The Story of an Extraordinary Migration
IT was once my fortune to travel a few weeks with a “push” that numbered two thousand. This was known as “Kelly’s Army.” Across the “wild and woolly West,” clear from California, General Kelly and his heroes had captured trains; but they fell down when they crossed the Missouri and went up against the effete East. The East hadn’t the slightest intention of giving free transportation to two thousand hoboes. Kelly’s Army lay helplessly for some time at Council Bluffs. The day I joined it, made desperate by delay, it marched out to capture a train.
It was quite an imposing sight. General Kelly sat a magnificent black charger, and with waving banners, to the martial music of fife and drum, company by company, in two divisions, his two thousand countermarched before him and followed the wagon-road to the little town of Weston, seven miles away. Being the latest recruit, I was in the last company of the last regiment of the Second Division, and, furthermore, in the last rank of the rear-guard. The army went into camp at Weston beside the railroad track—beside the tracks, rather, for two roads went through, the Chicago, Milwaukee, & St. Paul, and the Rock Island.
Our intention was to take the first train out, but the railroad officials “coppered” our play and won. There was no first train. They tied up the two lines and stopped running trains. In the meantime, while we lay by the dead tracks, the good people of Omaha and Council Bluffs were bestirring themselves. Preparations were making to form a mob, capture a train in Council Bluffs, run it down to us, and make us a present of it. The railroad officials coppered that play, too. They didn’t wait for the mob. Early in the morning of the second day, and engine, with a single private car attached, arrived at the station and side-tracked. At this sign the life had renewed on the dead roads, the whole army lined up beside the track.
But never did life renew so monstrously as it did on those two roads. From the west came the whistle of a locomotive. It was coming in our direction, bound east. We were bound east. A stir of preparation ran down our ranks. The whistle tooted fast and furiously, and the train thundered past at top speed. The hobo didn’t live that could have boarded it. Another locomotive whistled, and another train came through at top speed, and another, and another, train after train, train after train, till toward the last the trains were composed of passenger-coaches, box-cars, flat cars, dead engines, cabooses, mail-cars, wrecking-appliances, and all the riffraff of worn-out and abandoned rolling-stock that collects in the yards of great railways. When the yards at Council bluffs had been completely cleaned, the private car and engine went east, and the roads died for keeps.
That day went by, and the next, and nothing moved, and in the meantime, pelted by sleet and rain, Kelly’s two thousand hoboes lay beside the tracks. But that night the good people of Council Bluffs went the railroad officials one better. A mob formed in Council Bluffs, crossed the river to Omaha, and there joined with another mob in a raid on the Union Pacific yards. First they captured an engine, next they made up a train, and then the united mobs piled aboard, crossed the Missouri, and ran down the Rock Island right of way to turn the train over to us. The railroad officials tried to copper this play, but fell down, to the mortal terror of the section-boss and one member of the section-gang at Weston. This pair, under secret telegraphic orders, tried to wreck our train-load of sympathizers by tearing up the track. It happened that we were suspicious and had our patrols out. Caught red-handed at train-wrecking, and surrounded by two thousand infuriated hoboes, that section-gang boss and assistant prepared to meet death. I don’t remember what saved them, unless it was the arrival of the train.
It was our turn to fall down, and we did, hard. In their haste, the two mobs had neglected to make up a sufficiently long train. There wasn’t room for two thousand hoboes to ride. So the mobs and the hoboes had a talkfest, fraternized, sang songs, and parted, the mobs going back to Omaha on their captured train, the hoboes pulling out next morning on a one-hundred-and-forty-mile march to Des Moines. It was not until Kelly’s Army crossed the Missouri that it began to walk, and after that it never rode again. It cost the railroads slathers of money, but they were acting on principle, and they won.
Underwood, Avoca, Walnut, Atlantic, Anita, Adair, Casey, Stuart, Dexter, Earlham, Desoto, Vanmeter, Booneville, Commerce, Valley Junction—how the names of the towns come back to me as I con the map and trace our route through the fat Iowa country! And the hospitable Iowa farmer folk! They turned out with their wagons and carried our baggage and gave us hot lunches at noon by the wayside; mayors of comfortable little towns made speeches of welcome and hastened us on our way; deputations of little girls and maidens came out to meet us, and the good citizens turned out by hundreds, locked arms, and marched with us down their main streets. It was circus day when we came to town, and every day was circus day for us, for there were many towns.
