Part five of a series
In the autumn of 1857, the steamboat “Key City” ran into and sank the freight boat “Ben Coursin’” on the Mississippi River near Dresbach. One account says 12 to 15 people were killed or drowned. David Watson mortgaged his farm and secured $300 in gold to purchase the wreckage and worked all winter to pull the “Ben Coursin’” out of the river in order to salvage the boilers and engines, which were taken to Hokah on sleds. The machinery was placed into an already constructed sidewheel steamboat, named the “Winona.”
The “Winona” would establish regular commercial routes between Hokah and La Crosse, but the first trip, in the late 1850s, was up the Root River to Rushford, a voyage of four or five days, during which some trimmings and part of the wheel house were lost. But the “Winona” was only one the earliest steamers on the Root. However, there was river-related commerce before steamboats.
Wheat was the major cash crop of the mid-1800s. At first, getting to market involved trails or ox cart roads which connected to older territorial roads and eventually to grain warehouses and market ports on the Mississippi at Brownsville, McGregor, Winona and La Crosse. At a plodding pace, oxen pulled carts full of wheat to market from Fillmore County and Houston County wheat fields, sometimes for distances of 50 miles, usually in caravans of two or three up to 30 wagons.
Winona was the destination for most Rushford area wheat, but the Root River was at first an obstacle for those farming south of the river. A ferry was available in the early 1860s before the first river bridge was built in 1867. For those farming south of Rushford, like Ole Oian, the Root River must be forded or pay 10 cents for a ferry trip. By the end of the second day, the wheat had been sold and provisions purchased. Because thieves would prey on their money and supplies, farmers camped overnight in groups at Sugar Loaf Bluff, sleeping beneath their wagons. Oian carried a permanent scar on his cheek after one altercation with a robber.
The Root River had long been an established water route into the interior. In pre-settlement days, canoes were used on the Root by native Americans, trappers and traders as well as whiskey runners dealing with Indians. Joseph Otis made several canoe trips from La Crosse before settling in Rushford. In August of 1852, E. K. Dyer, his family and provisions came upstream to Houston on a flatboat. The next spring, he traveled upstream to Rushford.
The Root was therefore another alternative for transporting farm produce to market ports on the Mississippi River and for bringing back supplies for a growing population in Houston and Rushford. Commerce between Rushford and La Crosse was possible with the overland route from Rushford to Winona combined with Mississippi River packet boats (ferries) between Winona and La Crosse. But the most direct route was up the Root River.
Before steamboats, heavier cargo came up the Root on a barge, pole boat or keel boat. In September of 1854, a keel boat laden with lumber, shingles, household goods, merchandise for a country store and a sow with three piglets embarked at La Crosse. Five men propelled the vessel with poles against the Root River current toward Rushford.
But using poles was labor-intensive and especially slow when heading upstream. So, in 1855 at Houston, some area entrepreneurs organized the root River Steamboat Company. Steamers were constructed near the Old Looney Valley River bridge in the “old Houston” section of town. Their first steamboat was afloat on the Root in 1857-58. Those early steamboats were small, likely not much larger than the keel boats they replaced. But the steamers made travel much easier and faster.
In 1859, a steamboat carrying lumber for construction of the Adams Hotel ran aground in the river near Cushing’s Peak. The cargo eventually reached its destination, hauled by teams of oxen and wagons. About that time, wheat could be transported downriver from Rushford.
The steamboat company at Houston produced several steamers, but the romantic era of steamboats on the Root was brief. Railroads would soon dominate commerce across the continent.
Sources: “The History of Rushford: The First Decade,” (1986).
“Just for Old Times Sake: History of Early Days of Hokah, Minn.,” (1949).
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