Inspiring Iowans to treasure their history

Musician and Stenographer Go Four Rounds

World’s Only Female Boat Captain

Ida wasn’t one to waste time. Sometimes as the Robert Dodds made its way down the river from the headwaters of northern Minnesota to Clinton, she went ashore and hopped on a train to take a faster mode of transportation to Clinton. It gave her the opportunity to do work in her home office where she wrote up new orders for the next trip. And she could get some housework done. She was well known for her spotless house. It also gave Ida a chance to spend time with her three sons. By the time the Robert Dodds reached Clinton, she was ready to rejoin the crew for the remaining journey down river.

All of these skills earned Ida great praise from people up and down the river as “one of the best examples” of a woman with “energy and pluck.” In addition, it was said she demonstrated that a woman could “advance beyond the circles of a dependent” of her husband. 

“I love it and am never so happy as when on the decks of the Robert Dodds,” Ida said. “As the great panorama of nature goes by, when you move along, ever changing, always presenting some new charm, the sound of machinery, the music of the waves against the logs of the raft, all have a charm that enchants one.”

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“I can’t resist the desire to be on the steamer. It is positively fascinating this life and grows upon me.” The words of Ida Moore Lachmund of Clinton were shocking in 1897. She was talking about her life as a river boat captain on the Mississippi River. It wasn’t a typical career for women at the time.

As owner of the Robert Dodds, Ida was involved in every aspect of the business. She oversaw her accountant, supervised her steward, and paid the bills. She personally inspected the mechanical equipment, including the boilers, and scheduled needed repairs. All this while overseeing her crew of 21 men.

She was known on occasion to take the wheel of her steamer. And her crew said the boat never ran steadier than when it was “under her hand.” She maneuvered the boat while pushing a “huge raft of monster logs” of “enormous weight” and “great value.” It required guiding the steamboat and raft over sand bars, through eddying currents, in deep and shallow water, between and past abrupt bends in the river—both day and night. 

People in Clinton liked to tell about the time Ida and her crew transported a raft carrying $80,000 worth of logs from a northern mill to St. Louis without the loss of a single board. It required them to manipulate rapids at Rock Island and work their way through the canal at Keokuk. The owner of the cargo was extremely pleased with the successful completion of the job—and astounded to learn it was all accomplished under the direction of a woman.

 ​(Photo Courtesy Library of Congress)

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