In the evenings our camps were invaded by whole populations. Every company had its camp-fire, and around each fire something was doing. The cooks in my company, Company L, were song-and-dance artists and contributed most of our entertainment. In another part of the encampment the glee-club would be singing—one of its star voices was the “dentist,” drawn from Company L, and we were mighty proud of him. Also, he pulled teeth for the whole army, and, since the extractions usually occurred at meal-time, our digestions were stimulated by a variety of incident. The dentist had no anesthetics, but two or three of us were always ready to volunteer to hold down the patient. In addition to the diversions of the companies and the glee-club, church services were usually held, local preachers officiating, and always there was a great making of political speeches. A lot of talent can be dug out of two thousand hoboes. I remember we had a picked baseball nine, and on Sundays we made a practice of putting it all over the local nines. Sometimes we did it twice on Sundays.
Last year, while on a lecturing trip, I rode into Des Moines in a Pullman—I don’t mean a “side-door Pullman,” but the real thing. On the outskirts of the city I saw the old stove-works, and my heart leaped. It was there, at the stove-works, a dozen years before, that the army lay down and swore a mighty oath that its feet were sore and that it would walk no more. We took possession of the stove-works and told Des Moines that we had come to stay—that we’d walked in, but we’d be blessed if we’d walk out. Des Moines was hospitable, but this was too much of a good thing. Do a little mental arithmetic, gentle reader. Two thousand hoboes, eating three square meals a day, forty-two thousand meals a week, or one hundred and sixty-eight thousand meals for the shortest month in the calendar. We had no money. It was up to Des Moines.
Des Moines was desperate. We lay in camp, made political speeches, held sacred concerts, pulled teeth, played baseball and seven-up, and ate our six thousand meals a day, and Des Moines paid for them. Des Moines pleaded with the railroads, but they were obdurate; they had said we shouldn’t ride, and that settled it. To permit us to ride would be to establish a precedent, and there weren’t going to be any precedents. And still we went on eating. That was the terrifying factor in the situation. We were bound for Washington, and Des Moines would have had to float municipal bonds to pay all our railroad fares, even at special rates; and if we remained much longer she’d have to float bones anyway to feed us.
Then some local genius solved the problem. We wouldn’t walk. Very good; we should ride. From Des Moines to Keokuk on the Mississippi flowed the Des Moines River. This particular stretch of river was three hundred miles long. We could ride on it, said the local genius; and, once equipped with floating-stock, we could ride on down the Mississippi to the Ohio, and thence up the Ohio, winding up with a short portage over the mountains to Washington. Des Moines took up a collection. Public-spirited citizens contributed several thousand dollars. Lumber, rope, nails, and cotton for calking were bought in large quantities, and on the banks of the Des Moines was inaugurated a tremendous era of ship-building. Now the Des Moines is a picayune stream, unduly dignified by the appellation of “river.” In our spacious Western land it would be called a “creek.” The oldest inhabitants shook their heads and said we couldn’t make it, that there wasn’t enough water to float us. Des Moines didn’t care, so long as it got rid of us, and we were such well-fed optimists that we didn’t care either.
On Wednesday, May 9, 1894, we got underway and started on our colossal picnic. Des Moines had got off pretty easily, and she certainly owes a statue in bronze to the local genius who got her out of her difficulty. True, Des Moines had to pay for our boats; we had eaten sixty-six thousand meals at the stove-works; and we took twelve thousand additional meals along with us in our commissary—as a precaution against famine in the wilds; but then think what it would have meant if we had remained at Des Moines eleven months instead of eleven days. Also, when we departed, we promised Des Moines we’d come back if the river failed to float us.
It was all very well having twelve thousand meals in the commissary, and no doubt the commissary “ducks” enjoyed them; for the commissary promptly got lost, and my boat, for one, never saw it again. The company formation was hopelessly broken up during the river trip. In any camp of men there will always be found a certain percentage of shirks, of helpless, of just ordinary, and of hustlers. There were ten men in my boat, and they were the cream of Company L. Every man was a hustler. For two reasons I was included in the ten. First, I was as good a hustler as ever “threw his feet,” and, next, I was “Sailor Jack.” I understood boats and boating. The ten of us forgot the remaining forty men of Company L, and by the time we had missed one meal we promptly forgot the commissary. We were independent. We went down the river “on our own,” hustling our “chew-in’s,” beating every boat in the fleet, and, alas! that I must say it, sometimes taking possession of the stores the farmer folk had collected for the army.
