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Histories:  Trempealeau Co. Historical Accounts:

"History of Trempealeau County Wisconsin, 1917":

Chapter 10:

Cruise of the Spray

-As transcribed from pages 162 - 164

One day during the latter part of April in 1866 the little steamboat Spray swung up to the river front landing at Trempealeau and stopped for refreshments and supplies for the crew.  "She was a trim little boat," said the old riverman, "about 30 feet long and 10 feet wide, and was a flat-bottomed craft with a stern paddle wheel."

The crew remained in town about an hour when the boat pulled out for its journey up the Trempealeau River.  Arrived at the Trempealeau navigation became impeded by snags and leaning trees, and a gang of men was kept busy removing these obstacles.  Saws and axes were brought into play, and now and then a headline was run out and fastened to a tree and the capstan used to drag the boat over a shoal.  Two men stood on the forward deck with pike-poles to shove the boat away from the bank in sharp bends of the river, or where shallow water was encountered to take soundings.

Thus the steamboat struggled slowly along up the river, clearing its way as it went, but of all the difficulties met with the wooden wagon bridge was the most formidable, for settlers living along the river hearing of the approaching steamboat where on hand to protest against the damaging of their bridges.  However, in every case except one, the officers of the boat persuaded the people who resisted them that the establishment of navigation on the river meant more to them than the loss of a portion of their bridge.  Some of the settlers hailed the coming of the boat with joy, taking it as a messenger of progress come to open an easy way to the world's markets, while others cursed the audacious little "Spray" as "another freak endeavoring to establish an impossibility," the navigability of the river.  Still others took the steamboat venture as a joke and laughed at the idea of navigating a stream that a boy could wade when the water was at its normal stage.  But still they must have looked at the coming of a steamboat more as a novelty than anything else, and made the most of it by being on hand to feast their eyes upon the wayward little craft.

here and there along the route a few of the settlers would get aboard the Spray, to enjoy a ride on the Trempealeau River.  Among these was Daniel Bigham of Arcadia, who boarded the boat down near the old Dan English place and rode nearly to the present site of Arcadia.  Dan was interested in watching the boat navigate the river, but says if he had been in a hurry he would have made better time walking.  "It took a good deal of time to cut out the snags and trees that obstructed the channel," said Dan, "and when we grounded the engine would stop and wait for the water to wash the sand from under the boat.  They destroyed all of the bridges in the town of Arcadia," continued Mr. Bigham, "and it caused considerable commotion among the settlers, for in that day with but few sawmills and a scarcity of lumber it was difficult to build a bridge."

The news that a real live steamboat was actually navigating the modest little Trempealeau traveled so much faster than the boat itself that the up-river people were on hand to welcome the strange visitor when it arrived.

When the Williamsburg settlers heard the shrill whistle of the boat they flocked down to the landing on the Baker place, and as the gangplank touched shore many felt that the marvelous day of prosperity was at hand.  In fact a market landed in the burg that day, for the captain of the boat bought bread and eggs from the inhabitants and paid the expectant farmers for it in clean cash.

On the 2nd day of May, 1866, George H. Markham made record in his diary of the passage up the Trempealeau River of the steamboat Spray.  The Markhams settled in the Trempealeau valley not far from the site of the present village of Independence in 1856, and Mrs. Geo. H. Markham distinctly remembers seeing the boat on its journey up the river.

The Spray continued on its course up the river until the wagon bridge located three miles below Whitehall was reached, when it was met by David Wade and David Wood, representing the town of Lincoln, who refused it further passage on account of necessitating the destruction of the bridge.

The people of Lincoln had heard of the approaching steamboat and of its wanton destruction of bridges on the lower river, and had decided not to allow such destruction in their territory.  They were practical men and had no rosy dreams of the future steamboat activity on the river, and considered their bridge worth more than the vague possibilities of a future waterway market.

And so the adventurous rivermen turned back, and on the journey down stream they stopped at Arcadia to take on a shipment of flour from the Massuere Company mill.

On account of the current and the river being free of snags and trees the return run was much faster and easier than the up-river trip.  At Marshland the boat was laid up for some time, but it finally resumed its course into the Mississippi and completed its round trip at La Crosse.

Why such a trip was undertaken is somewhat of a mystery.  Some say that the Northwestern Railroad Company gave the owners of the boat a bonus for not compelling the road to maintain a draw bridge across the river at Marshland.  Others say the journey was made to determine the navigability of the Trempealeau River.  Whatever the motive it certainly established the fact that the river was not a suitable stream for navigation.

(By Eben D. Pierce.)

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