UNDERWRITING ON THE MISSISSIPPI|
By Edwin C. Gibbs, President of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce; formerly of the Firm of Neare, Gibbs & Co., Fireman's Fund Agents.
From The Fireman's Fund Record, August 1920.
It is quite a step backward to the year 1883, when I entered upon my career as an adjuster and marine underwriter, having to do with vessels plying upon the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries, and a complete evolution in that field has taken place since then, just as it has done in practically all other lines of business.
In 1883, there was a great fleet of some fourteen large passenger and freight steamers between Cincinnati and New Orleans; there were some six steamers between Cincinnati and Memphis; a similar fleet between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and several large side- wheel boats plying between Cincinnati and Huntington, West Virginia, which at that time was the western terminus of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. A splendid fleet of some twelve or fifteen vessels, known as the Anchor Line, plied between St. Louis and New Orleans and several fine steamers known as the Diamond Joe Line, plied in the summer season between St. Louis and St. Paul. There was also a fine fleet between St. Louis and points on the Tennessee River. Steamers then plied between Memphis and points on the Arkansas River and between New Orleans and points on Red River, and a palatial line of great steamers ran between New Orleans and lower Mississippi points.
A great fleet of barges and tow boats from St. Louis to New Orleans carried vast quantities of grain and other commodities, and a powerful fleet of tow boats operated on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, transporting vast cargoes of coal, steel and iron products from the upper Ohio River points to the lower Mississippi River points the most powerful tow boat taking on a single trip, in barges, 56,000 tons of coal, steel and iron products from Louisville to New Orleans.
In these days the business of insuring these vessels and their cargoes was transacted almost entirely by local companies. Cincinnati had many such, amongst them the Enterprise, the Merchants' and Manufacturers', the Farmers', the Commercial, the Eureka, the Security, the Western, the Citizens', the Globe and the Commercial Insurance Company. All of the other large cities along these rivers also had local insurance companies writing river business, and when the lines were larger than could be handled by the companies in one city, the excess was brokered with the locals in other cities. There were at that time, as I remember, no state resident agent laws which would preclude that method of handling the business.
Speaking of local companies, I have in my possession a policy of insurance issued by the Lexington Insurance Company of Lexington, Kentucky, in May, 1804, on pipes of wine and casks of rum by push boat from New Orleans to a point on the Ohio River below the Falls (where Louisville now is). Strange to relate the rate charged is a little less than the rate now charged on coal by barge in tow down stream for the same voyage; and the policy quaintly states: "In case of Loss (which God forbid), it will in no event pay in excess of 90% of the amount unwritten, even though the loss be total." It also reserves the right if found necessary in the adjustment of a partial loss to substitute the surest policy of insurance issued by any company in Philadelphia.
I first entered the business in 1883, under Captain George W. Neare, who was a marine adjuster, agent and broker at Cincinnati. At that time he represented, as marine agent, two companies, The Louisville Underwriters of Louisville, Kentucky, and the Kenton Insurance Company of Covington, Kentucky.
Being young in years then, I was, of course, more fixed in my convictions; more self-reliant and more prone to undertake my work hastily and without consultation than I am today. This will best be illustrated by relating my first experience with a sunken vessel, which I have never forgotten.
It was during the winter that the steamer "Granite State," lightly loaded and on a voyage from Memphis to Cincinnati, sunk in the Ohio River some twenty miles above Cairo, Illinois. She was insured in Cincinnati locals and in our two companies, and I was sent to her to represent the hull underwriters.
With a diver and apparatus, we reached the sunken vessel by packet from Cairo late at night. We had to be unloaded upon the vessel's boiler deck because her main deck was under water from three to eight feet. A few hours prior to my arrival a sister steamer of the same line had hauled alongside of the "Granite State" and practically stripped her of all her outfit above water, leaving only a few blankets for the several members of the crew that remained in charge. Due to this fact, my first night on board was a most uncomfortable one, as I slept on the floor of the ladies' cabin under a single blanket, with my feet to the stove. There was no food on the boat and our breakfast the next morning was brought to us by a farmer and consisted of pork, swimming in grease, and biscuits which were as hard as rocks.