For a good part of the three hundred miles we were from half a day to a day or so in advance of the army. We had managed to get hold of several American flags. When we approached a small town, or when we saw a group of farmers gathered on the bank, we ran up our flags, called ourselves the “advanced boat,” and demanded to know what provisions had been collected for the army. We represented the army, of course, and the provisions were turned over to us. But there wasn’t anything small about us. We never took more than we could get away with. But we did take the cream of everything. For instance, if some philanthropic farmer had donated several dollars’ worth of tobacco, we took it. So, also, we took butter and sugar, coffee, and canned goods; but when the stores consisted of sacks of beans and flour, or two or three slaughtered steers, we resolutely refrained and went our way, leaving orders to turn such provisions over to the commissary-boats whose business was to follow behind us.
My, but the ten of us did live on the fat of the land! For a long time General Kelly vainly tried to head us off. He sent two rowers, in a light, round-bottomed boat, to overtake us and put a stop to our piratical careers. They overtook us all right, but they were two and we were ten. They were empowered by General Kelly to make us prisoners, and they told us so. When we expressed disinclination to become prisoners, they hurried ahead to the next town to invoke the aid of the authorities. We went ashore immediately and cooked an early supper; and under the cloak of darkness we ran by the town and its authorities.
I kept a diary on part of the trip, and as I read it over now I note one persistently recurring phrase, namely, “Living fine.” We did live fine. We even disdained to use coffee boiled in water. We made our coffee out of milk, calling the wonderful beverage, if I remember rightly, “pale Vienna.”
While we were ahead, skimming the cream, and while the commissary was lost far behind, the main army, coming along in the middle, starved. This was hard on the army, I’ll allow; but then, the ten of us were individualists. We had initiative and enterprise. We ardently believed that the grub was to the man who got there first, the pale Vienna to the strong. On one stretch the army went forty-eight hours without grub; and then it arrived at a small village of some three hundred inhabitants, the name of which I do not remember, though I think it was Red Rock. This town, following the practice of all towns through which the army passed, had appointed a committee of safety. Counting five to a family, Red Rock consisted of sixty households. Her committee of safety was scared stiff by the eruption of two thousand hungry hoboes who lined their boats two and three deep along the river bank. General Kelly was a fair man. He had no intention of working hardship on the village. He did not expect sixty households to furnish two thousand meals. Besides, the army had its treasure-chest.
But the committee of safety lost its head. “No encouragement to the invader,” was its program, and when General Kelly wanted to buy food, the committee refused to sell. It had nothing to sell; General Kelly’s money was “no good” in that burg. And then General Kelly went into action. The bugles blew. The army left the boats and on top of the bank formed in battle array. The committee was there to see. General Kelly’s speech was brief.
“Boys,” he said, “when did you eat last?”
“Day before yesterday,” they shouted.
“Are you hungry?”
A mighty affirmation from two thousand throats shook the atmosphere. Then General Kelly turned to the committee of safety.
“You see, gentlemen, the situation,” said he. “My men have eaten nothing in forty-eight hours. If I turn them loose upon your town, I’ll not be responsible for what happens. They are desperate. I offered to buy food for them, but you refused to sell. I now withdraw my offer. Instead, I shall demand. I give you five minutes to decide. Either kill me six steers and give me four thousand rations, or I turn the men loose. Five minutes, gentlemen.”
The terrified committee of safety looked at the two thousand hungry hoboes and collapsed. It didn’t wait the five minutes. It wasn’t going to take any chances. The killing of the steers and the collecting of the rations began forthwith, and the army dined.
