Cooling cruises on sweltering summer evenings

Sandy Vasko

    It is hard for us to imagine now, but during the era of dams and locks, the Kankakee River was navigable to large craft almost all the way to Kankakee.
    Excursion boats plied the river in both directions, making sweltering summers almost bearable. Set the wayback machine for June 26, 1879 and hop on board the Mohawk Belle.
    “The day was cloudy and a light breeze made it all that could be desired. At 9 o'clock a.m., the shrill whistle of the Mohawk Belle called about 200 persons - embracing all ages - to the lock wharf, where the Miner's excellent band from Braidwood, had arrived, and was discoursing a variety of popular selections.  Dozens of well fitted baskets found their way to the cabin, and everything being in readiness the boat moved amid the waving of adieux to those on shore and responding huzzas.
    “Andy Snite was the man at the wheel and Jersey Small acting captain on the occasion, so all felt that they were in safe hands. The mill pond and locks were soon passed - so were all fears of rain - and the grand old woods and fair fields on either bank loomed up in the distance with almost enchanting effect.
    “Just here we must relate a little incident that occurred at about ten o'clock. A hint was given to a select dozen or so that there was to be a rich development back near the pilothouse, and back we went.
    “It seems that a prominent poulterer in the crowd had quietly smuggled on board a keg of nails - or something from the brewery - and some of the “boys” getting wind of it, stole and hid the keg - replacing it with one filled with water - unknown to the smuggler, who invited his cronies to witness the tapping of the keg and partake of its contents.
    “The faucet, mallet and keg were brought forth amid the smacking of expectant lips, while the knowing ones almost bursting with suppressed laughter, gathered to witness the springing of the joke. In due time hats were doffed, and a silence almost painful prevailed.
    “Finally, a mallet descended like a pile driver, and the faucet penetrated the keg.  Our poultry friend stooped, glass in hand - and out came the water!  “Ye gods and little fishes, what base imposition is this? Shades of the might fallen!  Why d__n it, I took the keg from the wagon myself, and I know twas all right,” said he, in deep disappointment, while the broadest of grins lit up the faces of sundry township officers and the assembled score, who were ready to explode with laughter. A little later and after the fun, the original keg was produced, and joy reigned supreme
    “But here we are at Horse Creek Landing (Custer Park).  The boat stopped to discharge a few passengers, and then sped on her way, while the band played lively airs and all felt well in anticipation of a splendid time. The high and rocky bluffs were admired of all and soon we hove in sight of the abutments, eleven or twelve miles up the river. Here we rounded and island and returned to Ira Smith's grove (where Kankakee River State Park is now) - immediately opposite the Ferris lime Kiln - and near Small's lumber yard.”  
    “There the party disembarked to find tables, seats, stage, a cool spring and everything lovely. The little baskets were opened and we venture to say ample justice was done to an excellent dinner. Then two ungodly fiddles were brought to light and a command given to form for a quadrille.
    “The succeeding three or four hours were given to dancing, chatting, romping, visiting the spring and we surmise - just a little flirting. A genuine Donnybrook breakdown by the venerable Tom Connors and his worthy life partner, was one of the most enjoyable features of the dance.
    “But our space is limited. At about 6 p.m., the party, which, by the way, included quite a number of prominent citizens from Braidwood, responded to the summons, “all aboard” and downstream we came under a full head of steam. Mrs. Ira Smith and Mrs. W. B. Small accompanied the party to Horse Creek Landing where the boat touched and then resumed her watery path.
    “Eight o'clock found the Mohawk Belle and her load safely at the wharf.  Everything had run smoothly and orderly, and all seemed well satisfied with the trip. The management did their duty well throughout and the affair, all in all, will be happily remembered.”
    That same evening another group had chartered an excursion on a different set of boats. It sounded like a more romantic adventure. “Notwithstanding the cloudy aspect of the skies on Wednesday evening, a select party numbering about 40 ladies and gentlemen boarded the Hiawatha, in tow of the Sea Gull and bearing Dorre's band, for a moonlight excursion and hop.
    “The deck of the barge was suitably fitted up; a level floor, and the party left the dock in the best possible spirits. The flotilla returned to its moorings at about midnight, after a most enjoyable ride up the river of some four hours' duration.”
    Whether it was daytime picnics, or nighttime dances on board a river barge, summer on the river was where it was at.