George G. Keith, steamboatman
By April 15, 1893, ice was gone from the Missouri River as the packet boat A.L. Mason set out from St Louis for Kansas City. It arrived three days late, held up by headwinds. George G. Keith, the boat’s captain, must have been chagrined if not surprised: he was a veteran river man who’d set speed records on the river and was known as one of the two greatest money-making captains on the Missouri. The other was his brother-in-law, Bill Massie.
Now Keith was working for the Kansas City and Missouri River Transportation Company, an enterprise organized by Kansas City businessmen to compete with the railroads’ iron control over shipping rates. Late arrivals were one of several reasons why the company was struggling. Its owners pleaded for other businessmen in Kansas City to ship their goods on the Mason, but for most people river boats were just too unreliable: when they weren’t late they were breaking down, sinking, or exploding. The Mason itself would strike a snag and sink early in 1894, en route from St. Louis to New Orleans. Keith was severely injured in the accident by a falling smokestack .1
It was far from his first experience with losing a riverboat. He was a young steersman on the Asa Wilgus when it sank near Hermann, Missouri, in 1860; Bill Massie was piloting. Before the Civil War, Keith served on boats of the St. Louis and St. Joe packet line, including the Polar Star, famed for its record-breaking run in 1856 from St. Joe to Saint Louis, a distance of 500 miles, in 68 hours. After the war, having earned his pilot’s license, he was piloting the Mollie Dozier when it hit a snag outside of Chamois, Missouri, and went down in an area still known as the Mollie Dozier Chute. Such events were so common and pilots in such demand that Keith had no trouble finding other jobs. By the 1870s he was part owner of the Emilie LaBarge,
named after the daughter of a pioneering riverboatman, Joseph LaBarge, that sank after hitting a snag.
In the same year he captained the Mary McDonald, a “splendid, lower-river side-wheel boat,” one paper said of her, that had burned near Waverly, Missouri in June of 1873. The Joe Kinney, a sidewheel wooden packet under Keith’s command, 231’ feet long, owned by the Kansas City Packet Company, had several encounters with railway bridges before being destroyed in a collision with one at Glasgow, Missouri, in 1882. 2
In 1875, Keith was captain and part owner of the St. Luke, a 212’ long side-wheel steamer carrying among other things a load of sewing machines, when it struck the railway bridge at St. Charles, Missouri, and went down. One paper quoted Keith’s description of the accident:
The hour was 10:10 [p.m.] when the boat struck. The disaster was caused by the extraordinary force of the current pulling the boat off her course and on to the pier. We had about 100 tons of freight. I staid on the wreck until about 4 o’clock this morning, when the ferry-boat came and took us off. […] When I left, the water was up to the hurricane deck, and on it in some places. She lies about two miles below the bridge, and is a total loss. She must go to pieces rapidly.
A passenger, James Dinan, told a newspaper reporter of the current tearing one of his children from his arms and washing others of his family overboard. He clung to floating debris that carried him downstream for ten miles before he could climb out of the river. Two of Dinan’s sons survived the wreck but his wife and two daughters were drowned along with several other passengers. The officers of the St. Luke, reported one paper, “claim that no blame attaches to them for the disaster, and that nothing could have adverted [sic] it.”
Indeed, pilots and captains were seldom held responsible for accidents by federal authorities who supervised steamboats. The report of the inspector for the district which included Missouri reported that of 260 masters and 160 pilots under its supervision, it had in 1874 revoked only two pilot licenses and no masters’ certificates, despite eighteen accidents during the year, eight resulting from snags or hidden obstructions, five by storm, one each from collision with another steamer, boiler explosion, and grounding, and two from colliding with bridges – one of them involving the hapless St. Luke. In only one case, a collision between two vessels, was the pilot held responsible.3
Keith went on to captain the Fannie Lewis, a packet running between St. Louis and Kansas City, and the Gate City before announcing a plan to build what the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in its daily “River News” column, said would be “one of the best money-making craft ever placed in the Missouri, and […] a good one for the Southern trade in the fall.” The planned vessel was to be a 200 foot sternwheeler, 42 feet in the beam. Its steam engine would boast cylinders 20 inches in diameter, with a 6 ½ foot stroke. The boat was the E.H. Durfee, which ran between Kansas City and St. Louis. Keith captained, piloted and partly owned the boat. He may have been skipper when it carried the largest group of “exodusters” – black migrants from the South – to Wyandotte County in 1879. It was on the Durfee that he demonstrated another side of the riverboatman’s life after getting into a dispute with one of the roustabouts unloading his boat. The man, who was trying to get his fellows to strike for higher wages, drew a pistol on Keith, who shot him, inflicting what a newspaper report called “a serious wound.”4
In 1882 Keith was master of the Annie P. Silver, a durable sidewheel packet running from St. Louis to New Orleans that had been scuttled after a hull fire. The boat was raised, pumped out, and continued in service for another ten years before ending its career on a snag near Vicksburg, Mississippi, though Keith had long since moved on the Montana, a massive sternwheeler 283 feet in length, said to be the largest sternwheel steamboat ever to travel the Missouri River. A “great carrier,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called her, “and one of the best low water boats afloat,” the boat carried freight between St. Louis and Kansas City, stopping at small towns like Augusta, Arrow Rock and Waverly. The boat was originally designed for the “mountain trade” and had gone upriver as far as Fort Benton, Montana.