And still the ten graceless individualists soared along ahead and gathered in everything in sight. But General Kelly fixed us. He sent horsemen down each bank, warning farmers and townspeople against us. They did their work thoroughly all right. The erstwhile hospitable farmers gave us a cold reception. Also, they summoned the constables when we tied up to the bank, and loosed the dogs. I know. Two of the latter caught me with a barbed-wire fence between me and the river. I was carrying two buckets of milk for the pale Vienna. I didn’t damage the fence any; but we drank plebeian coffee boiled in vulgar water, and I had to throw my feet for another pair of trousers. I wonder, gentle reader, if you every essayed hastily to climb a barbed-wire fence with a bucket of milk in each hand. Ever since that day I have had a prejudice against barbed wire, and I have gathered statistics on the subject.
Unable to make an honest living so long as General Kelly kept his horsemen ahead of us, we returned to the army and raised a revolution. It was a small affair, but it devastated Company L of the Second Division. The captain of Company L refused to recognize us; said we were deserters, traitors, scalawags; and when he drew rations for Company L from the commissary he wouldn’t give us any. That captain didn’t appreciate us, or he wouldn’t have refused us grub. Promptly we intrigued with the first lieutenant. He joined us with the nine men in his boat, and in return we elected him captain of Company M. The captain of Company L raised a roar. Down upon us came General Kelly, Colonel Speed, and Colonel Baker. The twenty of us stood firm, and our revolution was ratified.
But we never bothered with the commissary. Our hustlers drew better rations from the farmers. Our new captain, however, doubted us. He never knew when he’d see the ten of us again, once we got under way in the morning, so he called in a blacksmith to clinch his captaincy. In the stern of our boat, one on each side, were driven two heavy eye-bolts of iron. Correspondingly, on the bow of his boat, were fastened two huge iron hooks. The boats were brought together, end on, the hooks dropped into the eye-bolts, and there we were, hard and fast. We couldn’t lose that captain. But we were irrepressible. Out of our very manacles we wrought an invincible device that enabled us to outdistance every other boat in the fleet.
Like all great inventions, this one of ours was accidental. We discovered it the first time we ran on a snag in a bit of a rapid. The head-boat hung up and anchored, and the tail-boat swung around in the current, pivoting the head-boat on the snag. I was at the stern of the tail-boat, steering. In vain we tried to shove off. Then I ordered the men from the head-boat into the tail-boat. Immediately the head-boat floated clear, and its men returned into it. After that snags, reefs, shoals, and bars had no terrors for us. The instant the head-boat struck, the men in it leaped into the tail-boat. Of course the head-boat floated over the obstruction and the tai-boat then struck. Like automatons the twenty men now in the tail-boat leaped into the head-boat, and the tail-boat floated off.
The boats used by the army were all alike—made by the mile and sawed off. They were flatboats, and their lines were rectangles. Each boat was six feet wide, ten feet long, and a foot and a half dep. Thus, when our two boats were hooked together, I sat at the stern steering a craft twenty feet long, containing twenty husky hoboes who “spelled” each other at the oars and paddles, and loaded with blankets, cooking-outfit, and our own private commissary.
Still we caused General Kelly trouble. He had called in his horsemen, and substituted three police boats that traveled in the van and allowed no boats to pass them. The craft containing Company M crowded the police boats hard. We could have passed them easily, but it was against the rules. So we kept at a respectable distance astern and waited. Ahead, we knew was virgin farming country, unbegged and generous; but we waited. White water was all we needed, and when we rounded a bend and a rapid showed up we knew what would happen. Smash! Policed boat number one goes on a boulder and hangs up. Bang! Police boat number two follows suit. Whop! Police boat number three encounters the common fate of all. Of course our boat does the same thing; but, one, two, the men are out of the head-boat and into the tail-boat; one, two, they are out of the tail-boat and into the head-boat; and one, two, the men who belong in the tail-boat are back in it, and we are dashing on. “Stop!” shriek the police boats. “How can we?” we wail plaintively as we surge past, caught in that remorseless current that sweeps us on out of sight and into the hospitable country that replenishes our private commissary with the cream of its contributions. Again we drink pale Vienna and realized that the grub is to the man who gets there.
