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Forest, Lake and Prairie
Chapter V
From Rama to St. Paul - Mississippi steamers - Slaves - Pilot - Race.


EARLY in July, 1860, we started on our journey. I am now in my seventeenth year. We sailed from Collingwood on an American propeller, which brought us to Milwaukee, on Lake Michigin. Here we took a train through a part of Wisconsin to Lacrosse, on the Mississippi River, which place we reached about midnight, and immediately were transferred to a big Mississippi steamer.

Here everything was new—the style and build of the boat, long and broad and fiat, made to run in very shallow water.

The manner of propelling this huge craft was a very large wheel, as wide as the boat, and fixed to the stern, and which in its revolutions fairly churned the waters in her wake.

The system of navigation was so different; the pilot steered the boat, not by his knowledge of the fixed channel, but by his experience of the lights and shadows on the water which by day or night indicated to him the deep and shallow parts.

Passengers and mails had no sooner been transferred, than tinkle! tinkle went the bells, and our big steamer quivered from stem to stern, and then began to vibrate and shake as if in a fit of ague, and we were out in the stream and breasting the current of this mighty river.

Dancing was going on in the cabin of the boat when we went on board; but soon all was quiet except the noise of the engines and the splash of the paddles.

Next morning we were greeted with beautiful river scenery. Long stretches, majestic bends, terraced banks, abrupt cliffs succeeded each other in grand array.

During the day we came to Lake Pepin, and here were joined to another big steamer. The two were fastened together side by side to run the length of the lake, and also to give the passengers of the other boat opportunity to come aboard ours, and be entertained by music and dancing.

The colored steward and waiters of our boat were a grand orchestra in themselves.

One big colored man was master of ceremonies. Above the din of machinery and splashing of huge paddles rose his voice in stentorian tones: "Right!" "Left" "Promenade!"

Change Partners!" "Swing partners ! " And thus the fun went on that bright afternoon; while, like a pair of Siamese twins, our big sternwheelers ploughed up the current of the "Big River," this being the literal translation of the word Mississippi.

Both boats had crowds of Southern people and their slaves as passengers; and if what we saw was the whole of slavery, these were having a good time. But, as the colored barber on our boat said to me, "This is the very bright side of it."

And then he asked me if we were not English. And when I told him we were Canadians, he wanted me to ask father to help some of these slaves to freedom. But it was not long after this when the mighty struggle took place which resulted in the freeing of all the slaves.

These were the days of steamboats on the Mississippi, which Mark Twain has immortalized.

From port to port the pilot reigned supreme. What a lordly fellow he was! As soon as the boat was tied to the bank the captain and mate took the reins, and they drove with a vengeance, putting off or taking on freight at the stopping- places, and taking in cordwood from the barge towed alongside in order to save time.

They made those "roust-abouts" jump. The captain would cuff, and the mate would kick, and the two would vie with each other in profanity, and thus they rushed things; and when ready, the pilot with quiet dignity would resume his throne.

When the channel narrowed our boats parted, and to change the excitement began a race.

Throw in the pitch pine-knots, fling in the chunks of bacon! Make steam! more steam! is the meaning of the ringing of bells, and the messages which follow each other down from the pilot house to the engine room.

This time we seemed as yet to be about matched, when our rival pilot undertook to run between us and the bar, and in doing so ran his boat hard and fast in the sand.

We gave him a parting cheer and went on, reaching St. Paul some twenty-four hours ahead.

St. Paul, now a fine city, was then a mere village.


 


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