Rowing with Jane: Fact and Fiction
Rowing with Jane
On Saturday, Sept. 26 I dropped my kayak in the river at the South St. Paul boat ramp beneath the Interstate 494 Wakota Bridge and squeezed myself into the cockpit. I pointed my bow upstream and began paddling toward St. Paul but with each stroke traveled back in time until I reached 1885 and the colorful steamboat era. I was searching for hints of a remarkable woman of whom little is known but who undoubtedly knew this 4-mile stretch of river better than anyone ever has or will again.
Her name is Jane Muckle Robinson and for 36 years, from 1885 to 1921, she tended four kerosene navigational lanterns on the river that helped steamboat pilots safely guide their vessels between the stockyards in South St. Paul and Dayton’s Bluff in St. Paul. During that time she rowed an estimated 50,000 miles, a distance equivalent to rowing from the headwaters in northern Minnesota to the mouth of the Great River in Louisiana and back – 10 times.
I kayaked this section to get a better understanding of her daily feat and to gauge how long it might take her to reach and tend the lights. I began my trip when the sun was approaching its apex of the day and shining brightly. It’s a time of day Robinson would have rarely been on the river. She began her task when the moon and stars still hung in the sky, and returned to the river at dusk when the sun was tinting the horizon red and burning the water black.
In my mind’s eye, I see her stocky silhouette walking from her home on Bryant Avenue in South Park (present day South St. Paul) toward the river and climbing into her rowboat. She shoves off and rocks gently on the water as she sets the oars and dips the blades in the water. She extends both arms and pulls the oar handles forcefully toward her, feeling the weight of the river against them, hearing the tandem splash of a repetitive motion she methodically completes again and again. At her feet is a 5-gallon can of kerosene that swirls and sloshes softly with each stroke, and a bag filled with essential equipment: wicks, some feathers and soft pine sticks to clean the burners, rags for polishing the glass and a scissors for trimming the wicks.
On my trip I quickly approached an island and my paddle scraped a sandbar, causing me to lose propulsion. Robinson would have scuffed the keel of her rowboat on numerous sandbars, an act that likely gave her a greater appreciation for what these menacing navigational hazards meant to steamboat pilots and the hordes of people they brought to St. Paul. In the 1800s, steamboats were the primary method for transporting people and goods to the Minnesota Territory, and sandbars and snags were a constant source of concern. In “River of History A Historic Resources Study of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area,” author John O. Anfinson says the Steamboat Virginia was the first to make the trip from St. Louis to St. Paul. That occurred in 1823 and the event ignited a mass movement of people. In 1858, the year of statehood, nearly 1,100 steamboats docked in St. Paul, and from 1850 to 1860 Minnesota’s population ballooned from 6,077 to 172,023.
To protect their precious cargo – primarily people moving upstream and commodities downstream – shipping companies successfully lobbied Congress to “improve” the river for navigation. In 1866 Congress approved dredging a 4-foot channel, which over time was deepened to four-and-one-half feet and then six feet. Robinson would have witnessed those early efforts. Today the Army Corps of Engineers maintains a 9-foot channel through its locks and dams, and dredging.
The riverfront is much different now than when Robinson traveled along it. To the east is the wild and scenic Pig’s Eye Scientific and Natural Area, which I presume looks similar to Robinson’s day, but the west bank is now lined with a levee that hides the remnants of what were once the largest stockyards in the world. Robinson would have walked its muddy streets, whiffed the pungent odors of hides, feed, manure. The stench and the electricity that buzzed around the stockyards were part of her world.
According to the “South St. Paul Centennial 1887-1987,” edited by South St. Paul historian Lois Glewwe, Jane was the daughter of James and Margaret Muckle, who immigrated to South Park from County Down in Northern Ireland, which is in the region around Belfast. She was one of eight children – seven sisters and one brother – all of whom worked at the elegant Grand Hotel in South Park. The hotel opened in 1889 and was a popular place with salesmen and manufacturing representatives who catered to the stockyards industry. Some of Jane’s duties there included cooking, food service and laundry, all of which required her to retrieve water from the Mississippi.
Hard work and hospitality were trademarks of Robinson’s life. She began her job as post-light keeper at age 22. By then she had been married to Robert Robinson for three years, had two sons and was pregnant with a third, or had just given birth. Her employment date could not be verified, but we do know that she gave birth to son Robert on July 20, 1885. The couple ultimately had six sons and one daughter and supported their family through Jane’s two jobs and her husband’s work in the Great Western car shops in South Park.
As a lamplighter, Robinson was employed by the United States Department of Commerce and Labor. In “River of Conflict, River of Dreams Three Hundred Years on the Upper Mississippi” author Biloine Whiting says it was a plum job, and one held mostly by men. The pay was $10 a month per light, equivalent to $484 per month today. Robinson assumed the job from a friend who was moving to California. Perhaps it was the frigid springs and falls, the odd work hours, or the strict requirements of the job that sent her friend packing for a more agreeable clime.
