Osage County Historical Society hears steamboat presentation

By Elise Brochu, UD Staff Writer
Posted 6/12/24

RICH FOUNTAIN — More than 50 people attended the Osage County Historical Society meeting on Monday, June 3, to hear Eddie Bossaller’s presentation, “Steamboats and the Gasconade …

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Osage County Historical Society hears steamboat presentation


RICH FOUNTAIN — More than 50 people attended the Osage County Historical Society meeting on Monday, June 3, to hear Eddie Bossaller’s presentation, “Steamboats and the Gasconade River: Revisited.”  The meeting was held in the Sacred Heart School Hall in Rich Fountain.

Bossaller’s presentation contained a brief overview of the history of the area and steamboats on the Gasconade in general, but focused primarily on one boat, the Buck Elk.

The Buck Elk, Bossaller explained, was a sternwheeler built at the Hermann wharf in the winter and spring of 1900, by the St. Louis and Hermann Steamboat Company. She was a light-draft carrier, 100 feet long, 18 feet wide, and the hull three feet deep, but would not draw more than eight inches of water.

“On a side note,” Bossaller joked, “a boat is always called a she. Some say it’s because the trimmings cost more than the hull.”

The Buck Elk is thought to be named for the creek of the same name, at mile 56 on the Gasconade River. The boat was launched on July 4, 1900, just in time for the wheat harvest.

In addition to transporting freight, the Buck Elk was also used for private hunting and fishing trips on at least one occasion.

The Buck Elk traveled many rivers during its time on the water, spending time on the White River in Arkansas in 1902 and 1903. In August of 1903, it was rebuilt at the Gasconade boat yard to become a snagger.

“This next story begins before Christmas,” Bassaller said, “with the Buck Elk and barges being rented, and carries well into 1905, with the conclusion recorded on March 8.

The story, taken from the book “Steamboat Legacy” by Dorothy Heckmann Schrader, starts, “Mary (Heckmann) had long been aware that (her son) George was the most foolhardy of her children and the most intractable. Her efforts to change these tendencies had been fruitless. But the mother of eight river-rat sons apparently develops a certain degree of immunity from worry.”

Bossaller then read an excerpt from the book where George Heckmann recounted the results of being pulled out of high school to go to Boonville to move the Buck Elk and two barges to winter harbor in Gasconade.

Greeley Heckmann was the captain, and the river was free of ice when they left Boonville, however the engineer started the boat without testing the boiler, which cracked a seam near Rocheport. By the time the boiler was repaired, heavy ice had started. The Buck Elk was moved to the mouth of a creek near Rocheport and George was sent back to school in Hermann.

A flash flood later sent the Buck Elk out into the Missouri River. Greeley and his engineer followed it, but George said they “spent too much time hunting ducks” and lost sight of the boat. They reported the Buck Elk as sunk.

The larger of the two barges, the Norman, floated into an eddy and was tied to the bank by fishermen. The Buck Elk itself went to Providence Chute and stopped in an eddy, where farmers secured it to a tree.

At that time, the high school in Hermann was on the riverfront, and George happened to be at recess when the smaller of the two barges floated by.

“On board was a really good row boat,” recounted George, “I asked the owner ‘If I get that row boat off the barge, will you give it to me?’ He said ‘Sure, but how are you going to get it?’”

George and his cousin, Allie Wohlt, boarded an eastbound train. At Washington, they hired a rowboat and took on two more kids, thinking two could bring the hired boat back and two would bring the rowboat from the barge.

When they boarded the barge, they found a hauser (line) hanging overboard and decided to haul it aboard.  George stated there was more line than he had imagined, and by the time they had it all on board, ice was jamming the rowboat they used to get to the barge, and they had to pull it on board to save it from being destroyed.

“I knew it would be sudden death to try to leave the barge in the black of night,” George recounted, “so the only thing we could do was to settle down for the night.”

The boys rolled together the Buck Elk’s boiler tubes, which had been removed for the boiler repair and stowed on the barge, used the two rowboats as windbreaks, and built a fire.

George said the barge was protected by about two feet of ice frozen to the barge’s hull, which kept it safe from sinking when they hit grounded ice on the head of sand bars. At times they would float into an eddy and spin in one spot until the barge broke free and continued down the river.

“The two kids that we picked up at Washington didn’t seem much concerned and fell asleep at the side of the fire,” said George. “Sparks would fly off the fire and set their clothes on fire and either I or Allie would put out the fire with a splash of water.”

At about 4 a.m., the bridge at St. Charles came into sight. The boys were prepared to take their chances in the row boats if it looked like they were going to hit, but they passed under the bridge unscathed.

George said it would have been an easy matter to leave the barge at Bellefountain, but he and Allie decided they had enough money for a train ride from St. Louis to Hermann and decided to stay on the barge until St. Louis.

“After clearing the bridge at Bellfountain,” George recounted, “the barge took a sudden notion to leave the channel and headed into a narrow chute behind an island on the left side of the river where no boat had ever been.

“A farmer came out to watch us go past. We threw him a rope which he tried to wrap around a tree but after about three attempts he ran out of trees and on down the river we went.

“At the mouth of the Missouri River we wound up in the big eddy. Round and round we went and to this day I will never tell you why we got out of that one. I think the ice piled up so high under the barge that she slid out on the ice.”

At the Mississippi River, the upper river ice and Missouri River ice crowded together, with the barge in the middle.

“I still think we could have walked to shore without getting our feet wet,” George said.

The rest of the trip was uneventful until they reached the Water Intake Tower at the Chain Of Rocks above St. Louis. The barge missed hitting the tower by about 10 feet. George yelled to the attendant to see if the tugs were running, and was answered that they were.

“For Christ sake, have one of them come out and pick us up before we reach the Eads Bridge,” George yelled back.

The attendant did as asked, and also called every newspaper in town. George said everyone who could get to shore was lined up on each side of the river to watch them go by. The tug picked them up, tied off the barge, and took them to the harbor boat, where they were fed and cleaned up.

“The Wharf Boat where the Harbor Boat tied off was full of people wanting to get a look at the Damn Fools that made the runaway trip in the ice,” George said. “I never did get the row boat but the owners of the barge paid us enough salvage money to make it worth while.”

Immediately upon his return to Hermann, George saw a boat taking on wood and asked his mother what was going on.

“‘They are getting ready to go up the river and pick up the Barge Norman and the Buck Elk,’” George recounted her saying. “I said ‘Good Bye.’ She said ‘Aren’t you going to stop long enough to tell me about your trip.’ I said ‘Allie Wohlt will tell you all about it.’”

The Buck Elk was sold in 1908 and went down the Yazoo River to Vicksburg, Miss. The following year, charges were proffered against new owner for allowing his vessel and equipment to deteriorate to such an extent to make vessel unsafe, and the certificate of inspection was revoked. The case was eventually dismissed, and the certificate of inspection restored. On Sept. 20, 1909, the steamboat Buck Elk, while in Vicksburg Harbor, sank during a storm, after being struck by some unseen floating object.

“Thus ends the saga of the steamboat Buck Elk,” Bossaller concluded.

The presentation ended with Bossaller donating a model of the Buck Elk to the historical society.