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Odd Wisconsin Archive

St. Patrick's Day Shenanigans

In his memoir Old Times on the Upper Mississippi, steamboat pilot George Merrick recalled some St. Patrick's Day hijinks in the river town of Prescott, Wis. They took place during the late 1850s, when hundreds of side-wheelers fueled commerce in the heart of the continent.

Assistant Engineer Billy Hamilton of the 'Fanny Harris'

Merrick described Billy Hamilton, the assistant engineer on the Fanny Harris, as "a wild one on shore and a terror to the captain when on board and on duty." His commanding officer was particularly annoyed by Hamilton's habit of burning massive amounts of fuel and running his boilers at dangerously high pressure.

But whenever the captain had a dispute with the unruly crew -- which Merrick described as "composed of 40 Irishmen" -- Hamilton assisted by "jumping into a crowd and hitting every head in sight with whatever weapon happened to be at hand until order was restored. Usually, however, it was with bare hands..."

His Prank and Its Consequences

One spring while the steamboat was still iced-bound at Prescott, Hamilton decided to play a prank on the crew.

"The night before St. Patrick's Day," the old pilot recalled, "Billy made up an effigy, which he hung between the smokestacks. As the manikin had a clay pipe in its mouth and a string of potatoes about its neck, it might have reference to the patron saint of the Old Sod."

It was an era when Irish immigrants were greeted by prejudice or even violence, and the crew was not amused. Nor were the loyal Irishmen of the town. "Billy had to stand off the crowd for several hours with a shot gun, and finally get the town marshal to guard the boat while he climbed up and removed the obnoxious image."

Prescott's residents sought retaliation with a prank of their own. Hamilton "had a little iron cannon which he fired on all holidays," Merrick continued, "and sometimes when there was no holiday; in the latter case, at about three o'clock in the morning, just to remind people living in the vicinity of the levee that he was still on watch. In retaliation for the effigy affair, his Irish friends slipped aboard the boat one evening while he was away and spiked his cannon."

Hamilton's Counter-Blast

Not to be outdone, Hamilton repaired it in the steamboat's forge, heated it red-hot in the furnace, and pointed it at shore. "A bucket of water was then thrown into the gun, and instantly a hardwood plug, made to fit, was driven home with his heavy striking hammer. In a minute the steam generated by this process caused an explosion that threw the plug almost across the river, fully a quarter of a mile, with a reasonably fair result in the way of noise."

His Subsequent Heroism

Although he was the son of a Maryland slave owner, Hamilton resigned from his job in 1862 to fight in the Union Navy. "Within a few months after his entry into the service, " Merrick continued, "his old friends saw with pleasure, but not surprise, his name mentioned in general orders for gallantry in action.

"He had stood by his engine on the gunboat after a pipe had been cut by a shell from a Confederate shore battery, a number of men being killed and wounded, and the engine-room filled with escaping steam. Binding his coat over his face and mouth to prevent inhalation of the steam, he handled his engines at the risk of his life, in response to the pilot's bells, until his boat was withdrawn from danger."

:: Posted in Curiosities on March 15, 2012
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