Meet the Pilot
My name is Philip Suiter and the river was my life. My greatest days were always spent along the banks of the river where I called home. In 1824, I was 26 years old when I handcrafted a boat from white oak strips a grapevines at my home in Lawrence County, Ohio. With my wife and 2 children in tow, we paddled down the Ohio River and then turned north for the slow trip up the Mississippi.
We landed in Illinois where we stayed for a few years. The locals quickly recognized my talents on the water. I spent so much time on the river, I knew by memory every twist in the bank, every line of rocks, every cross current that would be of danger to travelers on the water. In 1829, a young engineer by the name of Robert E. Lee requested my service. His charge was to map the currents and channels of the river. Using landmarks on the banks, I helped him to chart the mighty river and the workings of even the smallest flows.
In 1836, we moved farther upstream to Le Claire, Iowa. Here I fell in love with the strength and grandeur of the most dangerous turn in the entire Mississippi River. Just below Le Claire, the lumbering river turns angry. The steady flow from north to south takes a dramatic turn and flows almost straight east to west downstream to the mouth of the Rock River near Rock Island. This turn is signaled by dangerous rapids and rip currents that have left more than its share of riverboats in tatters on the riverbed.
Even with my great experience on the river, these rapids were a danger; but also a challenge. I spent hours on the river, learning from French-Indian explorers how to pass the crooked channel. I mapped every eddy and turn by establishing landmarks on the shore.
I knew my interest in the river could earn a living for me and my family. I became the trusted authority on navigating the rapids. Soon, raft and steamboat captains were docking in Le Claire and requesting my services. I would board and take the wheel, guiding the vessel to safe passage. We would land near Rock Island where I would board the next boat waiting to travel upstream or race back to Le Claire aboard a buggy to catch the next boat in need of navigation. My prowess on the river became well known. I became the first river pilot licensed by the United States Government to navigate the river.
In the mid 1800s, we all watched with interest as the railroads extended their reach across the countryside. Soon, many of the packets that used to ship up and down the river were moving by rail. This didn’t sit well with many of the river captains I worked with. On April 22, 1856, the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi opened. 15 days later, on the evening of May 6, the steamboat Effi Afton was navigating through the draw of the new bridge. Once through the draw, the boat veered hard right, struck the bridge and burst into flames. A suspicious turn of events to say the least.
The accident pitted the heavyweights of the river versus the railroad. Captain John Hurd, the owner of the Effie Afton sued the Rock Island Railroad Company claiming that the bridge caused currents and eddies that destroyed the boat.
The Rock Island Railroad was defended in U.S. District Court by a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. I watched the trial with great interest as it was my strong opinion that any navigator worth his weight would have no issue passing that bridge.
While researching the case, Mr. Lincoln came to Rock Island to survey the bridge and examine the flows of the river. I was impressed that he had become well versed with the maps that I had helped Robert E. Lee chart years earlier. I told Mr. Lincoln that I knew the river better than anyone and that I was of the opinion that the bridge caused no threat to passing riverboats.
In September of 1857, I was summoned to Chicago to testify on behalf of the railroad. It was difficult to offer my expertise in defense of the railroad when my life had been spent as a river-man. But it was my duty to tell the judge and jury what I knew in my heart to be true… that the bridge posed no threat to river navigation. The case ended in a hung jury. But the railroad saw it as a victory. Their bridge would stay and we would continue to navigate around it. Who would think that soon Mr. Lincoln would be President and Mr. Lee would be a Confederate General?
By this time, my sons John H. and Williams had joined me on the river. I watched with great pride as my sons carried on my passion for the river. Eventually, my grandsons John W. and Zach would find wealth as river pilots as well as my great grandsons John F. and James.
Over time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to clear a 9 foot channel in the river that made the services of river pilots unnecessary in Le Claire. Well after my time, the lock and dam system tamed the great rapids. Many descendants of mine still reside in Le Claire today. There’s even an exhibit in the Buffalo Bill Museum about me, right on the banks of the Mississippi in Le Claire where I used to work every day.