To compete with the railroads, Keith kept the boat operating as late as possible in the year. “There is but one steamer on the river above Cairo,” reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in late December of 1883, as the Missouri was freezing over: “the Montana, in command of Capt. George Keith. The latest from him at Cape Girardeau is that he is coming ahead slow, but he will he thinks, get to St. Louis in good shape.” St. Louis was reached without incident on that voyage, and the Montana was still on the water in June when Keith exchanged shots with another striking stevedore, injuring the man’s finger.5
Later in the same month, a suspected murderer, “Blinkey Bob,” was taken off the Montana as she was loading in St. Louis with cargo for Kansas City. As if it were an omen, the next day the boat struck the railway bridge at St. Charles, Missouri, swung into a pier and sank. Bill Massie was in command at the time of the accident. Keith arrived at the scene later, pronouncing the Montana a total loss. The boat was left to rot on the river bank, from which her bones still emerge at low water to remind people of a vessel a St. Louis paper called “the best steamboat ever run on the Missouri.”6
The steamer Dakotah, also a sternwheeler, 252 feet in length, took the Montana’s place. It went to the bottom a few months later outside of Providence, Missouri, with Keith in command, but was promptly raised and put back in service. The fate of riverboats was already becoming apparent, however: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch urged boat owners “to keep up opposition to railroads. If any one doubts the number of pilots out of work,” the paper lamented, “let his eye be cast around the corner of Fourth and Olive streets. Pilots all the way from 22 to 65 years of age can be seen waiting, like Micawber, for something to turn up.”
With freight loads diminishing, the Dakotah was being sold more as an excursion boat than a freighter: “The Dakotah has a nice trip for Kansas City,” announced the Post-Dispatch. “She will take on a large excursion party on the Fourth for Leavenworth,” adding for the reassurance of passengers, if with some exaggeration, that her captain, George Keith, “has never yet had a serious accident while in charge of a steamer on the Missouri.”
Two years later, Keith made history on the Dakotah with an epic run from the Ouachita River north of Baton Rouge to St. Louis, a distance of over 1,000 miles, in five and a half days. He was also credited with carrying in 1884 the largest cargo in any steamer: almost 17,000 sacks of wheat, 550 packages of sundries and 52 hogs on 5 ½ feet of water, and “”never setting a spar.” The Post-Dispatch praised him as “the wheel horse of the Missouri […] No better navigator lives than he.” Though sunk and raised at least twice, the “mighty Dakotah” was, in comparison, a lucky boat, surviving almost fifteen years on the Missouri and Red Rivers before being dismantled in 1893.7
Keith went on to captain the Cherokee, carrying lumber from the Ouachita River to St. Louis. In 1889, he was piloting the Benton when it hit a snag near Washington, Missouri in 1889. The Benton was a famous steamboat, named after Fort Benton, Montana, where the principal downriver cargo was wool and pelts. “Old Reliable,” as the Benton was known, had participated in the Indian wars of the late 1870s, including the Sitting Bull and Nez Perce campaigns. Though no longer in the “mountain trade” when she sank in 1889, she didn’t give up easily: she went down and was raised three more times on the lower Missouri before finally being wrecked on a piling at Sioux City in 1897.
It was on the Benton in 1890 that Keith faced one of his most serious incidents, when he and his second engineer were charged in the U.S. Circuit Court in St. Louis with assault and battery by a mate, whom they counter-charged with mutiny. Keith had struck the mate with a club in the course of a dispute.
“The question seems to be,” reported the Post-Dispatch, whether [the mate’s] conduct was sufficiently mutinous to justify the attack on him […].” Keith was ultimately discharged, although the engineer was held for the Grand Jury, and the mate required to appear on mutiny charges.8
Even before the Benton case was settled, Keith was on the river captaining the steamer Idlewild, followed by the D.H. Pike, a passenger and freight steamer, and the New Idlewild, built for the St. Louis and Cape Girardeau trade.
