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I moved from Vandalia to Springfield in the fall of 1970. It was about this time that I found out we Vandalians, or at least this particular one, are considered "River Rats" by some of the "flatlanders" up north.
The first time I heard the phrase, I protested! My folks lived on North First Street, and the Kaskaskia River flowed a short distance from our back yard, but I didn’t think much about it. I knew the river was behind our house somewhere, hidden by the trees, but did not spend time looking for it. A river rat, indeed!
My father didn’t fish, we didn’t camp – we didn’t go near the Kaskaskia River. Isn’t it something to live so close to a river such as the Kaskaskia and not really think about it? Well, except when the levees break.
As kids we were warned that the Kaskaskia was a dangerous river, with a swift undertow. Also known as the Okaw, the river had claimed many lives over the years. The first recorded victim was Fritz Wolf, one of the Ernst colonists, who was overcome while swimming after a runaway skiff in May 1821.
Vandalia is not a river town, per se’. But at one time, for several years, there was much activity along her banks. In the dusty annals of our history, the story is told of commerce that took place along the Kaskaskia’s shoreline.
In 1839, William Lynn and Dr. Affleck employed workmen to clear the river of snags and to cut down trees growing too close to the river’s edge. There were two crews – one on each side of the river, with a central camp. The men worked from sunup to sundown for one dollar a day.
William H. Lee, whose father, Lemuel, had the first mill on the Kaskaskia River at Vandalia, built several flatboats on the banks of the river for businessman Ebenezer Capps, Vandalia’s most prominent merchant. Construction would take most of the winter months, and as the spring thaw began, they would begin to load the boats with cargo.
During the winter of 1840 and 1841, Lee built two flatboats for Capps, their cargo consisting mainly of produce. For the maiden voyage, a crew of seven was taken on, with Lee as captain of one boat and Alfred Mathias as captain of the second boat.
At New Orleans, they traded for cotton, molasses and coffee, sending these goods to St. Louis by steamboat, and from there transported the goods overland to Vandalia. The flatboats were also sold because lumber was a precious commodity. As told in the 1878 “History of Fayette County,” "This was the first experiment in boating from Vandalia."
The following year, William Lee built two flatboats for himself, loading them with pork, beef, corn and hoop poles. The prices at Vandalia were 20 cents per bushel for corn; pork, $1.50 to $2 per hundredweight; beef, $1.50 per hundredweight; and wheat, 31 cents per bushel. The venture was said to have been a profitable one for Mr. Lee.
On the third such undertaking, merchant Capps had three flatboats built and loaded with 5,000 bushels of grain, pork, beef and 15 hogsheads of tobacco. The crew left Vandalia in March 1846, reaching New Orleans on June 4. Hazel Stevenson’s father, James Albert, was on this trip.
One of the boats developed a leak and put in at Baton Rouge. Lee, not wanting to lose both the boat and load, told the two crewmen to bail water as fast as they could. He would walk uptown to see if he could find a buyer.
They were instructed that when they saw him return, they were to stop bailing and stand idly by. In time, he did return with a man from Louisiana, who bought the boat and load for $460 cash. Lee and the two crewmen headed straight for the dock, where a steamboat was leaving for New Orleans.
They later learned that two hours after they made their getaway, the boat and load sank in the Mississippi River.
There may have been other flatboat trips from Vandalia to the Southern markets after 1846. The coming of the Illinois Central Railroad two years later hastened the demise of flatboating on the Kaskaskia. So, are we "River Rats"? I’ll let you answer that.