by Ralph M. Pearson
May 13, 1909
At last I was free. For the first time in seven years I was free from the chains of business, free from the stern, monotonous call of duty, free as a bird on the wing, with my home under me throbbing to the steady beat of the engine and sensitive to the least turn of the wheel in my hand.
Under bridge after bridge we hurried, each with its load of banging street cars and its crowds of tired-faced shop girls, curious office boys, clerks, bankers, lawyers, mechanics hurrying home from their day’s work. There was Adams Street with the clanging bells of the Union Depot. Now we were under the Jackson Boulevard bridge from whose rail I had so often watched the boats below. On, on, past hurrying tugs, past clumsy canal boats, past huge steamers and towering buildings, till we ran under the Halsted Street bridge just as darkness was falling and into a deserted slip to tie up alongside a lumberyard for the night.
The Illinois and Michigan Canal has been in operation sixty-one years. In the ninety miles of its length there are fifteen locks. The toll for small boats is three cents a mile payable at the collector’s office in Lockport. We entered the first lock at Ashland Avenue at noon of May fourth and emerged from the last one at La Salle, Illinois, at noon of the eighth. These four days were a constant grind of hard work, getting the ship in order, stowing goods, scrubbing off Chicago River grease, repainting hull, etc., etc. Mud! Mud! Mud! Rich, black, juicy mud! Grey clay-colored sticky mud! Green slimy slippery mud! Every kind of mud is native to the Chicago end of this charmingly muddy ditch. The old lock keeper at Ashland Avenue was scooping black, foul smelling masses of it from the bottom of his lock and shouted to us, as we went through, to keep to the left bank or we would hit bottom. We proceeded to hit it all right with a thud that sounded as though it had taken a blade off the propeller. I threw out the clutch, slowed down, then threw it in again gradually and plowed through the bottom, bumping, thudding, banging through something solid every minute or two till the boat was brought almost to a standstill. But the engine pounded steadily ahead making progress, till finally the bumps grew farther apart and we could go ahead again at full speed. Mud spattered dogs barked at us, dirty-faced children gazed at us from the open doors of mud-colored shanties, and dejected horses stood by mud caked, broken down wagons as if such a muddy life were not worth living. I opened the throttle wide to escape the desolate scene.
The banks began to get greener as we left the city behind till, just as it was getting dark, they changed from mud to rock and rose above the boat on either side. We ran on carefully, looking for a place to land and get water, till a bridge loomed up ahead with houses to the left. We tied to the rocks where a rough stairway climbed the bank.
We had left Chicago. We were fairly started on our journey. We had come to our first strange port, yet we were at home. How trim and snug and cozy the little ship looked lying so quiet after the day’s run! Home! What a magic word it is! I think it is the element of home that gives to motor boat cruising such a fascination. I was tumultuously happy as I stood on that soft green bank in the gathering darkness and gazed down on my wonderful little boat, our home. I was full of the wanderlust, and to wander at will among strange places yet always to be at home, this seemed the supreme joy of living. Fred had hung out the riding light and turned on the cabin and galley lamps, Mother had started the little stove, the warm light was streaming out through the ports and certain odor of pork shops–well–of such must be the kingdom of heaven.
When I stepped out into the cockpit the next morning, I looked on a scene of rare beauty. The boat lay on the unruffled surface of a long narrow mirror that stretched ahead between reflected walls of green-plumed rocks till it was lost in the rising mists of the distance. The world was born again over night and, fresh from its dew bath, was fragrant with the breath of growing things and alive with the song of birds. I drank in the beauty of it till the crew turned out, when we threw off the lines and ran on for an hour or so till, tempted by a low grass-covered bank, we tied to a tree and went to work on the boat and the baggage. Till five in the afternoon we were at it, then ran into Lockport, caught the collector at his office and got our papers and mileage card. The day was warmer than any so far and we had dinner in the cockpit. To the west the earth turned olive green against the golden glory of the setting sun, then darker and blacker green as the light faded, and the water about us reflected a lone star, then another and another. Lights glowed from distant cottages and the cries of children drifted to us through the still air. Dinner was over and the few simple dishes were cleared away, and yet we sat in the cockpit filled with the wonder of it and trying to realize to the fullest the joy of our freedom.
