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The Last of the Flatboats A Story of the Mississippi and Its Interesting Family of Rivers


Vevay, from which “The Last of the Flatboats” starts on its voyage down the Mississippi, is a beautiful little Indiana town on the Ohio River, about midway between Cincinnati and Louisville. The town and Switzerland County, of which it is the capital, were settled by a company of energetic and thrifty Swiss immigrants, about the year 1805. Their family names are still dominant in the town. I recall the following as familiar to me there in my boyhood: Grisard, Thiebaud, Le Clerc, Moreraud, Detraz, Tardy, Malin, Golay, Courvoisseur, Danglade, Bettens, Minnit, Violet, Dufour, Dumont, Duprez, Medary, Schenck, and others of Swiss origin.

The name Thiebaud, used in this story, was always pronounced “Kaybo” in Vevay. The name Moreraud was called “Murrow.”

The map which accompanies this volume was specially prepared for it by Lieut. – Col. Alexander McKenzie of the Corps of Engineers of the United States Army. To his skill, learning, and courtesy I and my readers are indebted for the careful marking of the practically navigable parts of the great river system, and for the calculation of mileage in every case.

G. C. E.


“Give it up, boys; you’re tired, and you’ve been in the water too long already. And, besides, I’ve decided that this job’s done.”

It was Ed Lowry who spoke. He was lying on the sand under a big sycamore tree that had slid, roots and all, off the river bank above, and now stood leaning like a drunken man trying to stand upright.

Ed was a tall, slender, and not at all robust boy, with a big head, and a tremendous shock of half-curly hair to make it look bigger.

The four boys whom he addressed had been diving in the river and struggling with something under the water, but without success. Three of them accepted Ed’s suggestion, as all of them were accustomed to do, not because he had any particular right to make suggestions to them, but because he was so far the moral and intellectual superior of every boy in town, and was always so wise and kindly and just in his decisions, that they had come to regard his word as a sort of law without themselves quite knowing why.

Three of the boys left the river, therefore, shook the water off their sunburned bodies, – for they had no towels, – and slipped into the loose shirt and cottonade trousers that constituted their sole costume.

The other boy – Ed’s younger brother, Philip – was not so ready to accept suggestions. In response to Ed’s call, he cried out in a sort of mock heroics: —

“Never say die! In the words of the immortal Lawrence, or some other immortal who died a long time ago, ‘Don’t give up the ship!’ I’m going to get that pig if it takes all summer.”

The boys all laughed as they threw themselves down upon the sand by Ed.

“Might as well let him alone,” said Will Moreraud; “he never will quit.”

Meantime Phil had dived three or four times more, each time going down head first, wrestling with the object as long as he could hold his breath, and each time manifestly moving one end or the other of it nearer the shore, and into shallower water, before coming to the surface again.

When he had caught his breath after the third or fourth struggle, he called out: —

“I say, boys, it isn’t a pig at all, but a good average-sized elephant. ‘Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish,’ I’m going to get that animal ashore.”

“He’ll do it, too,” said Constant Thiebaud.

“Of course he will,” drawled Irving Strong. “It’s a way he has. He never gives up anything. Don’t you remember how he stuck to that sum in the arithmetic about that cistern whose idiotic builder had put three different sized pipes to run water into it, and two others of still different sizes to run water out? He worked three weeks over that thing after all the rest of us gave it up and got Mrs. Dupont to show us – and he got it, too.”

“Yes, and he can do it now backwards or forwards or standing on his head,” said Constant Thiebaud; “while there isn’t another boy here that can do it at all.”

“Except Ed Lowry,” said Irving Strong. “But then, he’s different, and knows a whole lot about the higher mathematics, while we’re only in algebra. How is it, Ed? You’ve been sick so much that I don’t believe you ever did go to school more than a month at a time, and yet you’re ahead of all of us.”

Just then Phil came up after a long tussle under the water, and this time stood only a little way from shore where the water was not more than breast high. He cried: —

“Now I’ve ‘met the enemy and it’s ours,’ or words to that effect. I’ve got the elephant into three feet of water, but I can’t ‘personally conduct’ it ashore. Come here, all of you, and help.”

