1909 Great Loop – 3 – Pearl Fishers
by Ralph M. Pearson
May 15, 1909
Chapter 3 of the Great Loop adventure aboard Catherine M, beginning on May 3, 1909
When we ran into Peoria we had seen two or three men in long, flat-bottomed boats with what appeared to be long poles or hand rails supported on notched uprights, running the length of the boat on either side, calmly drifting downstream with the current. We learned, on inquiry, that they were pearl fishers, but we had no opportunity for a closer acquaintance. Below Peoria we had met them in increasing numbers. Sometimes standing upright pulling huge clams from the dangling hooks, sometimes seated with a hand on a sort of drag-line that disappeared into the water astern. They grew thicker and thicker till there would be fifteen or twenty of them in sight at once, all drifting down stream with the current.
When we ran into Beardstown about three p.m. the next day, May twelfth, we found ourselves in their headquarters. We went ashore to explore. The bank was lined with their boats. Every vacant space, even the back yards, was filled with large steaming vats where the clams were being cooked until they opened. They were then shoveled on the sorting tables, where the men pulled out the meats by hand, examining each one for pearls, and threw the shells on different piles according to size. The meats were fed to hogs or thrown away. We asked questions and learned that more than seventy-five mussel boats worked out of Beardstown and that hundreds of others from up and down the river came there to sell their pearls and their shells. A good day’s catch for one boat was from one-half to a ton of shells, worth seven dollars a ton. There were five button factories in town each employing seventy to eighty men that did nothing but cut these shells into blanks, which were shipped east to be made into the finished pearl buttons that you and I wear on our shirts and our dresses.
But the “pearls” or “slugs”, as the men call them were the main incentive that held so many of them in the business. The common pearls that were most often found brought from forty to one hundred fifty dollars each. But, last summer a man found one that sold for fifteen hundred dollars. Another brought eleven hundred dollars, and four or five hundred dollar finds were frequent enough to keep every one on edge with excitement. Several pearl houses keep their buyers constantly in Beardstown, so that when a man found his pearl he could have the money in hand for it ten minutes afterward. Over ten thousand dollars worth of pearls were bought in Beardstown in the last year.
We spent the rest of the day among the mussel men and late into the night, swapping stories about our trip for stories of pearls, fishing, and duck shooting. The country about Beardstown is one of the greatest duck countries in the world, and a great deal of ill-feeling is caused among the local people by the way in which the millionaire gun clubs try to monopolize the sport. Buying up huge tracts of swamp land, they forbid outsiders to trespass and then by spreading shelled corn around their decoys they slaughter the birds by the thousands. The law allows only twenty birds to one hunter, but one of these club members will sit down in the club blind and kill twenty birds for each member of the club then on the grounds; another, when he gets tired playing cards in the club parlor will go out and do likewise. Local hunters refuse to keep off of the club waterways, claiming that the water, if not the land, is free for all, and the result is frequent encounters with club wardens and frequent legal battles in court. The law protects the duck from the poor hunter, and should protect it from the millionaire hunter as well.
Mr. McCullough, owner of the electric light plant, had had our storage battery charged for us overnight, so at nine fifteen the next morning, May 15th, we waved goodby to our friends, the mussel fishers, and turned down stream again. The river here as everywhere was way over its banks, only the tops of the trees showing. For thirty or forty miles at a time we would see no patch of dry land — nothing but water stretching back among the trees as far as the eye could see. Between towns the river was absolutely wild save when we passed a group of pearl fishers drifting with the current, or some of their house-boats moored among the trees.
When night came we would run close to the bank, drop anchor (we had stopped tying up to trees after a change of wind in the night had swung us in among the branches a couple of times and broken the flag pole and scratched the varnish), hang out the riding light and take to the bunks, too sleepy to sit up and read or write or talk.
We had not become used to the unusual surroundings at this time, and the strange noises of the night seemed a bit weird and uncanny as we lay in our bunks listening. The waters gurgled around the obstructing anchor line; a piece of driftwood hitting the bow would scrape the whole length of the boat before it lost itself in the ever-moving flood. Twice something hit us with a heavy thud followed by a great noise of crashing and snapping wood and I would rush out on deck thinking sure a river packet had run us down, to find a whole tree tangled about the bow. The leaves of nearby trees rustled in the night breeze. The wild creatures of the woods cried out to each other and every now and then the mournful hoot of an owl would echo through the darkness.
On one such night I was peacefully dreaming that I was sailing among the treetops of Drexel Boulevard and had just got my anchor caught in one of the park benches, when I was awakened by a cry from Fred of “Ralph, we’re drifting!” I jumped up startled, and looked out my port. Sure enough I could see the trees moving by in the dim light of our lantern. I scrambled out in the cockpit, made my way forward and felt for the anchor line. There was the cleat all right and the line made fast to it and yes, it slanted down from the bow taut into the dark waters below. I looked around me into the night. The ship was swinging to her anchor in a freshening breeze, now out into the river, now in close to the trees, and it was this motion that made her seem to be drifting. I made my way cautiously back to the cockpit, for the water seemed black and treacherous, and turned in again till the first light of day creeping through the port holes called to be up and doing.
