Steamboats in Madison
At one time Madison relied on steamboats for transportation. When the only other choice was a
horse drawn carriage over unpaved and sometimes stump filled roads taking a boat across the lake was easier than trying to go around it. From the 1870s until World War II, we had nine steamboat lines on lakes Monona and Mendota.
There were small steam launches here as early as the 1850s. But the first real passenger steamboat was the four-horsepower Scutanawbequon. It was brought to Lake Monona in 1863 by Barnes, "Cap Frank," as he liked to be called, a native of Utica, N.Y.
It is a fact that history records generations of salt-water sailors in the Barnes family. Less certain is Barnes' assertion that he attended Yale. In 1925, the Wisconsin State Journal summarized his colorful career as "almost a myth."
The Scutanawbequon was built at Whitewater, where Cap Frank first settled. It was 30 feet long and 14 feet wide, had paddle wheels on each side, and chugged along at seven miles an hour. It was towed overland to Madison by oxen. Its arrival was a sensation, and gave the fledgling city bragging rights. "It has been objected that our population has not originated a line of steamboats that will compare, for beauty, power and convenience, with the Atlantic glories," sniffed an early Madison history. But the Scutanawbequon possessed a name that would "rival the finest on the sea."
Six-foot Frank Barnes was a curiosity, too, not only because he wore a thin straw hat year-round, but because he "braved the winter winds with rolled-up shirtsleeves," according to an early press account. "Barnes had the young body of an athlete. An abundance of iron-gray hair and a long heavy beard, however, added to his years and made him appear older than he really was." As for the hat, Barnes liked to walk on winter lake ice; he claimed that when he fell through, all he had to do was look up to see his floating hat -- and the way back to safety.
The Scutanawbequon carried "thousands each year" throughout all the Madison lakes, according to the State Journal. Its two-long-and-one-short whistle toot was taken up by all the Madison steamers that followed. Popular destinations were the area we know today as Olin Park, across Lake Monona was the Tonywatha Springs Hotel, with artesian water known for its curative powers. Another destination was a resort created at Squaw Point, today's Tecumseh Park in Monona.
Downtown, Barnes built offices and a boat landing at three locations before settling on the foot of South Carroll Street. Tickets were 20 cents. A second Scutanawbequon was launched in 1866, "a trim and elegant" craft according to the State Journal. It was 50 feet long, 11 feet wide, and carried 80.
Eventually Barnes' growing fleet included three boats called Scutanawbequon, differentiated only by a number at the end. Cap Frank merely reported that he loved the name. Supposedly it came either from a Native American of his acquaintance, or it was a translation for "fire boat."
Other of Barnes' boats were named Leeuyourscut, Malvet and Waubishepaywa, which the captain translated as "pay before you go out." One newspaper dryly noted that "the captain must have put some letters in a hat and named his boats according to those that he happened to draw out."
William Askew, captain of a competing steamboat line, called Barnes a "great practical joker with a fascinating but truly deep philosophy. He named his wharf Angleworm Station, in honor of the lowly creature to whom he felt civilization owed so much. The angleworm was also the subject of a humorous speech Barnes was called on to deliver every Madison 4th of July, and at other community events.
Barnes entered the pantheon of early celebrities. The State Journal noted in 1925 that early Madison had only three "centers of interest and social life." One was the Park Hotel, one was the Capitol, and the third was Angleworm Station. And here Barnes found love, too. He married a local girl, a Miss Tarr. From their home at 20 W. Wilson St. they watched the city, and rival boat lines, grow and prosper.
Other steamboat operators built landings at North and South Blair, South Hamilton, North Blount and South Hancock streets. Part of one steamboat line remains: the Bernard-Hoover boathouse, at 622 E. Gorham St. Charles Bernard's first steamboat was launched in 1890. His fleet eventually grew to six, and his star steamer was the Wisconsin, christened in 1905. His boathouse, rebuilt several times, is preserved today in James Madison Park, where it is home to the Mendota Rowing Club.
The Askew Bros. line bought out Barnes in 1900. The captain's wife had died and, grief stricken, he returned east.
Angleworm Station was razed in 1925, for parking. But the twilight of steamboats here was still 15 years away.