The boys quickly dropped out of their clothes, and went to their comrade’s assistance.

“What is the thing, anyhow?” asked Irving Strong.

“I don’t know,” said Phil. “All I know is that it’s got elbows and wrists and all sorts of burs on it, on which I’ve been skinning my shins for the last half hour; and that it is heavier than one of your compositions, Irv.”

The thing was in water so shallow that all the boys at once could get at it merely by bending forward and plunging their heads and shoulders under the surface. But it was so unwieldy that it took all five of them – for Ed too had joined, as he always did when there was need of him – fully ten minutes to bring it out upon shore.

“I say, boys,” said Ed, “this is a big find. It’s that ferry-boat shaft the iron man told us about, and you remember we are to have fifty dollars for it.”

“Then hurrah for Phil Lowry’s obstinate pertinacity!” said Irving Strong. “That’s what Mrs. Dupont called it when she bracketed his name and mine together on the bulletin-board as ‘Irreclaimable whisperers.’ Phil, you may be irreclaimable, but you’ve proved that this shaft isn’t.”

It was just below the little old town of Vevay on the Ohio River, where Swiss names and some few Swiss customs still survived long after the Swiss settlers of 1805 were buried. To be exact, it was at “The Point,” where all Vevay boys went for their swimming because it lay a little beyond the town limits, and so Joe Peelman, the marshal, could not arrest them for swimming there in daylight without their clothes.

During the high water of the preceding winter a barge loaded with pig-iron had broken in two there and sunk. The strong current quickly carried away what was left of the wrecked barge, – which had been scarcely more than a great oblong box, – leaving the iron to be undermined by the water and to sink into the sand and gravel of the bottom.

The agent who came to look after matters quickly decided that at such a place very little of the cargo could ever be recovered – not enough to justify him in sending a wrecking force there. He thought, too, that by the time of summer low water – for the Ohio runs very low indeed in July and August – the iron would have settled and scattered too much to be worth searching for.

But Phil Lowry not only never liked to give up, he never liked to see anybody else give up. So what he looked upon as the iron man’s weak surrender gave him an idea. He said to the agent: —

“That iron’s where we boys go swimming in summer-time. If we get any of it out during the low water, can we have it? Is it ‘finder’s keeper’?”

“Well, no,” said the man, hesitating. “But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If you boys get out any considerable quantity, – say fifty tons or more, – enough to justify me in sending a steamboat after it, I’ll pay you three dollars a ton salvage for it.”

So the boys formed a salvage copartnership. Long-headed Ed Lowry, in order to avoid misunderstandings, drew up an agreement, and the iron man signed it. It gave the boys entire charge of the wreck, and bound the owner to pay for recovered iron as he had proposed. Just before signing the paper the agent remembered the ferry-boat wheel shaft, which had been a part of the cargo; and as it was a valuable piece of property, which he particularly wanted to recover, he added a clause to the contract agreeing to pay an additional fifty dollars for it, if by any remote chance it should be saved.

During the summer the boys had been specially favored by circumstances. The river had gone down much earlier that year than usual, and it went at last much lower than it had done for many years past. As a consequence they had prospered well in their enterprise. Their pile of iron “pigs” on the shore when the shaft was found amounted to three hundred tons, and the agent was to arrive by the packet that night to pay for it and take possession. This was, therefore, their last day’s work, and thanks to Philip Lowry’s “obstinate pertinacity” it was the most profitable day’s work of them all.


When the wheel shaft was tugged ashore, the boys slipped on their clothes again and retired to the shade of the big sycamore tree, where Ed Lowry had left the book he had been reading. Ed Lowry always had a book within reach.

Philip threw himself down to rest. He was not only tired, he was physically “used up” with his labors under water in tugging first one and then the other end of the heavy shaft toward the shore.

It would have been very hard work even in the open air. Under water, and without breath, it had completely exhausted the boy. Just now he was bent upon sleep. So in spite of the sun glare, and in spite of the chatter around him, and still more, in spite of a sense of triumph which was strong enough in him to have kept anybody else awake, he fell into a profound slumber.

“Well, we’ve finished the job,” said Constant Thiebaud after a while. “What’s the result, Ed?”