The week following my kayak trip I dug deeper into Robinson’s past and discovered a document listing the 18 official duties of post-light keepers. Upon reading it I wondered if the pay was worth the effort. It took me just over an hour to paddle from South St. Paul to Dayton’s Bluff, and I paddled hard as if I were on the clock. Rowing is not nearly as swift, so even on her return trip after lighting the lanterns it would have taken Robinson longer to cover that distance.
How much time it took to tend each lantern is anyone’s guess, but the instructions suggest that cleaning each light was a rather meticulous task. Post-light keepers were required to “Use a feather or soft pine stick to clean the burner. Polish the glass. Renew the wick when it becomes too short to reach the bottom of the pot … Clean frequently the lantern thoroughly with strong, hot (or boiling) soapsuds, rinse in clean hot water, and dry thoroughly.”
That last duty amazed me and my mind raced back to thoughts of Robinson walking to the river in the wee hours of the morning, but now she is carrying a pot of boiling water to wash and scrub the smoky lantern glass.
Tending the flame apparently was a challenge as well, and I imagine she struggled in the rain and snow to get the flame in peak position. The instructions: “A light should burn with a clear, white, even flame, as high as it can be carried without smoking. If the tubes which admit air to the flame are not clear the light will be dull and smoky…The wick must be evenly trimmed; if ragged on top the flame will show smoky points. Take off only the charred part of the wick in trimming, not that which is merely blackened. The best plan is to rub off what is charred, without using the scissors at all…If the wick is turned too high the flame will be of a reddish color and will smoke; if too low, it will not give the proper amount of light. Keep the flame low at first and turn it up to its full height gradually.”
Now I can see Robinson’s fingertips, permanently dyed a smoky shade of black from the wick soot.
Robinson was responsible for all supplies and had to pay for any that were lost or damaged through “carelessness or neglect.” The instructions list 33 items in her care, including kerosene, lamps, lenses, posts, braces, trimmers, locks, wicks, funnels, burners and buoys.
A post-light keeper was permitted to keep lanterns on the posts during the day but did so at their own risk. If one was stolen or damaged she would have to pay for it, and if one of the lights went out during the night she was docked a day’s pay unless she could prove it was due to a circumstance beyond her control. Steamboat pilots relied heavily on the navigational lanterns. Their progress in the dark slowed considerably without them, so they quickly reported any outages to an inspector.
Finally, post-light keepers were required to “personally attend to their lights.” This means Robinson did all the work herself and was on the river in fair weather and bad, good health and poor. It’s quite possible that she even rowed in the early stages of labor because she gave birth to at least four children while employed as a post-light keeper. It was her responsibility to find someone to tend the lights if she was sick or temporarily unavailable.
Later I tracked down a few of Robinson’s great-grandchildren, one of whom still lives in South St. Paul. To their knowledge, Jane didn’t keep a journal, and very little oral history remains of a woman who began working on the river the same year that Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” rolled off the press. Twain was a steamboat pilot for just a few short years but he rode that reputation to his grave. Robinson spent her entire career on the river but spoke very little about it publicly. Her job was not particularly glamorous so it may be that she saw no need to record her experiences for posterity. It’s a shame. It would be fascinating to read of her thoughts and observations of the river at the turn of the 20th century, and of the joys and challenges she faced working a unique river job that was forever replaced by technology.
I found just one newspaper article about her. It was published in the St. Paul Dispatch in 1921, just before her retirement. The article is not dated, has no byline and contains only nine paragraphs. It tells us she was in frail health, had just applied for a pension, and offers a blanket statement of praise: “She has been most dependable, rivermen say, and pilots guiding steamers or barges to St. Paul never have failed to find the beacon lighted to mark the channel’s path.”
Thankfully, the article also includes one observation from her on her career: “The river traffic is much lighter now than it was in the early days and it seems to me there arn’t [sic] as many storms nowadays. We used to have some awful storms. They made it nearly impossible to go out.”
The navigation season on the Mississippi is typically late March through late November. If Robinson worked through that time in 1921 she did it in less than favorable weather. According to historical weather data, it snowed nearly every day Nov. 12 to 22, except on Nov. 14, the day she turned 58. If she extinguished her last lantern on Nov. 22 she would have done it in single digit temperature, chilly winds and amidst 11 inches of snow on the ground.
Robinson lived just four years after her retirement, passing away on Nov. 21, 1925, cause unknown. I visited the Oak Hill cemetery in South St. Paul to see her grave. Her headstone is stamped with her name, date of birth and death, and a term her family likely considered her greatest accomplishment: “mother.” She lies in rest between her husband and son Robert, who assumed her lamp lighting duties when she retired. Their plots are on a hillside overlooking the river that she worked on for so many years. A river she loved, or had grown to loathe. We’ll never know.