We were two more days in the canal, days of work and wonder. There was the drainage canal power house to see with its huge six thousand horse power turbines, and its spillway of madly rushing water; there was the first lock to go through with the queer sensation of dropping between two slimy walls, with the water leaking in tiny streams through the cracks in the huge gates, down, down, down, till the lower gate slowly swung inward and we could escape into the sunshine again; there was the fifty-four mile run on the third day, through locks two, three, four, and five, past Joliet State Prison with the armed guards walking the walls, through the city of Joliet, crossing the Desplaines River and keeping close to the right bank to avoid going over the falls, then out into the fresh green country again, the chug-chug, chug-chug of the engine now echoing loudly through a cool lane of overhanging willows, now lost in the great quiet as we ran between flowery pastures where the cows gazed at us with big wondering eyes; through Rock Run, through Channahan locks six and seven, through Aux Sable and the old town of Morris, through Seneca at four-forty in the afternoon with a stop for dinner just outside the town, through locks eight and nine and ten by seven o’clock, then on in the growing darkness with the lights of Ottawa in the distance till the banks suddenly narrowed close in front and before I could stop the engine I found that the boat was scraping along the wooden walls of a viaduct and I knew I was crossing the Illinois River. The night was dark with no moon but I could see a reflection here and there in the waters far below us. I let the boat drift, steering between the narrow walls, with the noise of water falling from many leaks splashing on the rocks below, till suddenly the canal widened and passed under dark tree masses into the city, high above the roofs of the houses. We had run 54 miles in 8 hours and 30 minutes.
We were away again at six-fifty in the morning, after waiting for one poor old lame bridge tender to open three bridges, through locks eleven and twelve and a rough rock hill country, stopping an hour to explore the damp galleries of an abandoned cement mine that tunneled through hills of solid limestone, through locks thirteen and fourteen in a drizzling rain, and into lock fifteen at La Salle, the end of the canal. We tied up long enough to get supplies and mail, then, sinking for the last time into the muddy depths, the great gate opened and we sailed forth on the broad expanse of the Illinois River.
The river was overflowing. Water was everywhere. Where the banks should have been, the tops of trees stood out of the flood. Here and there a part of a fence was visible and in one place, an island just opposite Peru, the corner of a plowed field showed.
We had escaped from the canal and it felt good. I threw the wheel hard over, first to starboard, then to port, and zigzagged back and forth just because I had room and didn’t have to keep her steady between two narrow banks. Our best time in the canal had been six miles per hour and I had thought something was wrong with the engine and had tinkered and regulated and adjusted with no result, but now on the open water she at once picked up speed, and, with the current helping, she fairly flew along. Below Henry we had dinner in the cockpit, drifting; split pea soup, onions, pot roast, but no mere words could describe that dinner. It was still raining a slow steady monotonous drizzle. Night was falling and we were alone on the waste of the river. To either side stretched the silent waters to where, faint in the distance, the scraggly tops of a few lone oaks stood dark against the leaden sky. There was no sight or sound of human habitation. It was getting too dark to run with safety, so, slowing down the engine, I swung to starboard and worked my way cautiously alongside a dead monarch of the woods and tied to her top branches. When the engine came to rest the silence was oppressive. The rain pattered gently on the cockpit roof and splashed from slippery decks and oilskins as we made everything snug for the night. When the others had gone into the cabin, I paused and listened. Drip-drip, drip-drip, drip-drip. A twig cracked as the ship, swinging idly with the current, scraped against some protruding branch. The mournful hoot of an owl echoed from bank to bank of the river accenting the succeeding silence. Drip-drip, drip-drip, drip-drip, drip-drip. Then again through the night came that weird troubled cry. I drew the curtain shut, pulled off my dripping oilskin, and stepped down into the cozy warmth of the cabin. Tired by the day’s run, we soon sought the bunks to be lulled to sleep by the gentle patter of the rain drops.