Ed Lowry pulled a memorandum out of his pocket and studied it for a while.

“We have saved a trifle over three hundred tons of pig-iron,” he replied, “and for that, at $3.00 a ton, will get a little over $900. We’re to get $50 more for the shaft, which makes $950. It’ll be a trifle more than that, but not enough more to count. My calculation is that we shall have about $190 apiece when the agent settles with us to-night – possibly $195.”

“And a mighty good summer’s work it is,” said Will Moreraud.

“Especially as it’s been all fun,” said Irv Strong, “to a parcel of amphibious Ohio River boys who would have stayed in the water most of the time anyhow. It’s better fun diving after pig-iron than after mussel-shells, isn’t it?”

Irving was the only boy in the party whose people were comparatively well-to-do, and who could therefore afford to think of the fun they had had without much concern for the profits. But Irv Strong had no trace of arrogance in his make-up. He could have dressed, if he had chosen, in much better fashion than any other boy in town. But he chose instead to wear blue cottonade trousers and a tow linen shirt, and to go barefoot just as his comrades did. So in speaking of the pleasure they had had, he put the matter in a way that all could sympathize with. For truly they had had more “fun” as he called it, than ever before in their lives. Ed Lowry could have told them why. He could have explained to them how much a real purpose, an object worth struggling for, adds to the enjoyment people get out of sport; but Ed usually kept his philosophy to himself except when there was a need for it. Just now there was no need. The boys were as happy as possible in the completion of their task, just as they had been as happy as possible in performing it. Satisfaction is better than an explanation at any time, and Ed Lowry knew it.

There was silence for a considerable time. Perhaps all the boys were tired after their hard day’s work. Presently Constant Thiebaud spoke.

“A hundred and ninety dollars apiece! That’s more money than any of us ever saw before. I say, boys, what are we going to do with it?”

There was a pause.

“Let him speak first who can speak best,” said Irv Strong. “So, Ed Lowry, what are you going to do with your share of the money?”

“I’m going shopping with it – shopping for some ‘bargain counter’ health,” replied the tall boy.

“How do you mean?” asked two boys at once, and eagerly.

“Well, my phthisic was very bad last winter, you know. It isn’t phthisic at all, I think. Phthisic is consumption, and I haven’t that – yet.”

He spoke hopefully, rather than confidently. He hoped his malady might not be a fatal one, but sometimes he had doubts.

Let me say here that his hope was better founded than his fear. For at this latter end of the century, Ed Lowry – under his own proper name and not under that which I am hiding him behind in this story – is not only living, but famous. His bodily strength has always been small, but the work he has done in the world with that big brain of his has been very great, and his name – the real one I mean – is familiar to everybody who reads books or cares for American history.

“But whatever it is,” Ed continued, “the doctor wants me to go South for this winter, and now that I’ve got money enough, I’m going to do it.”

“But you haven’t got money enough,” said Irv Strong. “A hundred and ninety dollars won’t much more than pay your steamboat fare to New Orleans and back. What are you going to live on down there – especially if you get sick?”

The irrepressible Phil selected this as the time to wake up. “Well,” he said, sitting up in the sand and locking his muscular arms around his knees, “I’m in this game a little bit myself. I’ve got one whole hundred and ninety dollars’ worth of stake in that big pile of iron; and from Mrs. Dupont down to the last one-suspendered chap in the lot of you, you are all always talking about my ‘obstinate pertinacity.’ Well, my ‘pertinacity’ just now ‘obstinately’ declares that Ed shall take my share in the stake and spend it for his health. He shakes his head, but if he won’t, then I ‘solemnly swear or affirm’ that I’ll take every dollar of it out to the channel there and throw it in. I’ll – ”

But Phil had broken down. His affection for his half-invalid brother was the one thing that nothing could ever overcome. He didn’t weep. That is to say, none of the boys saw him shed tears, but instead of finishing the sentence he was uttering, he suddenly became interested in the pebbles along the river shore, fifty yards lower down the stream.

