No Place for a Lady

 

 

Journal of the Wife of a  Steamboat Captain

on the Upper Missouri River in 1869

 

Any pilot can navigate the Ohio or the Mississippi, but only a real riverman can run the Missouri.  Many times I heard that boast growing up in Georgetown, a little known borough on the Ohio River.  Here steamboat stories were told and told again.  The tale of an incredible $50,000 exchanging with a shake of hands on the back porch of a steamboat captain’s home was a beggar’s delight.  Another story detailed the tribute paid a retired river boat captain by boats passing his home.  As the captains passed the home, they would salute with a long, loud blow of their whistles at Mile 38.9 from Pittsburgh.  The story of the iced body was unnerving.  A steamboat captain who died near St Louis was kept on ice by the Masons until another Georgetown captain could run to St Louis and retrieve it.  As a boy, I heard these tales, but the town folks lives were no longer centered on the river.  The town had lost its connection when the ferry ceased operation in 1949.  Unlike Bill Mazeroski’s walk off home run in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, these river stories left me untouched.  Unlike baseball statistics, I knew little about the rich history of the river and my steamboating family.

 

Standing on the south bank of the Ohio River on a plateau of high grade sand safe from floods, Georgetown was a natural location for the development of a thriving boating industry.  Suitable timber and good iron works existed nearby.

Ohio River at Georgetown from the north bank ca 1880 (Frances and John Finley Collection)

Ohio River at Georgetown from the north bank ca 1880 (Frances and John Finley Collection)

These same conditions produced a number of river boat captains and pilots who plied the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers and their tributaries.  They accumulated enormous wealth.  Hard facts to support these statements are scattered and difficult to come by.  What is indisputable is that these men with their neighbors as crew, built boats, ran boats, and made Ohio River history.

 

 

 

 

 

Str Mollie Ebert (Photo courtesy of Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin - La Crosse)

Str Mollie Ebert (Photo courtesy of Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse)

In 1869 with a load of freight aboard the steamboat Mollie Ebert, Capt George Washington Ebert left Georgetown landing destined for Fort Benton in the Montana Territory.  Nancy Ann (Poe) Ebert accompanied her husband on that river voyage.  They were steaming right into Indian territory a few years before General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry’s ride to death at the Little Bighorn.  The sternwheel packet Mollie Ebert named after George and Nancy Ebert’s only child Mary Ann (Mollie) Ebert, was new that season.  Nancy Ann (Poe) Ebert was my great great grandmother.  Recently I inherited her journal recounting that lively trip on the upper Missouri River.

 

 

Nancy Ann (Poe) Ebert ca 1890 (Anna L and John F Nash Collection)

Nancy Ann (Poe) Ebert ca 1890 (Anna L and John F Nash Collection)

 

In 1823, Thomas and Elizabeth Hephner Poe moved to Georgetown.  With his young sons as deckhands, Thomas entered the profitable river freight business.  The business grew from rafting logs to keelboating coal and grain to ports as far south as Cincinnati.  All of the children of Thomas and Elizabeth Poe worked the rivers.  Sons, Jacob, Adam, Thomas Washington, and George W, became steamboat captains and pilots.  Andrew was the manager of the family businesses, a packet owner/financier, and mate.  Daughters, Nancy Ann married Capt George W Ebert, Elizabeth married Capt Standish Peppard, and Sarah H married Capt George Groshorn Calhoon.

Mollie Ebert Trimble and John A Trimble ca 1910 (Anna L and John F Nash Collection)

Mollie Ebert Trimble and John A Trimble ca 1910 (Anna L and John F Nash Collection)

The Poe family figured prominently in the Missouri River commerce after transporting troops and supplies during the Civil War.  They operated their sternwheel packets on the Missouri River during the later part of the Montana gold rush years.  In 1866 aboard the str Amelia Poe, Capt Thomas W Poe was the first of the family to make the trip to Ft Benton.  Other Georgetown’ers followed his lead.  In 1867, three packets from Georgetown transported supplies and passengers to the Montana Territory.  In 1868, the count rose to four.

