page is borrowed in its entirety from
One-Way Ticket to Kansas, the autobiography
of Frank M. Stahl, as told and illustrated by Margaret Whittemore. University
of Kansas Press, 1959. Transcribed by John D. Meredith
VIII Heading up the Missouri
Our packet, the
New Lucy, was a marvel of beauty,
a dazzling white palace floating on the water. Her hull was 225 feet long, with
33-foot beam. She was built in St. Louis in 1852 and had the reputation of being
about the fastest boat on the Missouri. When running light on long summer days,
she could go from Jefferson City to Kansas City between daybreak and dark.
on our trip in March was much slower. The boat was heavily laden, taxing her freight
capacity of 416 tons. Two tall smokestacks, ornamented at the top, threw out clouds
of smoke as she chugged steadily upstream against the current. The vessel was
frequently brought to landings to receive or discharge cargo or to take on wood
for fuel. This had been sawed into cord lengths and stacked by farmers at convenient
points along the river bank.
On the main deck of the boat were
four cylindrical boilers, having a steam pressure of 165 poundshigh for
those times. They were placed over huge wood-burning furnaces. Two smoothly running
engines supplied motive power to rotate two immense paddle wheels, twenty feet
or more in diameter, one on either side. By backing down on one wheel and going
ahead on the other, a twin-engined sidewheeler showed great maneuverability and
could practically turn in its own length.
The years 1855 to
1860 stand out as the "golden era" of steamboating. An endless stream
of people made their way up the river, intent on building an empire in the
The rush to Kansas was on. Our deck was crowded with all sorts of merchandise,
household goods, and farm tools, as well as a motley array of emigrants. Although
I had a first-class ticket, I wondered whether I could find a spot to lie down
on at night. As it turned out, Holman and I had a comfortable stateroom together.
over the deck rail, I was amazed at the countless shore birdsducks, geese,
and ploversfringing the sandbars. The water was literally alive with winged
fowl. Flocks of wild turkeys fed along the banks.
a spectacle, isn't it, son?" remarked someone at my side.
tall pleasant-faced gentleman, who smiled down at me, proved to be thoroughly
familiar with this river. He knew all about steamboats and the grand old captains
who manned them. From him I learned that Captain Tom Brierly of St. Joseph owned
and operated the finest, fastest, and most beautiful side-wheel steamers that
ever plied the Missouri. The New Lucy was one of them, and he was master on many
of her trips. The clerk on our boat, Captain James Kennedy, spent his entire life
on river craft. I learned later that, at the age of ninety-three, he was still
serving as wharf master in Kansas City.
We were running twenty-four
hours a day and I wondered how we managed to avoid snags at night.
the supreme test of a pilot's skill," my companion explained. "Boats
under full steam narrowly escape snags and shifting sandbars even in full daylight.
A good pilot develops an unerring memory for landmarks. He often determines his
location at night by the echo of the steam whistle as it resounds from the bluffs.
Only an expert can cope with this untamed stream."
steamboat tickets included meals; as I was about to question my new acquaintance
on this subject, he remarked, "The steward will soon announce dinner. If
you stay close to me, I'll see that you get a good seat."
was only too glad to accept his offer. We took our places at a long table in the
cabin. It was an elegant room, painted in pure white, and equipped with the very
finest furnishings. Our meal was a hearty one, with wild turkey for the main dish.
After the tables were cleared, a stringed orchestra played lively tunes while
gaily dressed ladies in hoop skirts and innumerable flounces joined their partners
in the Virginia Reel.
Gambling often went on in such boats
day and night. Not only gold and silver pieces, but watches and jewelry went into
the jackpot. A few Southern planters became so excited that they even bet their
slaves in a game of cards. Many incidents arose from the slavery question. Most
people were wary about expressing any opinions, for party spirit ran high and
there was no way of knowing whether the stranger at your side was proslavery or
free-state, friend or foe.
Most of the wood carried aboard
was handled by Negro roustabouts. At landings along the bank our first mate seemed
to consider it his duty to curse and strike the Negroes as they struggled up the
gangplank under their heavy burdens. Up to this time my knowledge of slavery had
come entirely through reading and hearsay. The brutality I now witnessed added
fuel to the flame already kindled. I realized that Uncle Tom's Cabin was not mere
When the New Lucy finally docked in Kansas City, the
passengers were hurried from the vessel just before
under the impression that they might otherwise be carried on to Leavenworth. Holman
and I made our way along the levee past boxes, cartons, and all kinds of merchandise
piled wherever space could be found. Slaves were everywhere. There was a moving
mass of wagons, animals, and men. The cracking of ox whips, cries of drivers,
and braying of mules all added to the confusion. Facing the wharf were a few brick
buildings that served as warehouses and outfitting stations for emigrants. Behind
these rose high precipitous bluffs, seamed by hollows where blackjacks had taken
Backing into the bluff was a boarding-house or hotel
where we engaged a room for the night. Since my funds were getting low, I decided
to go without supper. Then it suddenly occurred to me I might be entitled to another
meal on the New Lucy. I returned to the levee, where members of the crew were
still busy unloading freight. Dashing up the gangplank, I boldly entered the cabin
and took my place at the table. I gulped down the food, all in a tremble lest
the boat should get under way; and even wrapped some morsels in a napkin to serve
for another meal.
When I returned to the hotel, Holman had
just finished his dinner. This popular place, kept by H.W. Chiles, was known then
as the Western Hotel, and later as the Gillis House. During the years 1856 and
1857 it is said to have had 27,000 customers. One of these was Andrew H. Reeder,
first territorial governor of Kansas who had participated in the formation of
a provisional free-state government. In May 1856, when proslavery leaders brought
indictments for treason against him, he concealed himself in the Western Hotel
and later escaped, disguised as a
He took passage on a Missouri River steamboat bound for Illinois.
two months after my voyage on the New Lucy, she carried Kansas' fourth territorial
governor, Robert J. Walker, to Leavenworth to take over the reigns of office.
The boat stopped at Quindaro, where a waiting crowd at the wharf demanded a speech.
They applauded as the new governor appeared on the upper deck and spoke briefly
to his first Kansas audience.
Late in November of that same
year, 1857, when the New Lucy was held up by the ice floes near DeWitt, Missouri,
she caught fire through the carelessness of a watchman, and quickly burned to
the water's edge. What little remained sank to the bottom of the channel. During
her brief span of five years she had endeared herself to the people of the lower
Missouri valley and was long remembered as one of the finest boats that ever plied