First Day on the River
For the past hour Jane Muckle Robinson has kept a close eye on the clock on the wall. She’s been reading and re-reading the detailed instructions of her new job as post-light keeper on the Mississippi River, which she would begin this day. When the clock hands circle to three she makes her way to her bedroom, retrieves a pair of stockings from the bureau, and pulls them to her waistline, adjusting them beneath her long grey dress. She walks to the back door, drapes a long scarf around her neck, dons a coat – checking the pockets for mittens and hat – and leaves the warmth of her South Park home. Everything she’s wearing is made of wool, which she knows will keep the chill of the breezy spring dusk at bay.
The day had been mild and she can feel a tinge of warmth from the sun, which has partially burned its way through the remaining snowdrifts and is now quickly fading in the leaden sky. With her coat unbuttoned and set back on her shoulders, she descends the hillside where she lives and walks briskly along the sloppy street at the bottom of the bluff. Mud splatters at the hem of her dress with each step, and her leather boots quickly become encased in muck. As she reaches the stockyards two miles away, her mind drifts from her pending duties as she views the commotion around her. Men are herding cattle, sheep and hogs from pen to sale barn, or to the chute for the slaughterhouse. The animals moan and bleat and grunt as they are prodded on their way, and their odor hangs heavy in the air, making her wince.
Soon she arrives at her boat station and scans the supplies, her eyes darting back and forth between them and the inventory list she holds in front of her. She picks up a 5-gallon can of kerosene and places it in the bottom of her rowboat, near where her muddy feet will be. She grasps the bag filled with essential equipment – wicks, feathers and soft pine sticks for cleaning burners, rags for polishing glass and a scissors for trimming wicks – as well as a spare lantern globe, burner, and a few other things she doesn’t think she’ll need but has decided to bring just in case.
She pushes the boat into the frigid water and steadies it on the rolling waves as she climbs in. The keel catches each wave and rocks high and low as she sets the oars in place and dips their blades into the water. She extends both arms and pulls the oar handles forcefully toward her, feeling the weight of the river against them, hearing the tandem splash of the motion she methodically completes again and again. Her back faces the direction she is traveling and she periodically glances over her shoulder to ensure she is on course to reach the first light, the Kaposia Light. Upstream from that lantern she will also tend the Pig’s Eye Dike Light, Pig’s Eye Light and Dayton Bluff Light.
The daughter of Irish immigrants, she is familiar with hard work, and the rowing comes easy. Her 22-year-old stocky frame handles the task well. As she pulls at the oars, she feels fortunate to have assumed this coveted governmental job from her friend who moved to California. She thinks of her friend and wonders what the weather in California is like on this day.
The temperature has already dipped by the time she reaches the Kaposia Light, and cold water splashes her hands as she ties the boat to the navigational beacon post and steadies herself against the rocking river. She rubs her hands together for warmth, grabs the can of kerosene, and slowly lifts it toward the lantern. She fills it to the brim. Next she opens the lantern glass and installs a new wick, turning it down to soak up the kerosene and then raising it slightly. She strikes a match but a northerly gust quickly extinguishes it. She sets her jaw, curses the wind then lights another, this time cupping it in her hand to shield it from the wind. She puts the flame to the wick and watches it hungrily consume the fuel and cast off a soft yellow haze around her. She lets it burn for several moments then slowly turns up the wick, watching as the light brightens into a clear white flame. Wondering if it is fully lit, she twists the knob another quarter-turn, causing the flame to redden and smoke. Disgusted, she quickly turns it down, examines the glass then retrieves a cloth from her bag and wipes the smoke residue from the glass. After adjusting the flame once more she is pleased with its brightness and closes the lantern door. She unties the boat and begins stroking her way toward the next lantern, where she completes the same tasks, this time with greater efficiency. By the time she tends the last lantern the sun has disappeared behind the western bluff and stars are pin-pricking the evening sky.
She lights a hand-held lantern and puts it in the bow of her boat so she can be seen by others on the river. She slides her hands into her mittens and pulls her hat down over her ears. Enjoying the warmth of her clothing, particularly the mittens, which are helping restore feeling to her frosty fingers, she begins rowing home, now at a more leisurely pace. In the distance she sees a steamboat churning its way upriver. As it approaches she watches its billowing smoke create a dark cloud overhead and views its spinning paddle wheel slashing at the river. She hears the muffled sound of laughter from the many passengers eager to land in St. Paul and begin a new life there.
She rows toward the shore to let the boat pass by and floats freely on the black, choppy water. She is filled with a sense of pride as she watches the steamboat safely maneuver past her first beacon. A deckhand sees her and calls out, “Nice work Jane!” Moments later the pilot salutes her with a quick pull of the ship’s whistle, its mournful wail echoing off the bluffs. She waves back, smiles, and thinks to herself, ’Tis a good job. I think I can do this for awhile.
Jane Muckle Robinson photo from “South St. Paul Centennial 1887-1987.” Reprinted with permission.