 

 

In 1869, Capt George W Ebert and Nancy Poe Ebert were aboard the  str Mollie Ebert.  Nancy Poe Ebert’s brother-in-law, Standish Peppard was the first clerk of the str Mollie Ebert.  Nancy’s brother, Thomas W Poe was captain of the str Nick Wall.  In her journal entry for Jun 19, 1869, Nancy Poe Ebert mentioned last seeing another brother Jacob Poe shortly after departing St Louis.  George W Poe often worked with his family and doubtless both Jacob and George W were on the Missouri that year.  After piloting transports during the Civil War, brother Adam Poe quit the river business for a time missing the adventures to the fabled west.  With three Poe brothers and one sister with her husband and one brother-in-law on the Missouri, I doubt that any single family was better represented that season or any other season.

Mapquest of River Route to Ft Benton.

Mapquest of River Route to Ft Benton.

 

The Poe steamers were not alone.  Other Georgetown boats were also on the Missouri in 1869.  Capt Thomas S Calhoon commanded the str Sallie.[1]  Capt Jackman Taylor Stockdale owned the str Ida Stockdale.  During the gold rush years, the str Ida Stockdale achieved fame as one of three sternwheel packets to complete the dangerous journey to Ft Benton five times. [2]

 

 

Capt Thomas S Calhoon making a landing (Photo courtesy of Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin - La Crosse)

Capt Thomas S Calhoon making a landing (Photo courtesy of Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse)

All the Poe boats in the Missouri trade were sternwheel, wooden hull packets.  Their capacities were rated medium which was essential for the conditions of the furious Missouri.  The str Sallie, at 399 tons, was the largest.  The str Nick Wall at 338 tons was rated the best.  Each steamer had its story.

 

Amelia Poe.  After two profitable years docking at Ft Benton landing on May 24, 1868, the str Amelia Poe with 100 tons of freight sunk at Oswego MT attracting 1500 swarming Indians in a riotous salvage operation.  The location where the packet snagged is now known as Amelia Poe Bend. [3]

 

Nick Wall.  The str Nick Wall ran to Ft Benton in 1869-70.  On Jun 14 1970, Capt Thomas W Poe was the first to dock at Ft Benton landing with 200 tons of freight and 36 passengers.  [4]

 

The str str Nck Wall met a tragic end when it snagged and sunk near Napoleon, AR on Dec 18, 1870 with 15 cabin passengers and 135 on deck.  Here a grisly incident occurred that Mark Twain retold in “Life on the Mississippi”.  Capt Thomas W Poe attempting to save his wife trapped in a stateroom chopped a hole in the roof with an ax striking the unfortunate Martha Jane Poe in the head.[5]  Her body was returned to Georgetown for burial.  Thirty-nine lives were lost including Capt Poe’s young nephew, Charles McClure.

 

Mollie Ebert.  According to the journal, the str Mollie Ebert did not dock in Ft Benton.  Her freight was unloaded at Cow Island which is approximately 130 miles down river.  On Jun 16, 1869, the freight was carried around a chute and loaded on two other steamboats for the final leg to Ft Benton.  Failure to reach Ft Benton was an intense disappointment.  Measured in miles the roundtrip distance from Georgetown to Ft Benton totaled 4,000 miles.  Measured in days, their trip consumed approximately 120 days.  The two segments of the journal cover only 920 miles of the trip over 57 grueling days.

 

Str Mollie Ebert Boarding Pass (F Nash Collection)

Str Mollie Ebert Boarding Pass (F Nash Collection)

Later that summer, the Mollie Ebert made a trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans so the year was not a total financial bust.  On the evening of May 25, 1875, the Mollie Ebert burned at the Pittsburgh wharf.

 

 

 

Steamboat commerce to the Montana Territory in 1869.

