Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2012

Steamboat Elsie

A Legend in Her Own Time

By Timothy Harrison

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This 1939 illustration, by famous American artist ...

Nestled in the upper center part of Illinois, in the Land of Lincoln on the banks of the 273-mile long Illinois River, a principle tributary of the Mississippi River, rests the small community of Henry, Illinois. It was here that Elsie Bentley Longman unintentionally gained, not only her nickname of Steamboat Elsie, but also became a legend in her own time. And it all started from one hand-written letter.

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Steamboat Elsie is shown standing next to the ...

But let’s back up for a moment to tell you how this all came about. The early French traders, learning quickly from the Native Americans, realized the important link the Illinois River played as a vital route in connecting the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River. The early French colonial settlements along the river soon formed what became known as the heart of Illinois Country.

By the middle 1800s, when growth mandated that the farmers and industrial businesses became more dependent on the river for shipping, it was decided to build dams and locks to make the river more navigable year round. The first lock and dam built on the Illinois River was in 1870 at town of Henry.

For the next 50 plus years, the Henry Lock created a stir of daily activity for the people of Henry as the barges and steamboats slowly traversed through the lock. The townsfolk often gathered and greeted the vessels, exchanged some amiable banter with the crews on board them and enjoyed the blast of the steam whistle by the captain of the vessel, which especially delighted the kids. The town of Henry even came up with a clever slogan, which it widely promoted, “Best Town in Illinois by a Dam Site.”

But that all came to an end when it was decided there was a better place for a dam and lock than in Henry. In 1928, the Henry Lock and Dam were destroyed and the daily banter with the ships’ crewmen and the sound of steamboat whistles came to a stop. Now the vessels would steam down the middle of the river, hardly noticing the people of the community of Henry. A way of life had been changed forever. James Gray, in his book The Illinois, published in 1940, in writing about the end of the Henry Lock, wrote, “The dynamite that blew the cement structure to pieces crumpled something in the population living near by. One imagines them going about their daily tasks wearing the haunted look of people who cannot keep themselves from that what they wish for will never happen again. Subconsciously they waited for the whistle of the steamboats, for that deep-throated, confident, yet gentle sound of command – the sort that a humorous, well-loved father knows how to make.”

The Steamboat Elsie era started six years before the Henry Lock and Dam were destroyed when Elsie and her husband A.J. sold their farm and moved into town in 1922, at which time they opened A.J. Longman’s Grocery Store. A couple of years later, Elsie opened a beauty shop above the grocery store. Eventually, A J. decided to be a barber, and along with his wife Elsie, they opened up a joint shop at a new location. In 1928 when the Henry Lock and Dam was dynamited, the couple purchased some land on the river that had formerly been a trash dump and hauled stones and rocks from debris of the lock and dam, which they then used to build the foundation of their cottage on the river. But something was missing: the sounds of the steamboat whistles which no longer sounded as they passed the town of Henry.

James Gray wrote, “One member of the community at Henry did not take privation with the humility of her neighbors. Elsie did not like what was happening to her world and she proposed to do something about it. To those who have the destiny of the river in their charge, Elsie wrote a letter describing what the charm of life had been in Henry while the lock was still there and to what meagerness it had shrunk and shriveled now that the lock was gone. It must have been an eloquent letter, for back from St. Louis came the official letter from the Inland Waterway Corporation ordering that all steamboats, as they passed the house of Elsie, were to whistle in salute to a gallant spirit.” And within no time, all the boats were whistling one long and two short blasts as their greeting to Elsie and the people of Henry. As soon as a ship’s whistle sounded, Elsie would come out of her home and wave to the passing vessel. And thus the nickname “Steamboat Elsie” was born.

Elsie also became useful to the barges and steam vessels in other ways. If a boat’s radio failed to work, the folks in Chicago or other offices of the barge companies would call Steamboat Elsie and ask her to give the captain a message. Perhaps it was instructions to stop somewhere and pick a cargo of corn or something else.

Helen Gould Raffensperger wrote in the Illinois Historical Journal in 1990 that Elsie and her husband made other improvements to their riverside property. They built an attractive picnic area, pool, rock garden, and docking area that became known as Longmont Landing. Wives and families of the sailors often went to Steamboat Elsie’s house to picnic and talk to their men on the boats through Elsie’s megaphone as the vessels passed by.