Poor General Kelly! He devised another scheme. The whole fleet started ahead of us. Company M of the Second Division started in its proper place in the line, which was last. And it took us only one day to get ahead of that particular scheme. Twenty-five miles of bad water lay before us—all rapids, shoals, bars, and boulders. It was over that stretch of water that the oldest inhabitants of Des Moines had shaken their heads. Nearly two hundred boats entered the bad water ahead of us, and they piled up in the most astounding manner. We went through that stranded fleet like hemlock through the fire. There was no avoiding the boulders, bars, and snags except by getting out on the bank. We didn’t avoid them. We went right over them, one, two, one, two, head-boat, tail-boat, tail-boat, head-boat, all hands back and forward and back again. We camped alone that night, and loafed in camp all the next day while the army patched and repaired its wrecked boats and straggled up to us.
There was no stopping our cussedness. We rigged up a mast, piled on the canvas (blankets), and traveled short hours while the army worked overtime to keep us in sight. Then General Kelly had recourse to diplomacy. No boat could touch us in the straight-away. The ban of the police boats was lifted. Colonel Speed was put aboard, and with this distinguished officer we had the honor of arriving first at Keokuk on the Mississippi. And right here I want to say to General Kelly and Colonel Speed that here’s my hand. You were heroes, both of you, and you were men. And I’m sorry for at least ten percent of the trouble that was given you by Company M.
At Keokuk the whole fleet was lashed together in a huge raft, and, after being wind-bound a day, a steamboat took us in tow down the Mississippi to Quincy, Illinois, where we camped on Goose Island. Here the raft idea was abandoned, the boats being joined together in groups of four and decked over. Somebody told me that Quincy was the riches town of its size in the United States. When I head this I was immediately overcome by an irresistible impulse to throw my feet. No “blowed-in-the-glass profesh” could possibly pas by such a promising burg. I crossed the river to Quincy in a small dugout; but I came back in a large river-boat, down to the gunwales with the results of my thrown feet. Of course I kept all the money I had collected, though I paid the boat hire; also I took my pick of the underwear, socks, cast-off clothes, shirts, “kicks,” and “sky-pieces”; and when Company M had taken all it wanted there was still a respectable heap that was turned over to Company L. Alas, I was young and prodigal in those days! I told a thousand “stories” to the good people of Quincy, and every story was “good”; but since I have come to write for the magazines I have often regretted the wealth of story I lavished that day in Quincy, Illinois.
It was at Hannibal, Missouri, that the ten invincibles went to pieces. It was not planned. We just naturally flew apart. The Boiler-Maker and I deserted secretly. On the same day Scotty and Davy made a swift sneak for the Illinois shore; also McAvoy and Fish achieved their get-away. This accounts for six of the then; what became of the remaining four I do not know.
As a sample of life on the road, I make the following quotations from my diary of the several days following my desertion:
Friday, May 25th. Boiler-Maker and I left the camp on the island. We went ashore on the Illinois side in a skiff and walked six miles on the C. B. & Q. to Fell Creek. We had gone six miles out of our way, but we got on a hand-car and rode six miles to Hull’s, on the Wabash. While there we met McAvoy, Fish, Scotty, and Davy, who had also pulled out from the army.
Saturday, May 26th. At 2.11 a. m. we caught the Cannon-ball as she slowed up at the crossing. Scotty and Davy were ditched. The four of us were ditched at the Bluffs, forty miles farther on. In the afternoon Fish and McAvoy caught a freight while Boiler-Maker and I were away getting something to eat.
Sunday, May 27th. At 3.21 a.m we caught the Cannon-ball and found Scotty and Davy on the blind. We were all ditched at daylight at Jacksonville. The C. & A. runs through here, and we’re going to take that. Boiler-Maker went off, but didn’t return. Guess he caught a freight.
Monday, May 28th. Boiler-Maker didn’t show up. Scotty and Davy went off to sleep somewhere an didn’t get back in time to catch the K. C. passenger at 3.30 a.m. I caught her and rode her till after sunrise to Mason City. Caught a cattle train and rode all night.
Tuesday, May 29th. Arrived in Chicago at 7 a.m. . . .
And years afterward, in China, I had the grief of learning that the device we employed to navigate the rapids of the Des Moines—the one-two-one-two, head-boat-tail-boat proposition—was not originated by us. The Chinese river-boatmen had for thousands of years used a similar device to negotiate “bad water.” It is a good trick all right, even if we don’t get the credit. It answers Doctor Jordan’s test of truth: “Will it work? Will you trust your life to it?”
The works of Jack London and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.