It was from the New Idlewild that Keith went to the A.L. Mason in April, 1893. The New Orleans Times-Picayune noted on April 15, as the Mason was setting out for Kansas City, that Keith was “well and popularly known along the banks of the Missouri river from St. Louis to the Rocky mountains, having commenced steamboating there when a youth, and as a master, pilot and navigator has no superiors.” The Kansas City Times article on the boat’s tardy arrival adopted a similar elegiac tone, calling Keith “an old and experienced river man, having started in the business in 1858, when Kansas City was a straggling village along the river bank. He sailed in various years on the old-time packets […] and has seen the river traffic decline from a dozen boats a week to its present condition.” The paper quoted Keith himself on the changes:
Those were the good old days, and when a boat from up or down river would shove her nose up against the levee at this place the banks and bluffs would be crowded with people. And such a crowd as it was, too! All nationalities would be represented. It would be impossible to gather such a crowd now. […] Another rather remarkable thing was the great depth of water in the river then as compared to what it is now. It was nearly twice as deep then, and this I account for by the trees that have been felled and thrown in the river, where they have become entangled in the river bed and formed sand-bars.
The A.L. Mason headed back to St. Louis the next day, loaded with twenty-five carloads of grain for Havana. Eight months later, in January, 1894, it hit a snag a hundred miles south of Memphis and went to the bottom.9
It took some time for Keith to recover from his injuries. The Times-Picayune reported in March that he was getting about on crutches. A few months later he was in Kansas City advocating a steamboat line between New Orleans and Kansas City. In 1896 he was a pallbearer at the funeral of the widow of a pioneering riverboat captain. Jobs on the river must have been harder to find, even for someone of Keith’s stature, since the last time there was a report of Keith working on the river was in 1899, when, with Bill Massie, he was piloting the War Eagle, a massive boat suited more for excursions than freight: she had sixty-eight two-person staterooms, each fitted with the latest luxury: a stationary washstand. “She has a spacious kitchen, bake room and pantry,” a Cape Girardeau newspaper reported, “and superb silverware and other table furnishings.[…] The cabin is roomy and the ladies’ cabin is fitted with velvet carpet and handsome furniture. She is electric lighted throughout and modern in every particular.”
Keith may have been pleased at having fewer dealings with fractious stevedores, but he knew what the emphasis on passenger luxury meant: the railroad barons of the East had won the freight battle. He soon retired from the river to his farm in Lexington, Missouri where he had raised three boys and a girl; his wife, Mary, died in 1881. Keith died in 1913, aged 73 and was buried in Lexington under a plain tombstone inscribed only with the words “Geo. G. Keith Died May 2, 1913."
“Steamboat flags up and down the Mississippi River within a radius of 200 miles of St. Louis will be at half-mast this afternoon,” predicted a local paper, “when the funeral of Capt. George G. Keith, veteran river pilot and master, is held.”
A boyhood friend of Keith’s and steamboat historian, Dr. E.B. Trail, wrote of him:
He was a little man of Scotch ancestry, but no man ever outdid him on the river. What he did with the big Dakotah and 17,000 sacks of wheat is still a legend on the Missouri. As a famed pilot and a famed master, his memory still lives on with that great stream. He saw steamboating at its peak and he saw it drift away to nothing. Capt. George Keith sleeps the long sleep on the pleasant hills of Lexington and his famed steamboats sleep the long sleep with him.
A year after Keith’s death, a tugboat purchased by the U.S. Government was christened the George G. Keith. In an irony the tough old riverman might have appreciated, the tug was used for dredging and clearing the snag-clogged channel on the Missouri River that had so vexed Keith.11
1 1893-04-22-1893-p8KCT-Captain of steamer Mason
Whitney, Carrie Westlake. Kansas City, Missouri: Its History and Its People. 1808-1908, Vol I. Kansas City, Missouri: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1908, p 530.
2 Westport improvement association. Westport, 1812-1912. Kansas City, Missouri: Press of Franklin Hudson Publishing Company, 1912. p. 26. (https://books.google.com/books?id=ZzBEAQAAMAAJ&pg.)
Hunter, Louis C. Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History. New York: Courier, 2012. p. 24.
Corbin, Annalies. The Material Culture of Steamboat Passengers: Archaeological Evidence from the Missouri River. Springer Series in Underwater Archaeology, 2002. Bertrand: Box 74.
Report of Supervising Inspectors on disasters
Annie P. Silver photograph: University of Wisconsin Digital Collectins: http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu
Montana at Fort Benton photograph: https://www.nps.gov/archeology/sites/statesubmerged/montana.htm
Picture of Steamer Dakotah. Source: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections, khttp://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/
Bertrand Box 74 Artifacts (Atchison Family)
1893-04-22-1893-p8KCT-Captain of steamer Mason
April 14, 2016