Another Boat on the Dam

“Another Boat on the Dam” is an excerpt of an unpublished manuscript, Me and Mr. Lincoln, by Robert L. Crowe, 2009. The story is told by a man who as a young boy lived in New Salem, Illinois, in the 1830’s.

It was April of 1831. I was playing a game of ‘roll the hoop’ with Isaac Onstott. Isaac was younger than I and not a very good hoop player but he was the only one around that day so we were together in front of Hill’s grocery store. Isaac’s father was the cooper who made barrels and they always had a supply of metal hoops. Their family lived pretty well due to the big need for barrels to store things and ship things.

A man down the street yelled, “There’s a boat on the dam!”

One of the men standing in front of the Hill Store yelled back, “There’s always someone stuck on the dam.”

“Yeah, but this one has live hogs on board!”

Isaac and I looked at each other, dropped the hoops and took off running down the big hill to the Sangamon River.

Mr. James Rutledge and his nephew, John Cameron, built a dam on the Sangamon River in 1829. New Salem sat upon a hill, a bluff, overlooking the river. The river came straight at us then turned north when it got the bluff. Cameron and Rutledge built the dam to supply water power for their grinding mill. It was the only mill in that area of the state for grinding corn and wheat, and people came from 50 and 100 miles to get their crops ground. Most of them gave a portion of their load in payment for the service.

With the dam in place, the water below was only a few feet drop and boats had no trouble passing … most of the time. When the river got low as it did sometimes, there wasn’t much water going over the top of the dam. When that happened, boats got stuck on their way from Springfield to Beardstown. We had seen boats stuck before but we had never seen one stuck that had live hogs and we didn’t want to miss it.

When I got to the river’s edge, here was the problem: The boat was a flatboat made of logs with rail sides to keep the merchandise from falling overboard. The front of the boat was across the dam, hanging in the air. The middle of the boat was stuck on the dam. The back of the boat was taking in water fast.

Mr. Denton Offutt was standing on the shore yelling at the three men on the boat. “Don’t let them barrels get away and you better not lose any of those hogs. And you better do something quick!” Mr. Offutt was a stocky, heavy-set man who usually had a smile to go with his loud voice but he was the owner of the boat and there was no smile at the moment. A man standing nearby asked, “Is them your goods, Offutt?”

“Sure are,” he answered. “Bought those in Springfield and gonna sell ‘em in New Orleans.”

“Not if they don’t get loose pretty soon,” the man said.

A lady watching the action asked, “Who’s on the boat, Offutt?”

“Three men from Macon County: Hanks, Lincoln and Johnson. All experienced hands.”

“Experienced at what?” someone asked, as the crowd guffawed.

Water was coming over the back of the boat. Hanks yelled, “Mr. Offutt! We need another boat to come down front. We gotta unload all this.”

Offutt scurried to get someone to take out another flatboat. Meanwhile the men on Offutt’s boat were moving the cargo from the back to the front to shift the weight. That stopped the rear end of the boat from sinking farther into the river.  They took a rail and put it under the back of the boat, then wedged it into the river bottom. That kept the back of the boat from taking on more water.

After a while another boat was brought to the downside of the dam. Then began the difficult job of unloading the flatboat. Luckily, the stuck boat wasn’t real big and didn’t hold a lot of cargo. That was good because there were a number of barrels of salted pork that weighed 200 pounds each and was worth 10 – 15 cents a pound. The barrels of shelled corn weighed more than that, and all of the hogs were over 100 pounds each. The most fun was watching them hogs get transferred to the other boat. They surely did not want to go and put up a squealing fight all the way.

When the goods were unloaded, the men thought that the boat would slip over the dam, only it didn’t.

“I got an idea,” said Lincoln, and he came to the shore on the other boat. “Who around here has an auger bit?”

“My Pa does,” yelled Isaac Onstott.

“Show me where he is.”

I went with Isaac and Mr. Lincoln to the Onstott cooper shop. There was an auger just like he was looking for, and Mr. Onstott let him borrow it. On the way down to the river, Mr. Lincoln picked up a small piece of wood along the trail.  He borrowed a knife and cut the wood so it was about the size of the auger drill, then went back to the stuck boat.

“Hey,” yelled Offutt. “What are you gonna do?”

“I’m going to drill a hole in your boat to let the water out,” said Lincoln.

“What? What if it doesn’t work?”

“Then I’ll owe you for a new boat,” said Lincoln. “I need some volunteers, some people to stand on the front of this boat while I try to get the water out.”

I volunteered. Some men said I wouldn’t be much help but Mr. Lincoln said I weighed as much as half a hog.   The front of the flatboat was sticking-out over the dam so it wasn’t in the water but about 3 or 4 feet in the air. We all stood in the boat while Mr. Lincoln drilled the hole. As we moved forward, the water ran from the back of the boat and out the hole in the front. When most of the water was gone, he took the piece of carved wood and pounded it into the hole. We all spread out and waited as the water lifted the boat and floated it right across the dam.

“Alright, “said Lincoln. “Let’s get loaded again. We’re going to New Orleans.”

Offutt yelled from shore. “Lincoln, you’re a genius. I knew it would work all the time.”

For some years after that, I exercised my bragging rights of being part of the very original solution of getting that flatboat off the dam. I was proud of what I had done. Some years later it occurred to me that I hadn’t done much except stand around.

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