We left the friendly oak the next morning, May 9th, after a two hour struggle with the dynamo, running on the dry cells, but the engine didn’t work right. I stopped time after time, oiling it, adjusting and cleaning the carburetor, trying everything i could think of to get it right. It would start up in fine shape after a brief rest, then begin to miss fire and slow down and a change in the throttle would have no effect whatever. About two in the afternoon a town came in sight on the right bank so, after giving up reaching Peoria for that day, we limped shoreward and tied to a tree trunk stranded on the bank. Two boys, the only natives in sight, told us the town was Rome. We didn’t believe it. The only circumstantial evidence in sight was two houses, three barns and a post-office. Anyhow we went to work on the engine. Along about noon of the next day, after taking it all apart and putting it together again without finding anything wrong, I happened to think that the dry cells might be giving out, so I bought two new ones at the post-office and coupled them in with the five old ones. Sure enough! It started off with a rush and took us to Peoria without missing a stroke. Such is the price we pay for the lack of knowledge. Experience is a good teacher, but it took three days longer to teach me that I couldn’t connect new batteries with old ones.
Peoria looked like a hustling, prosperous city as we pulled in past the yacht club with its trim launches, down to the business center just above the ruins of the new concrete bridge that had collapsed and fallen into the river. We tied here long enough to let a so-called electrician earn two dollars fooling with the dynamo, then dropped down stream to where the fisher folk live, and tied up for the night to Mr. Rayburn’s house on stilts, built out over the water. The river is lined with rows of these picturesque shanties below the first bridge, and they, and the numerous house boats, make a cheap, independent way for the river people to live.
At eleven the next morning we ran under the draw of the railroad bridge and in the middle of the broad river rapidly dropped the smoke of Peoria behind us. The engine ran perfectly on her replenished dry batteries and everything seemed in perfect order. The day was warm and bright. I was at the wheel, Fred was cleaning Peoria dirt from the cockpit and decks, Mother busy at the typewriter in the cabin. We rounded the first bend below the city when, on looking ahead to get the new course, I saw the channel filled with tree stumps sticking out of water in every direction. I looked anxiously for an open space that would show deep water but there was none. The river seemed to have taken a short cut across country. I threw out the clutch and checked the boat down. Fred went forward with the pike pole and slowly and cautiously we felt our way among the stumps where they were farthest apart and seemed to suggest deeper water. Bump, bump, bump. We had hit something and hit it hard. The pike pole showed barely three feet of water.
Bushes and weeds stood out around us. A rail fence showed to starboard, a pig pen to port. We were evidently on somebody’s farm. One thing was certain–we were not in the river. I threw in the reverse, slowly turned around, then with Fred feeling every foot of the way, picked my way back among the stumps the way we had come. Bump, bump again and again, but we were going so slowly that the bumps could do no damage. At last the water deepened, and by the drift of the boat I could tell that we were in the current again. Straight for a high cliff we drifted till, passing a row of willows to the left, the river made a sharp turn under the very foot of the hill and the channel opened up before us clear and wide. I breathed easier and shoved the throttle to full speed ahead. To the left I could see, through the row of willows, the farm on which we had trespassed.
At two-ten p.m. we passed Pekin without stopping; at three fifty-five we went over the first dam at Copperas Creek with fifteen feet of water under us and only huge swirls and boils and eddies to show its location. At five twenty p.m. we dropped anchor for another of those wonderful pea-soup, pumpernickel bread, pot-roast, onion and tapioca-pudding dinners.
At six-thirteen we were away again, till at six-fifty we tied to a clay bank in Havana for the night. We had run 53 miles in 5 hours and 12 minutes–an average of 10 miles an hour, which was better.