Motor Boats on the Mississippi [1909]

On the Mississippi River there are few river people who cannot remember the days when the craft of gasoline was regarded as a very fallible toy; from the beginning the motor boat made slow progress as a means of transportation and pleasure on the mighty stream, which ever flows southward to empty through many moths into the Gulf. Even after the motor boat was firmly established in other waters, it was not considered seriously on the "Big Muddy"; for conditions were very much against the innovation. No one believed that the current ever would be successfully navigated by any type of craft but the flat-bottomed steamboats, that are practically the same to-day as they were when Mark Twain piloted one of them for his living.

The Mississippi as a navigable stream has changed little in her hazards that it offers the amateur. True, the United States Engineer Corps had been at work, and so has the Lighthouse Service—they are still doing the best they can—but the problems presented by the dams, or "dykes," as they are sometimes called, and the light posts and day marks that go with them, are pretty near as difficult for the amateur boatman to overcome as the hazards of navigation in earlier days.

Perhaps the presence of dams, constructed of reef-like rocks, present as serious a problem to the uninitiated as shallow waters of other days; but to the boatman who makes a study of the principles of river navigation they become a help. On each side of the stream, according to the location of the channel, there are light posts and day marks, and at low water there are barrel buoys on the ends of dams.

But it is not the lights and channel that have made the motor boat come into its own on the Mississippi—and if it has not really stepped into its place, rapidly it is finding it—but the utility of the craft itself.

Las June-July the St. Louis Power Boat Association sent eighteen power craft up the river as far as Burlington, Iowa, to attend the national regatta of the Mississippi River Power Boat Association. Nine of the fleet went north as far as Rock Island, Ill., some 350 miles from the starting point. With a single day’s exception the nine long-distance boats made the runs from day to day on scheduled time, the nine motors sometimes purring steadily for 12 to 14 hours, without more than an hour’s pause in the middle of the day. Some of them, indeed, often ran throughout the day—once a 72-mile run against the 5-mile current. And no one, with the single exception, already mentioned—a boat that broke a crankshaft—complained of troubles. The current bucking became a pleasant thing that had never been accomplished before.

Some river cities have power boat associations, affiliated with the Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association. Perhaps the Burlington (Iowa) Association is the most flourishing of these, but the Muscatine (Iowa) organization has the best club house. It is a $10,000 building, and there are large floats below it for the accommodation of boats. The club house is located in the most convenient place possible on the levee, and the members, under the leadership of Commodore Bishop, are hospitable and enthusiastic. The clubs at the tri-cities of Rock Island and Moline, Ill., and Davenport, Iowa, are not equally significant—at least so it appeared to some of us on the St. Louis Power Boat Association cruise—but there are good facilities for tying up safely at the Rock Island organization’s floats. At Fort Madison one finds a wildly enthusiastic aggregation of boatmen and every courtesy possible is shown to the visitor. Commodore Dixon, of the Burlington association, the recently-elected president of the Mississippi Valley Association, is a man after the boatman’s heart and his associates are with him.

The St. Louis Power Boat Association, although a promising organization, has not assumed the proportions that are fitting for a city the size of St. Louis. But everything has been against the power boat at St. Louis, as far as the water is concerned. The river runs very swiftly, as fast as seven and eight miles an hour at times, though averaging something nearer five, and it is very muddy, due to the influx of the Missouri above North St. Louis and a few miles below Alton, Ill. For this reason a number of St. Louis boat owners keep their craft at Alton and when they wish to get on the water take the train or trolley to Alton. In this way the 26 miles of upstream running, in the least attractive part of the Mississippi, is avoided; but this weakens the strength of the St. Louis organization.

Forty-one miles from St. Louis, by the Light Book, is Grafton, Ill., at the mouth of the Illinois River, and this is frequently the objective point of St. Louis boats. The Illinois River provides a means for St. Louis boatmen to run through the Great Lakes and down the Hudson to the Atlantic Coast, and when the type of boats in common use now changes to something more capable of standing rough water, it is probable that the pennant of the St. Louis Power Boat Association, and the pennants of other Mississippi clubs will not be unknown in the North and East. The boatmen to the further north have the Hennepin canal to take them to the Illinois River.

The Mississippi is navigable to the northward to Minneapolis and St. Paul, while to the south one can cruise in a motor boat to the Gulf and thence through the protected waters of Mississippi Sound to the West Coast of Florida.

(Transcribed from Yachting, October 1909, pp. 298-300)

[Thanks to Greg Calkins for help in preparing this page — LF]