's daughter, whose home
was on i the river bank. Every time the
vessel = passed la : signal; fluttered / from
the young woman's window, :and In re
sponse a salute was 'sounded, upon the
boat's whistle. The course of true love
' seemed to be running smooth ; enough
k when tidings ; came that the handsome
pilot had married a young. lady on th*
Sacramento river. Soon * afterward * the *
crew of .a ,steamer . going :up stream
found the'body -of the young lady In a
clump of willows, drowned. It may
have been :an accident, but ' in any case
; the gay, and handsome pilot was com
pelled to seek seme other calling, n
-So great was the confidence existing
among the people along the river In the
integrity of the/steamboat companies
that it was ; nothing unusual : for thou
sands of ; bags of. grain to, be shipped :
without any record being given the
farmer. " "This confidence was never
abused by any of the regular lines.' but
on one occasion a "tramp" barge owner
had ' his barge towed Into the * river to
take ! a load :of .wood" from a,' man who
had « been induced to consign' his ' wood
to j the;,"tramp* to be sold*, It . should
have netted him $400 or SSOO dollars, in
stead of /which he received a notice
telling him that the wood had not sold
for enough to pay charges and that he "
owed the tramp %i. Many months later -
; the same barge was being J towed up
stream, the same tramp was at the
wheel. Before he realized his location
a bullet came .whizzing ? through '■- the
pilot house, just missing his ihead-vHadl
the! shooter taken Into account th mo- -
tion.of the barge t. things would have
been different. The pilot,', with 1 a cry of
terror, jumped. to . the deck/ ran back to
the stern and plunged down a hatchway
to the, hold: and safety. The farmer's
, rifle was one "of "• the ■ old : type . which
fired but one ; shot, ?so ' our ' worthy * es- *
caped. ; When the barge tied, up the ;
pilot arranged to have it lowed out of
the river and walked 15 miles to the *
railroad, on- which -he;/ was speedily '
taken away. The fanner sat on a stump
with his gun across, his knees for many
months, but he never got another, shot j
at his man, a circumstance of which he „
often ';complained. „
It was in^,», flourishing river town
that the peopie concluded to give a
theatrical performance. Hamlet waa
to be the play and the date fixed was
while the river was closed to naviga
tion. So many things caused delay that
summer was approaching before all ar
rangements were concluded/ /'- For the
leading part-they cast the landlord of
the local hotel, who was also agent for
all the steamers and "who was an edu
cated and cultured gentleman.
On the night of the play Polonlus and
the" Ghost engaged in a game of poker
with a stranger from Modesto and
when the time came for the curtain to
go up they were largely to the bad and
like true sports were reluctant to give
up the game while they had a chip re
maining. They were gathered in, how
ever, when it was found that the first
grave digger and the king had quar
reled over the ownership of a hog and
in the resultant argument the grave
digger had blacked both eyes of his
majesty, who. •to hide his sham- had
slunk off to"bed while the .victor pro
ceeded to / celebrate / by getting full.
These minor obstacles were, overcome
by, the genius of the stage manager and
the curtain had just been rung up, dis
closing a Strang- though appropriate
scene to the gaze the admiring audi
ence, when there/bounded on the/air
the two blasts of * a steamer whistle,
indicating that it was intending to stop.
The audience, led bj^fcamlet. hurried to
the river bank Just' as the steamer's
lines were made fast. " The cargo un
loaded and the necessary business con
cluded, the pilot gave the signal >to
"stand by." while the captain from the
upper : deck Issued his : orders, "let go
your head line." "pass up the tow line."
The bow of the steamer swings slowly
away from the shore. The pilot gives
the engineer the signal,; "full speed
ahead"; the crowd on the bank cheers
heartily, the pilot sounds the "good
by" signal with his whistle, the tow
line tighten*. The wheel tosses the
swift moving water in heaving billows,
the steamer heads away for up the river
and as the fast fading lights are lost in
the distance < the: actors and the. audi
ence wend their way slowly homeward.
Of those who trod the boards that night
some-are still living. Ophelia married
Laertes and lived happily, while Hamlet
and the king, their mimic quarrel for
gotten,': sleep peacefully in the little
cemetery behind the town.
In the early days of boating upon the
river, all cargoes "were carried upon
steamers. : Small barges were then In- :
troduced, .which had a. capacity of 200
tons, -or - 3.000 bags :of grain. When a
barge of a /capacity: of 6,000 bags, or
400 tons, was built and , assigned to a
steamer;; In charge of< one of the most
experienced captains on the river, : that
gentleman; assured his superior officers
that; such; a barge could not go .up and
down the/ river unless-her: sides were
hinged, so that she'would fold up like
a' jackknife. Still they grew gradually
larger, until the-limit was reached, in
the Excel and the Atlas/each of which
would" carry 18,000' bags, or 1,200
tons. ' - ' . i«QBaQHaH_pa*«wHNOH
- The carrying • trade finally. fell into
the hands"' of . a few companies. /which
eventually consolidated. Meantime rail
roads were built upon one side and then
upon the other.- - Thisl changed/ the'
business very. much. River.towns were
deserted or, like Hills: ferry,' moved
back, to the railroad, and finally the
boats "-abandoned the business entirely.;
There is still a large and paying volume
of business to be done by the river, and
If the government car .-be'induced/to ,
make * the projected ; Improvements _ the
old Joaquin .will come into her own
again. t If / this grand and beautiful
stream: is made : navigable throughout .'.
the ;- year, :as it can be If /the cost Is
forthcoming,- a new and glorious .era
will dawn for the boatmen as "well' as
for the people. This will settle the
vexed; question of rates, '_ and ; for ■■ all
time. '"'Let us hope that It may speedily
be brought to pass*

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