 

Little snow in the mountains signaled the beginning of a tough year.  The resultant low water in the Missouri was only the first problem.  Then came distressing news from St Louis.  On March 19, a fire at the wharf destroyed seven packets.  All but one Montana bound.  Two more packets were snagged and sunk on their way to Ft Benton causing a dangerous shortage of supplies.  Even more frighteningly, there was continual trouble with the Blackfeet and by summer’s end 56 whites had been killed[6].  All in all, a tough bloody year!

 

The discovery of gold in 1862 served as a magnet in attracting steamboats to Ft Benton. During the gold rush years, Ft Benton was described as “hell on earth”.  The gold also attracted bad men who when inflamed with bad whiskey produced an incendiary climate.  Good God, what was Nancy Poe Ebert, a fifty-one year old grandmother, thinking?  Her husband had docked in Ft Benton in 1867 and 1868 so he knew.  Her brother Thomas W had been there three years running so he knew.  This was no place for a lady!

 

The danger of Indian attack in the Dakota and Montana Territories was always real.  Thomas S Calhoon, as clerk on the str Ida Stockdale, wrote home in 1867 that they “were treated to a volley of arrows.  One struck the chimney and fell to the deck, and one struck the spar and stuck into it.”[7]  On Thursday Jun 20, 1869, Nancy Poe Ebert wrote that an arrow was found sticking in the boat.  High winds of hurricane force often battered the steamboats and forced them to tie off along the bank for days at a time.  On May 26, Nancy Poe Ebert wrote that “the wind commensed blowing just after dark and blue a perfick herican all night…”.  These dangers combined with the risks of the river prevented all but the most adventurous captains from entering the upper Missouri.  These captains had a thread of steel running through their character.

The mighty Missouri was affectionately known by pilots as “the Misery – a river like no other”.  Artist George Catlin summarized his impressions of the dangerous river as a mixture “too thick to drink, too thin to plow”. [8]   It was more like watery mud than muddy water.  The current was fast and the channel shifted.  Bad storms made steamboat travel on the river slow in the summer.  Dead trees, called snags, fell into the river and stuck to the bottom.  Snags sometimes stuck out of the water.  Steamboat pilots could steer around these snags.  But sometimes the snags were hidden under the river surface.  Jagged tree limbs could tear open the bottom of a wooden hulled steamboat.  Hundreds of steamboats were wrecked on the Missouri.

 

Capt Thomas S Calhoon (left) aboard the Virginia 1896 (From the Collection of The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County)

Capt Thomas S Calhoon (left) aboard the Virginia 1896 (From the Collection of The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County)

 

But the lure of huge profits in trade on the upper Missouri was great as was the danger.  There is a fine balance between crazy and almost crazy.  Compensation for steamboat officers was very rewarding.  In 1866 on the Ohio a river boat pilot could earn $175 per month, a captain $150, and a first clerk $150; on the Missouri, their counterparts received $725, $400, and $250.[9]  According to John G Lepley a new boat could be constructed for less than one-fourth the freight charges resulting from one trip to Ft Benton.  In 1867, the Ida Stockdale profits were $42,594 — the greatest of any of the forty boats on the river that season.[10]  That amount in 2007 dollars is between $596,379 and $950,979 depending on the inflation calculator used.  Either number is prodigious.  By any standard, these Georgetown men were wealthy.

 

George Washington Ebert (Anna l and John F Nash Collection)

As the Eberts steamed homeward in 1869, the str Sallie owned by Thomas S Calhoon and manned by men from Georgetown spent one evening with the crew of the str Mollie Ebert.  Nancy Poe Ebert was lonesome and homesick so the time with her Georgetown neighbor, John Parr, helped relieve her melancholy  – “it does me gradiel of good to see any one from home” was her entry on June 21.  The Ida Stockdale was not mentioned in the journal which implied these Georgetown’ers were not seen during the sixty day trip.

