The stretch of the Mississippi River between Nauvoo, Illinois, and Montrose now appears to be little more than a large placid lake traversed by fishermen and modern tow boats. But there was a time when this stretch of the river was notorious for the dangers it presented — both on the water and surrounding shore.

Long before the Keokuk dam was in place and prior to the construction of the short-lived channel that cut through the rocks for steamboat navigation, this stretch of river was bedeviled by rogue rocks and rogue men.

Back then, the river was especially problematic during the warm summer months when water levels made it impossible for a fully-loaded steamboat to pass the obstructions. Water levels over the rapids would often fall to 15 inches and traffic was stopped.

At such times, the freight from above was transferred to lighters manned by oars. These boasts then were floated to Keokuk, where the freight would be reloaded to waiting steamboats.

The lighter was a long, flat boat which would carry a good load on little water. When there was sufficient depth, these lighters were towed back to Montrose by the steamer Dick Hine. When the Hine could not make the trip, the lighters were towed back along the shore by horses.

The transfer of freight at the head of the rapids furnished employment to a large number of men, and their presence made Montrose a “live town.” The Burlington Saturday Post newspaper described the stevedores as “a healthy, well developed bunch of fellows and thorough believers in the doctrine of home rule.

“Outsiders were not permitted to interfere with their ideas and customs. A raft crew landed one day and after taking some drink, intimated that they could run the town and paint it bright red.”

When word of this challenge reached the waiting stevedores, a war cry was raised and the “Montrose Legion” gathered. The lumber raftsmen from the north were thoroughly whipped, driven onto their raft and the raft cut loose to bounce over the rapids.

The newspaper continued its report of the Montrose legion by describing a later encounter with a circus crew that wished to set up their tent in the small Iowa town.

“A circus gang under the management of one Grady arrived at Montrose and after loading up with whiskey at Fred Green’s saloon announced they were bold, bad men and they were looking for some of the noted fighting men of the town. A few hours later they found them.”

Tom Burns of Montrose was a trained fighter and had seen much service in the ring. He passed word around town that the circus crowd must be licked, and he led an attack on the showmen. The tents were torn down, the circus men severely punished, driven onto the ferry boat and forced to leave Montrose without giving a performance.

The Saturday Post reporter added: “It so happened that I was present on the occasion and witnessed the entire contest. The boss canvas man was so badly disfigured by Burns that it looked as though he had been run through a corn sheller.

“At one time during the progress of the battle,” he added, “I discovered the air around my head was full of tent stakes, stones and other missiles and in front of me I could see the glittering of knives and business end of a number of guns. As I was not there to be killed or wounded, I fell back.

“I took a new position behind a tight board fence, where I could see just as well and be in less danger because I had learned in the Army that when a position could not be held, the thing to do was to retire.”

The reporter’s retreat was noted by the Montrose crowd, and after the battle, they accused him of showing the “white leather.” The accused scribe, however, contended his action was in strict accordance with military science.

The rocks and the Montrose crowd could prove challenging to river traffic and newspaper reporters, but generally the steamboat men had little trouble with either threat. However, it was never a safe proposition for a non-resident gang to come to Montrose and attempt to “run the town.”