As with the foundation of their house, their shoreline improvements, and parts of the landing itself, using stones from the destroyed Henry Lock and Dam, the couple built a facsimile lighthouse on the shore of the river. Completed in 1935, Elsie’s husband installed a powerful light in the tower that could be seen for two miles in either direction.

Raffensperger wrote, “The landing marked a narrow place on the river, where tugboat captains had to steer carefully between the centers of the new Henry Bridge. The captains lined up on the Longmans’ light until they were well past the bridge, keeping the lighthouse to starboard.” The facsimile lighthouse was deemed so important a landmark that by 1940 it was no longer a facsimile lighthouse. It became an official aid to navigation and was so listed on the official charts of the Illinois River.

When Gray visited Elsie in 1939, he found that Elsie had moved her beauty shop to a separate attached section of her home and it had been equipped with all the modern equipment that could be found in the big city beauty shops. The difference was that when a ship’s whistle would blow, Elsie would leave her customers for a brief time and go out on the porch and pick up her megaphone and holler greetings or perhaps an important message to the captains of the steamboats and barges. Gray wrote, “Her patrons know that even the task of installing a permanent wave must be interrupted if there is a boat to salute.”

In getting a tour of the cottage, which by that time was the full-time home of Elsie and A.J. Longman, Gray reported it to be decorated with what her husband said were all Elsie’s treasures. Gray said that one would have thought they were in the home of a great ship’s captain. It turns out that most of the items were gifts from the crews and families of the riverboats. Gray wrote, “The house shows the nautical motif in its whole decorative scheme. The table lamps are ships in full sail. The pictures all bear witness to Steamboat Elsie’s dominating passion. There is among them a fine photograph, taken from the air, showing Elsie’s house and before it, on the bosom of the river, a steamboat with a fine cargo.”

Gray continued by saying, “Everyone associated with the river traffic goes to see her, adds to her collection and picnics on the lawn. They feel for her, I think, that special respect which the craftsman feels for the good amateur; that the artist reserves for the collector who really understands the subtleties of technique; that the actor gives to the loyal first-nighter who can be counted upon to laugh and to cry at the right times.”

Elsie’s collection of artifacts and nautical home décor continued to grow and even the wallpaper had a nautical motif. A prized possession, given to her by a grateful river captain, was an old-fashioned ship’s wheel, which the Longmans mounted outside by the lighthouse.

With the outbreak of World War II, the Illinois River took on greater importance with an increase in river traffic. Elsie took on new responsibilities for overall river communications.

Raffensperger wrote, “Each morning, Elsie phoned Chicago with a report of the river level. Her information helped determine the flow of water through the Peoria Locks. She maintained a twenty-four hour log of passing ships and cargo. She knew the names of captains and pilots, and she dutifully logged their messages to families or company headquarters. Many times crew members disembarked on Longman’s Landing for a visit. Elsie supplemented the megaphone with other signals. If she waved a red flag, for example, the boat was to stop in order to pick up important messages or telegrams. Sometimes, a boat had to stop in order to pick up a deckhand who had strayed at the last port.

“In 1940 Elsie logged 1,068 passing boats; the following year she counted 1,785. She preserved the tradition of goodwill between port families and seamen. At Christmas, she and her husband made hundreds of popcorn balls, which they lowered in sacks to crewmen passing under the Henry Bridge. At other times they might lower down a cake for a crewman’s birthday. By the same method they often passed mail and other messages.”

As news of Elsie spread, mostly by word of mouth, as it did in those days, many newspapers came to do stories about her; among those were the Chicago Sun, Chicago Tribune and the Peoria Journal. But, the biggest story was in Life, the most popular and widely read magazine of that time. Life gave Elsie another title: “The Queen of the Inland Waterways.”

In 1945 Elsie was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. While many suggested she go to the big city for treatment, she declined, believing local treatment would be just as effective, plus she would be able to stay close to the river she loved so much. She died on May 31, 1945, just one month past her 59th birthday. Every business in the town of Henry, Illinois closed for her funeral, which was attended by nearly the entire town and riverboat men who came from near and far. Her ashes were dropped from the Henry Bridge into the Illinois River, which she loved so much. Elise’s husband, A.J. died five years later and his ashes were also scattered into the Illinois River.

In 1946 Charles B. Smith, a columnist for the Peoria Journal wrote, “The world is better that Steamboat Elsie lived. She made it happier, her charities were not large, but they were numerous and from the heart. I hope those staunch steamboat men keep her memory green and set the echos flying with their whistles for many years to come.”

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2012 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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