 

Missouri commerce was down in 1870 due to the continuation of the Blackfeet War and other factors.  Eight packets was the total navigation season.  Of the eight boats, seven were operated from Pittsburgh, and three of those were from Georgetown owned by Thomas W Poe, Thomas S Calhoon and Jackman T Stockdale.  The Eberts did not return to Ft Benton.

 

 

The Physical Journal.

 

The Nancy Poe Ebert journal is comprised of two segments.  The first segment, dating from May 6 to May 30, is a small advertisement notebook from a dry goods dealer named McCandless, Jamison & Co 103 Wood St Pittsburgh, PA.  The book is dated “1869 SPRING TRADE 1869”. The second segment is comprised of loose pages with entries on June 5 through July 2.  These pages are in poor condition.

 

Nancy Poe Ebert Journal Seegment 1 Front (Anna L and John F Nash Collection)

Nancy Poe Ebert Journal Seegment 1 Front (Anna L and John F Nash Collection)

The diary begins on May 6, 1869 with the sternwheeler Mollie Ebert at Yankton which is located on the north side of the Missouri River in the Dakota Territory (South Dakota).  It ends on Friday, July 2, 1869, down river from Fort Sully which at that time was an abandoned fort approximately 350 miles from St Louis.  The events witnessed between are always exciting and sometimes poignant.  Nancy Poe Ebert wrote daily in her journal which leads me to believe more segments covering more time once existed.


My transcription of the journal is a rendering with spelling errors and missing punctuation uncorrected.  Some words are unclear/unidentified/unintelligible and places where the text has been torn are noted by parentheses.

 

Nancy Poe Ebert Journal Segment 2 Front  (Anna L and John F Nash Collection

Nancy Poe Ebert Journal Segment 2 Front (Anna L and John F Nash Collection

 

Summary.

The courage demonstrated by Nancy Poe Ebert during her journey to Ft Benton was dauntless and her thoughtfulness to record her bit of history for her grandchildren was visionary.  But without that tenacity, without that fearlessness, without that that readiness to leave behind the safety of the Ohio River and venture into the Missouri, this bit of American history would have been left untold.  Her genetic material is my genetic material.  Make no mistake I am pleased to be her biological offspring.  Who we are is who we were.

 

 

Acknowledgements.

Most of the detailed information about packets and Missouri River commerce came from three sources:

(1)  “Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1994”, compiled by Frederick Way, Jr.
(2)  “Packets to Paradise Steamboating to Fort Benton”, by John G Lepley.
(3)  “Fort Benton World’s Innermost Port” by Joel Overholser.

The rest was rumor, folktale, and myth.

 

 

 

 

 
 
 

 

 

 

 

References.

 


 

[1]  Frederick Way, Jr.,Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1994, (Ohio University Press, Athens 1994), p. 415.
[2]  John G Lepley, Packets to Paradise Steamboating to Fort Benton, (River & Plains Society, 2001), p 25.
[3]  Joel Overholser, Fort Benton World’s Innermost Port, (River & Plains Society, 1987), p. 68-69.
[4]  Joel Overholser, Fort Benton World’s Innermost Port, (River & Plains Society, 1987), p. 77.
[5]  Capt Frederick Way, Jr., The Steamboating Poe Family, (S&D Reflector (Dec 1965)).
[6]  Joel Overholser, Fort Benton World’s Innermost Port, (River & Plains Society, 1987), p. 71.
[7]  Capt Frederick Way, Jr., History in Houses, (S&D Reflector (Dec 1969)).
[8]  John G Lepley, Packets to Paradise Steamboating to Fort Benton, (River & Plains Society, 2001), p 10.
[9]  William E Lass, Navigating the Missouri/ Steamboating on Nature’s Highway, 1819-1935, (University of Oklahome Press,2007), p 234.
[10]  Joel Overholser, Fort Benton World’s Innermost Port, (River & Plains Society, 1987), p. 62.

 

 

 

 

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