The diver's examination showed a large break in the vessel's bottom and knuckle, just forward of the engine room, and before it could be temporarily repaired it was necessary to remove a lot of baled hay from the hold. This was very slow work indeed as the hay was water-soaked and very heavy, and before we could remove all of it the river began to rise rapidly, due to heavy rains up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.
As good fortune would have it, the second morning about four o'clock I was awakened by the watchman, who advised me that the tow boat "Excel" was alongside and that her captain, John Barrett, requested that I pay him a visit.
As a matter of fact, the tow of three tier of empty barges was alongside the sunken steamer and the "Excel" was the length of the tow (about five hundred feet) below, so I was obliged to [travel] back over the ice and the slush in those barges, aided only by the light of the watchman's lantern. When I finally reached the "Excel" I found Captain Barrett very comfortable in his cabin, propped up in bed and alongside of him was a barrel almost full of luscious apples. The captain very hospitably invited me to help myself to the apples, which I was very glad to do, and then he asked what he could do to help me. I advised him in full as to the Situation and stayed aboard the "Excel" until daylight. There I got a good breakfast, of which I was sadly in need, and then Captain Barrett and myself went back aboard the "Granite State."
By this time it seemed very clear to me, by reason of the rapidly rising river and the winter season, when further rises and perhaps ice might reasonably be expected, that the chances of raising the "Granite State" seemed very remote. So to make a long story short, after several hours' negotiation, I sold the vessel for an agreed cash price to Captain Barrett, his purpose being to wreck her.
I was obliged to do this upon my own responsibility, there being no means at hand of wiring the hull underwriters. That responsibility I did not hesitate to assume, as I felt reasonably confident it was not practical to raise the vessel under the circumstances. But upon my return to Cincinnati, I had to square myself with the hull underwriters, who claimed that I should have referred the matter to them for they feared Captain Barrett might raise the vessel.
My answer to that was that the proposition of Captain Barrett required prompt consideration, he being unwilling to lie at the wreck with his tow for several days awaiting the result of the necessary mail correspondence with the hull underwriters. And time proved the correctness of my judgment, since Captain Barrett did not try to raise the vessel, and barely broke even when he wrecked her.
As I have stated, since 1883 a complete evolution has taken place in the business. Practically all of the old steamers have gone, likewise their owners and commanders. Few only of the original lines are now in existence.
Steel hulls are gradually superseding the wooden ones and more modern and progressive methods of management are appearing.
The local insurance companies are no longer in existence. Practically all of them have retired from business altogether and river marine insurance is now written by a number of large stock companies through resident agents.
As an outcome of the war, the government of the United States is still operating a fleet of towboats and barges on the Mississippi River south from St. Louis. However, I believe that will not be a permanent venture because I feel that the American people, in times of peace, prefer individual rather than governmental operation of water craft, as well as of the railroads.
Much of the freight that formerly went by the rivers has been diverted to the railroads - this by reason of the reduced rates offered by the latter to competitive river points.
Under the circumstances, this was but natural, as our people, for the time, failed to vision the great value of transportation on our inland rivers, for it is a fact that no other civilized country on the globe has paid so little attention to its waterways as has the United States. But, during the war, the congestion on the railroads has brought home to all the vital necessity of improving and utilizing our rivers to the fullest extent, to the end that the congestion in transportation may be relieved, our commerce - permitted to expand and our country to develop.
The improvement by the government of the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cairo to secure a minimum stage of nine feet, through the building of locks and dams, has gone on apace. It has been estimated that fifty-three locks and dams will be required in the distance of one thousand miles between those two cities, and the work stands today as follows:
Locks and dams completed and in operation . . . . . 29
The value of these improvements in our Ohio River was again demonstrated last winter and spring during the coal strike, for when other cities not located on our river were suffering for coal, the factories and homes in Cincinnati were adequately supplied by the coal brought to this city on the Ohio River.
Of course, we need these improvements, and of course more and more do we need boats constructed upon modern lines; but we also need co-ordination between the waterways and the intersecting railroads, without which the highest development and utilization of inland waterways can never be accomplished. When we are assured of improved channels, modern boats and of the interchange of freight between the rail and water routes upon a pro rata basis and under through bills of lading, the river transportation business will grow by leaps and bounds; and indeed water transportation facilities are greatly needed to assist in handling the increasing commerce of our country.
[Fireman's Fund Archives: 4-1-3-4-31; 0406.]
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