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River History

rafts of logs
From the 1830s on, log rafts were a common site on the river. The earliest sawmills were supplied by floating smaller rafts right up to the mill. These rafts later became larger, generally in two sections 75 feet wide and 700 feet long with an average value of about $20,000. At first, rafts were pushed from the rear but eventually grew so large that a bow boat up front was necessary. After the completion of the railroad bridge, rafts often had to be split and lengthened to get between the peers. The raftmen sometimes tied up in front of Savanna to do this. By the early 1920s, the railroads began to surpass the river as a freight carrier and few rafts were seen after that time.

By the time the first settlers arrived, steamboats were a common sight on the Mississippi River and not only did the early pioneers use the unlimited supply of trees to build their homes and the settlement, they also sold wood and catered to the steamboat traffic.

The early settlers took advantage of the river traffic as  a steamboat landing was built, Aaron Pierce constructed a the Frontier House (Savanna’s first hotel) and Vance Davison built a store and warehouse near the steamboat landing and sold hard wood for $3.50 a cord. Some of the boats he sold to included Lucie May, Alhambra, Metropolis, Vixen, Ben Bolt, Greek Slave, Henry Clay, Clipper, and the Skipper.

By 1838 steamboats began to carry the mail, replacing the stage and horseback for towns along the river.

Most of the steamboats has similar layouts and design. Deck passengers paid the lowest fares and carried some of the wood aboard as part of their cost-of-passage. They also brought their own food and slept on the deck at the rear of the boat.

The second deck was inhabited by the cabin passengers who had their own sleeping quarters, dining room, men's room, and ladies' parlor. The parlor was located at the rear of boat. The hurricane or top deck belonged to the pilot and ship's officers.

Saint Paul
Built in 1883 for the St. Louis and St. Paul Packer Co., the “St. Paul” ran three hour trips that started in Sabula with stops in Savanna, Ritchie’s Landing, Sand Prairie, Gordon’s Ferry, Bellevue, and Dubuque. It was rebuilt in 1892 to add larger third deck and then had trips from St. Louis to St. Paul, starting in the late 1890s.

One of Savanna’s most famous riverboat captains was John B. Rhodes, who came to Savanna in July of 1841 where he first worked as a clerk in the James White Store. After engaging in the sheep trade, he became a partner in the James White Store and eventually bought out his partner and owned the business for six years.

In 1852 he engaged in steam boating buying an interest in the steamboat Martha No. 2. He then became associated with the Northern Line Packet Company and they had number of boats with Rhodes the captain of the Dubuque. 

On July 29, 1869, what began as an argument ended as a race riot on the steamer Dubuque as she made her way north from Davenport under the command of Capt. John Rhodes and she had more than 30 men in her crew, over two dozen of them black. She carried nearly 100 passengers on the cabin deck and almost twice that number in the steerage and freight deck below.

Following the normal customs, the clerk went to collect steerage tickets after stationing Moises Davis, a black deckhand, at the top of the stairway. No one was allowed upstairs until all tickets were collected.

A quarrelsome Irish lumberman named Mike Lynch attempted to gain the upper deck and was refused. There was a short fight which he lost. Under the influence of drink and angry, he gathered 20 of his friends and led a rush at Davis.

In the battle that followed, the raftsmen joined in and soon the fight spread to include all the black boatsmen. At Hagy’s Landing near Hampton, 16 back men gained the shore amid a hail of shots and thrown missiles but since Rhodes was told the boat would be burned if he stopped for help, the Dubuque continued up river, The fight went on and it wasn’t long before Davis and four other black men either jumped or were thrown into the river and drowned. The only other black men aboard who survived did so because the other passengers hid then

Lynch and another man left the boat at Camanche in time to avoid capture at Clinton by a posse alerted by the men reaching safety at Hampton.

Twenty men were placed in irons and returned to Rock Island where nine were finally tried in June of 1870. Judged guilty, they were sentenced from one to three years. Ringleader Lynch was eventually caught, tried and sentenced to 10 years for his part in the crime.

Rhodes also served as Carroll County Sheriff from 1848-1850 and one of the county’s first tax collectors.

In 1846 he married Mary Jane Piece, the first white child born in Carroll County and the daughter of original settler Aaron Pierce. Rhodes constructed what was known as the Steamboat House at what is now 1019 North Main Street. The home was surrounded by a large metal gate and had a large cupola on top.

After retiring from steam boating, he engaged in the grocery trade with his son, Richard G., and passed away in 1906 at the age of 89.

Another popular riverboat captain that called Savanna home was Stoughton Cooley who settled in Savanna in 1851. A direct descendant of John Alden, the Pilgrim of Plymouth, Cooley was a riverboat captain on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers until his retirement in 1862. During that time, he built the steamboat Tensas, a 333-ton wooden hull stern wheel packet, which employed his sons as captain, engineer and clerk. He also captained the W.F. Curtis.

Cooley constructed his Savanna home on a high hill overlooking the city on what is now Fourth Street with a cupola where he could look out over the river and see the steamboat traffic.

Savanna’s third popular riverboat captain was W. L. Jenks, who arrived in Savanna in 1837 from West Virginia.

He became the first landlord of the Mississippi House built by Luther Bowen and ran the tavern until 1850. He was the first county treasurer and was postmaster under the Taylor administration from 1849-50. He then engaged in several businesses and became connected with the Northern Line Packet Company and for several years from 1852-1861 was a well-known captain and boat owner on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and St. Paul. 

He was the owner of two boats, one the Muscatine, and had an interest in others. He was one of the early stockholders of the Northern Line Packet Company and secured a large amount of land, embracing four or five farms, and aggregating over 1000 acres in Savanna Township. He moved to his family farm in 1865, lived there until 1878, when he moved to town and made his home unit his death.


JS SteamerThe original sternwheeler “J.S.” at the landing in Savanna in the late 1890s. It was destroyed by fire near Victory, Wisconsin on June 18, 1910.

277 copyThe beach at Marquette Park in the early 1900s. 

Old Boat

The gasoline launch “Hiawatha” pushes a barge with a portable saw mill in the early 1900s. The boat was owned by George and Walter Whitney. 

Early dredging on the Mississippi River near Savanna. Government boats were often seen in Savanna including the “Wakerobin” that tended buoys and channel markers while the “Ellen” kept the wing dams and riprap in repair. 

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Savanna was a frequent stop for a majority of paddlewheelers traversing the Mississippi River. The Excursion Steamer "J.S." is shown at Marquette Park.

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In 1915, the newly formed Savanna Boat Club erected this building south of Division Street on the riverbank. Set on piers, the ground floor pavilion had an enclosed refreshment stand and there was a large meeting hall on the floors above. Eventually it became the VFW Clubhouse and was destroyed by fire in 1977.

Steamboat pusing barges
Not only did the old paddle wheelers carrying passengers up and down the river, but were also instrumental in hauling freight and goods.

Pearl Ferry
Shown here in 1926, the “Iona Pearl”, owned and operated by George Whitney, was a daily conveyor of traffic and goods between Savanna and Sabula. During the week, the ferry made six daily trips between to the towns and eight on Sundays. Whitney had several boats over the years including the “Leola”. It first started out carrying horses and passengers and then added cars. The "Iona Pearl" had a capacity of 20 cars and 200 passengers. The landing was originally located at the foot of Jefferson Street.