Stinson's Steamer Went Down In Defeat to the Missouri
Reprinted with permission from the October 1, 1978 issue of the Great Falls Tribune, Great Falls, Montana. Submitted by James E. Stinson, 706 S. Illinois St., Conrad. Montana 59425.
James E. Stinson, 61, east of Brady, uses modern machinery in planting and harvesting grain on lands including the original homesteads of his father, Ernest L. (Moonlight) Stinson and his father-in-law. But he remembers his father's large custom thrashing business with its big steam operated tractor, and especially the stories about the time in 1927 when one man was killed in an attempt to drive the huge Case 110 across the rains wollen Missouri River.
Stinson said his father got the nickname 'Moonlight' because quite often during harvest he would not sound the stopping whistle until the moon was shining brightly. 'Moonlight' had become an expert in handling steamers by working for the Advance Machinery Company in South America for six years.
In South America he would assemble steamers in the cities and drive them out to the farming colonies, where he would show the head man how to make them perform and then turn them over to the locals. But quite often the local authorities would meet him at a bridge and say the equipment was too heavy to cross. Moonlight would pull to one side, 'pull his fire', drive through the water under built up steam pressure, fire up again on the other side and proceed.
So, in 1927, a rushing 600 feet of Missouri River did not seem too much for his large Case steamer. That year Moonlight had extended his threshing season by starting in the Highwood Country, Stinson said, with the intent of moving to the Brady east area, then west and ending on the Porter Bench near Pendroy.
The Carter ferry was not big enough to carry the Case 110 across the river on the initial trip so Moonlight loaded it on a flat car and shipped it to Highwood. He hired Fred Deering of Brady, who was 23 at the time, to drive his old Waterloo Boy tractor to Carter, pulling the Red River Special thrasher and cookhouse, use the ferry and then on to Highwood. Deering is now a retired mechanic living in Cut Bank, Stinson said.
Stinson said the Waterloo Boy was worn out, had been out of production since 1913 and when Moonlight was offered $500 for it by a Highwood farmer, it was sold. The job of moving the cookhouse went to the water hauler and a Denby truck, a World War I vintage with chain drive, hard tires and a 15 MPH capacity.
Moonlight's engineer-fireman and crew leader, Stinson said, was Samuel Johnson who farmed about four miles north of Brady. Stinson described Johnson as 'quiet, pleasant, and always ahead of trouble, and harmonious. Continuous operation was his trademark.' A young man once approached Sam looking for a job, Stinson said, and Sam told him 'If I could stand you, I would hire you. Sit down there.' Sam gave the fellow a 'pretty respectable haircut' by using his tin snips from the toolbox and then hired him.
When the thrashing was over at Highwood, the crew was faced with the problem of how to move the thrasher across the river and to Brady. They picked a spot that was level on both sides of the river below the present Carter ferry and a little above the rapids.
Deering, who had the important job of water hauler, asked Johnson, 'Sam, how far can you swim?' 'Not a stroke,' said Sam. 'How far can you swim, Fred?' 'Same distance,' Fred replied. Moonlight then informed them, 'Well, since it will always be partly above water, you won't need to swim. You two are elected to take it across.'
After 'pulling the fire' Sam drove while Fred watched for big rocks. All was going well until they were about two-thirds the way across, Stinson said. Suddenly the smokestack disappeared underwater. 'It's got to be a deep hole,' Fred hollered. Sam pulled the big throttle lever all the way back, which caused the steam motor to stop and then turn the opposite way. The big drive wheels had enough traction and as the tractor backed up, the front wheels came out of the hole and the smokestack appeared again. They continued backing toward the bank, but about 150 feet from the shore they ran out of steam pressure and there sat the tractor in about six feet of fast running water.
The tractor's big flywheel was mounted at the top of the tractor and was above water, Stinson said. The practical way to move the outfit was to wrap a rope about seven turns around the flywheel, have a team of horses on shore pull the rope and roll the wheel and this moved the tractor about two feet each time.
To get the engine with such a long rope, Moonlight, who was raised in the lake country of Minnesota, borrowed the rowboat from the ferry, got the coal hauler to go with him and started out. Moonlight was in the middle seat, rowing and facing toward the man in the rear seat. The coal hauler was sitting with his back to the rower, paying out the rope from a large coil in the rear of the boat. As they continued across and upstream of the steamer, the paid out rope sank and was being pulled downstream by the strong current.
Apparently the coal hauler thought the whole coil might tangle and go overboard at once, Stinson said, so he tied the other end around himself. Moonlight did not see him make the tie but those on shore saw it and hollered for the coal hauler to untie himself. He did not, Stinson said.
When the boat was even with and a little upstream of the steamer, Moonlight turned the boat downstream and grabbed for the steamer. But the pull of the current on the rope pulled him away a little and he missed catching it. The boat was rapidly going downstream when the rope which had been tied to the Den by suddenly tightened and jerked the coal hauler out of the boat, overturning the boat at the same time. The coal hauler, whose name Stinson could not remember, was pulled under by the strong current and drowned before those on shore could pull him out.
Moonlight stayed with the boat and when it went against a big cliff at the downstream curve, he wedged himself between the boat and a little ledge, up righted the boat and bailed it out some, Stinson said. The oars were still locked in place so he was able to row back across the river where the ferryman telephoned the Chouteau County sheriff about the casualty.
Stinson said the crews learned fast in those days and the second attempt at getting the rope to the steamer was successful. It took well into the night to get the steamer wound back into shallow water so a fire could be built, get steam. up and back the machine out. It was later shipped by rail from Highwood to Carter.
That night in a Highwood hotel, Moonlight pulled out his wallet and spread out wet paper money' 'all over the place' to dry. Sam Johnson told him, 'If you had gotten lost in the river we would have had to find you just to recover the payroll,' Stinson said.
At a later inquest, Moonlight was found not at fault in the drowning but he offered the next of kin a generous settlement, Stinson said. The person did not want to settle for the amount and it appeared a lawsuit was coming. But one of the 'spike pitchers' on the crew informed Sam Johnson that the person was a famous jewel thief and wouldn't want any publicity. Stinson said he did not know if the person was a jewel thief, but a settlement was quickly reached after that.
1928 marked the end of the big thrashing runs, Stinson said, as combines had moved in and taken over. Sam Johnson, according to Stinson, prospered on his farm, later served as a Pondera County commissioner, and 'did everything for everybody but himself.' Sam's son, Leonard, Stinson said, is now a Pondera County commissioner. But in spite of stories about every county commissioner getting a paved road out to his place, Leonard probably has the 'worst road to drive of anybody in the county,'' Stinson said with a short laugh.
Moonlight Stinson became a garage owner and implement dealer in Brady and later retired in Kalispell, where he died in 1961. James Stinson, born in Brady in 1917, went to school there for 12 years and then to the Great Falls Commercial College before returning to the farm. He married Esther Larson in 1943. They have two daughters, one in Fort Benton, another in California and a son who is a Montana construction worker.