Ed, too, found it difficult just then to say anything. Ed had always been disposed to worry himself about Phil – to regulate him, and when he couldn’t do that, to suffer in his own mind and conscience for his brother’s misdeeds – which, after all, were usually nothing worse than manifestations of excessive boyish enthusiasm, the undue use of slang, and an excessive devotion to purposes which Ed’s calmer temper could not quite approve. Just now Ed had made a new discovery. He had found out something of the rattling, restless, reckless boy’s character which he had never fully known before. For he did not know, as the other boys did, how Phil, a year ago, had waited for half an hour behind the schoolhouse, and armed with stones had wreaked a fearful vengeance upon the big bully twice his size, who had used his strength cruelly to torment Ed’s weakness. That story had been kept from Ed, because it was well understood that he did not approve of fighting; and the boys, who fully sympathized with the little fellow’s animosity against the big bully, didn’t want him censured for his battle and victory.

So there was silence after Phil’s declaration of his purpose, which every boy there knew that he would fulfil to the letter. At last Ed said: —

“On my own share of the money I could go by taking deck passage.”

“Yes,” cried Phil, suddenly reappearing in a sort of wrath that was very unusual with him – “yes, and live on equal terms with a lot of dirty, low-lived wretches – ugh! Now see here, Ed! I’ve told you you are to take my share of the money. If you don’t, I’ll do exactly what I said, – I’ll get it changed into coin, and I’ll drop it into the river at a point where no diving will ever get it. I’ve said my say. I’ll do my do.”

“Look here,” drawled Irv Strong, after a moment. “Let’s all go to New Orleans, and don’t let’s pay any steamboat fare at all except to get back!”

“But how?” asked three boys, in a breath.

“Let’s run a flatboat! In my father’s day, pretty nearly all the hay, grain, bacon, apples, onions, and the like, grown in this part of the country, were sent to New Orleans in flatboats. I don’t see why it wouldn’t pay for us to take a flatboat down the river now. We’ve more than enough money to build and run her, and we can get a cargo, I’ll bet a brass button.”

The boys were all eagerness. They knew, of course, what a flatboat was, but they had seen very few craft of that sort, as the old floating flatboats had almost entirely given place on the Ohio to barges, towed, or rather pushed, by big, stern-wheel steamboats. For the benefit of readers who never saw anything of the kind, let me explain.

A flatboat was simply a big, overgrown, square-bowed and square-sterned scow, with a box-like house built on top. She could carry a very heavy cargo without sinking below her gunwales, and the house on top, with its roof of slightly curved boards, was to hold the cargo. There was a little open space at the bow to let freight in and out, while a part of the deck-house at the stern was made into a little box-like cabin for the crew. The scow part, or boat proper, was strongly built, with great timber gunwales, and a bottom of two-inch plank tightly caulked. The freight-house built on it was so put together that only a few of the planks were required to have nails in them, so that when the boat reached New Orleans she could be sold as lumber for more than she had originally cost.

She was simply floated down the river by the current. There were two big oars, or “sweeps,” as they were called, with which the men by rowing could give the craft steerage way – that is to say, speed enough to let the big steering oar throw her stern around as a rudder does, and guide her course. All this was necessary in making sharp turns in the channel to keep off bars; but as the flatboats usually went down the river only at high stages of water, the chief use of the oars was to make landings.

Ed could have told his comrades some interesting facts concerning the enormous part that the flatboats once played in that commerce which built up the great Western country; but, as Irv Strong said, there was “already a question before the house. That question is, ‘Why can’t we five fellows build a flatboat, load her, and take her down the river?’ We’ll be the ‘hands’ ourselves, and won’t charge ourselves any wages, so we can certainly carry freight cheaper than any steamboat can. We’ll earn some more money, perhaps, and if we don’t, we’ll have lots of fun, and best of all, we’ll ‘bust that broncho,’ or bronchitis of Ed’s – for that’s what it is. They call it phthisic only because that’s the very hardest word in the book to spell.”

The sun was getting low, but the boys were deeply interested. They would have determined upon the project then and there but for Ed’s caution. As it was, they made him a sort of committee of one to inquire into details, to find out what it would cost to build a flatboat, what living expenses would be necessary for her boy crew, what it would cost them for passage back from New Orleans, and on what terms they could get a cargo.

This is how it all began.


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The Last of the Flatboats

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