The banks of the river being composed of nothing but tree tops made both banks alike. There were no landmarks to remember except at the rare intervals when a houseboat or a town was passed.
A couple of days after leaving Beardstown we were under way soon after daylight, as usual, and ran till ten o’clock, when, deciding it was time for breakfast (we were eating but two meals a day, breakfast at ten and dinner at four), I stopped the engine and dropped anchor, the boat naturally swinging with the current till she headed upstream. The table was set in the the cabin, as it was a little too cold for comfort outside. When the meal was finished I started the engine, went outside, ordered up the anchor and started the boat straight ahead. It was my trick at the wheel and I settled myself comfortably, camp chair on cockpit coaming and idly watched the banks glide by as we chug-chugged steadily along. An hour dragged by and another. I was thinking of various things; among others, how little I needed the compass for river travel. Then I wondered what direction the river was running at that particular spot — south or southwest. I made a guess it was south and looked in the binnacle to see. Great thundering Jupiter!!! My heart stopped beating. I looked again. North!! The needle pointed north!! Due north!!! Why, the compass must have gone to the bad. I couldn’t possibly be running north. I threw her to starboard and ran close in to the bank to see which way the current was running. It was against me. I felt a sinking all over. The bottom had dropped out of things. I could not be running upstream. But there was the current. I couldn’t deny that, so I had to turn around and start back. Two hours running and only back to the spot where I had started! Four hours of wasted energy! And all because the banks of the river were so constantly alike that there was no chance to recognize a landmark.
We ran over the second dam at LeGrange with the well-kept government buildings and the huge lock on the right bank, without trouble. I had let the dynamo alone for several days now and had no trouble, but like Lot’s wife, I was tempted and fell; only instead of being turned to salt, I was brought up standing. The storage battery was freshly charged and I thought I would keep it so, by throwing in the dynamo. So I hooked her up and then forgot all about it. Some hours later after a brief stop for dinner, I noticed that the engine, which had been running like a clock all day, was slowing down and missing fire. Too late I remembered I had neglected to disconnect the dynamo when we stopped, and the battery was completely discharged. I make it a rule to never say things in an emergency, that is, unless the emergency requires it. Some emergencies require good, strong words and for such I find “oh piffle” has abundant soothing qualities. So I said “oh piffle” and turned on the dry battery; but that seemed to be tired too as it wouldn’t spark. Here was a pretty fix! The very fix I had provided against, too. With three complete electrical outfits on board, I didn’t have enough electricity to light the pipe of a firefly. Further trying was useless, so I went out into the cockpit and let the ship drift. Fred seemed to think it was a joke. “Thought you had an engine that wouldn’t break down,” he said with a triumphant grin on his face. I was about to tell him a thing or two, when I remembered something. He had asked me the day before what a screw-driver was for, so I didn’t say a word. There was no use arguing with Fred. He didn’t know what made the wheels go round. He didn’t know that an engine wouldn’t run without electricity. Why he didn’t know — but wait! I wouldn’t have room to tell what he didn’t know. I’ll tell what he did know. He always knew when it was eating time. The sun rose and set on Fred’s stomach. When it was full he was happy; when it was empty he was cross. I was learning things about Fred. He was interesting.
It was growing dark and I didn’t know how far it was to the next town, as I had no maps of the Illinois aboard; so we just drifted on and on in the midst of a great silence. I looked for a place to anchor for the night, but the current was carrying us near the right hand bank, which was directly in the channel and I didn’t want to anchor where a river packet could run us down. How were we to get across the river out of the main channel? “Why don’t you hoist the sail?” suggested Mother. Sure enough. Bright idea. I carried a stay-sail for just this emergency. I sent Fred to dig it out of the forward locker and quickly had it rigged. There was a breath of wind from upstream and as she filled I felt the boat swing to port and when she was headed right I held her there. It took us an hour to cross the river and when we finally worked in near shore we were four or five miles down stream than when we started. But the sail had served its purpose and went back to the locker vindicated, not to be called on again this side of Horn Island on the Gulf of Mexico.
The batteries had recuperated a little by morning, so at seven seventeen we pulled up the anchor and were off — the engine running weak and intermittently. Luck was with us, however, for ten minutes later we rounded a bend and saw a good-sized town ahead. I landed, discovered the town was Kampsville and bought a complete set of dry batteries, having learned my lesson at last. After connecting the batteries, we went over the third and last dam and on to the southward again at full speed.
to be continued…
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