Steamboats 1857-59


Built:1857, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Type:Sidewheel, wooden hull packet.
Size: 230′ x 35′ x 5′ 6″, 340 tons.
Engines: 20’s x 7 ft.
Boilers:Four boilers.
Paddlewheels:28 ft. diameter with 10 ft. buckets.

The ITASCA ran in the Upper Mississippi trade between St. Louis and St. Paul, and was operated by the Northwestern Union Packet Company from 1864. She was teamed on this run with the KEY CITY. Her master from 1857-60 was Capt. David Whitten, and from 1861-62 Capt. Jesse Y. Hurd.  It is recorded that she raced the GREY EAGLE No1. on August 17, 1858. She burned at Paducah, Kentucky, on 27 December, 1868. Her machinery was salvaged and went to the BELLE of LA CROSSE.

The one contest that has been cited by every writer on upper river topics, that has ever come under my observation, was the one between the “Grey Eagle” (Captain D. Smith Harris), and the “Itasca” (Captain David Whitten); and that was not a race at all. It is manifestly unfair to so denominate it, when one of the captains did not know that he was supposed to be racing with another bat until he saw the other steamer round a point just behind him. Recognizing his rival as following him far ahead of her regular time, he realized that she was doing something out of the ordinary. He came to the conclusion that Captain Harris was attempting to beat him into St. Paul, in order to be the first to deliver certain important news, of which he was also the bearer. When this revelation was made, both boats were within a few miles of their destination St. Paul.

Here are the details. In 1856, the first telegraphic message was flashed under the sea by the Atlantic cable – a greeting from Queen Victoria no President Buchanan. Captain D. Smith Harris had, the year before, brought out the “Grey Eagle”, which had been built at Cincinnati at a cost of $60,000. He had built this boat with his own money, or at least a controlling interest was in his name. He had intended her to be the fastest boat on the upper river, and she was easily that. As her captain and practically her owner, he was at liberty to gratify any whim that might come into his head. In this case it occurred to him that he would like to deliver in St. Paul the Queen’s message to the President ahead of any one else.

There was at that time no telegraph line into St. Paul. Lines ran to Dunleith, where the “Grey Eagle” was taking in cargo for St. Paul, and also to Prairie du Chien, where the “Itasca” was loading. Both boats were to leave at six o’clock in
the evening. Captain Harris had sixty-one miles farther to run than had Captain Whitten. But Harris knew that he was racing, and Whitten did not, which made all the difference in the world. Whitten soldiered along at his usual gait, stopping at every landing, putting off all cargo at each place, and taking on all that offered, and probably delayed to pass the compliments of the day with agents and other friends, as well as discuss the great message that he was bearing. The “Grey Eagle”, on the contrary, stopped at only a few of the principal landings, and took on no freight after leaving Dunleith. She did not even put off freight that she was carrying, but took it through to St. Paul and delivered it on her return trip. She carried the mail, but in delivering it a man stood on the end of one of the long stages run out from the bow, from which he threw the sacks ashore, the boat in the meantime running along parallel with the levee, and not stopping completely at any landing. Running far ahead of her time, there were no mail sacks ready for her, and there was no reason for stopping. The “Grey Eagle” had the best of soft coal, reinforced by sundry barrels of pitch, from which the fires were fed whenever they showed any signs of failing. With all these points in her favor, in addition to the prime fact that she was by far the swiftest steamboat that ever turned a wheel on the upper river, it was possible for her to overtake the slower and totally unconcerned “Itasca”, when only a few miles from St. Paul.

The race proper began when Whitten sighted the “Gray Eagle” and realized that Harris was trying to beat him into St. Paul in order to be the first to deliver the Queen’s message. Then the “Itasca” did all that was in her to do, and was beaten by less than a length, Harris throwing the message ashore from the roof, attached to a piece of coal, and thus winning the race by a handbreadth.

The time of the “Grey Eagle” from Dunleith, was eighteen hours; the distance, two hundred and ninety mile; speed per hour, 16 1/9 miles.

The “Itasca”, ran from Prairie du Chien to St. Paul in eighteen hours; distance, two hundred and twenty-nine miles; speed, 12 2/3 miles per hour.

The “Itasca” was far from being a slow boat, and had Whitten known that Harris was “racing” with him, the “Grey Eagle” would not have come within several hours of catching her. As a race against time, however, the run of the “Grey Eagle” was really something remarkable. A sustained speed of over sixteen miles an hour for a distance of three hundred miles, up-stream, is a wonderful record for an inland steamboat anywhere, upper river or lower river; and the pride which Captain Harris had in his beautiful boat was fully justified. A few years later, she struck the Rock Island Bridge and sank in less than five minutes, a total loss. It was pitiful no see the old Captain leaving the wreck, a broken-hearted man, weeping over the loss of his darling, and returning to his Galena home, never again to command a steamboat. He had, during his eventful life on the upper river, built, owned, or commanded scores of steamboats; and this was the end.
Credit:~ Old times on the Mississippi: reflections of a steamboat pilot, by George Byron Merrick.