Capt. John Fink, in his youthful days, rose bright and early. He was smart, and so he got to Bellaire, Ohio, long before the town was officially established. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1805.
Mike Fink, the most famous of the early Ohio and Mississippi river boatmen, was a relative. John knew Mike -- knew him as a boy knows a man. "When I was a lad," John told me, "about ten years of age, our family lived four miles up river from Wheeling, on the river. Mike laid up (landed) his boat near us, though he generally had two boats. This was his last trip, and he went away to the far West; the country here was getting too civilized, and he was disgusted with progress. This was about 1815.
In the management of his business Mike Fink was a rigid disciplinarian; woe to the man who shirked his responsibilities or did not carry his own weight -- literally. He always had his woman along with him, and would allow no other man to speak with her. She was sometimes a subject for his wonderful skill in marksmanship with the rifle. He would have her hold on the top of her head a tin cup filled with whiskey, which he would put a bullet through. Another of his feats was to have her hold it between her knees, as in a vice, and then shoot.
Captain John Fink's Own History
John Fink was eighty-one years old at the time I spoke with him [in 1886], was full of vigor, and possessed a sharp mind. From ten to twelve years of age he was at work on his uncle's farm, four miles above Wheeling; from twelve to fifteen he worked on the Wheeling ferry. Next he was cook on a keel-boat, where he learned to "push" [to push the boat with a pole]. He followed "pushing" for three years, first at thirty-seven and a half cents a day and then fifty cents. In 1824 he married, his entire fortune then just seventy-five cents. A few days later he tried to buy a calico dress for his wife on credit but failed.
The Early Coal-Trade on the River
About the year 1830, then being twenty-five years of age -- and his credit having improved -- Mr. Fink bought on time a piece of land on McMahon's Creek, Bellaire, and began mining. He built a flatboat, and took a load of coal to Maysville, which netted him $200. This, he tells me, was the first load of coal ever floated any distance on the Ohio River.
After a little he began a coal trade with New Orleans. He carted it to the river bank, put it on board of flatboats, and floated it down to New Orleans, a distance of 2,100 miles. On a good stage of water they went down in about thirty days; once, on a flood, in nineteen days; half the time they did not dare to land. He sold the coal to the sugar refineries, and it was very useful, for with wood alone they were unable to keep up the regular heat, which is so necessary for producing good sugar.
He discharged the cargo by carrying it in barrels. The process involved knocking the hoops of a flour-barrel together at the ends -- to strengthen it. Then two holes were bored through the top, through which a piece of rope was put, and tied like a bale. Through this was thrust a pole. Two men would each shoulder one end of the pole, and carry the barrel of coal up the river bank. When the river was higher than the town, then they descended with the barrel. Each barrel held two and three-quarter bushels, weighing about 220 pounds.
The sugar people paid John Fink $1.50 a barrel. Within a few years he sold several hundred thousand bushels. In 1833 he went into the steamboat business as captain and owner, and, amassed a fortune. In 1864, at the age of fifty-nine, he retired from active business.
This entry is adapted from Henry Howe's HISTORICAL COLLECTIONS OF OHIO (2 vols., 1907). The book has been reedited, updated, and restructured for inclusion in the Pierian Press Fulltext eBooks database, and is included on the Stratton House Inn Web site by special permission. This entry is licensed for use ONLY on this Web site. This entry may not be copied or downloaded, but may be used for educational purposes and personal pleasure under fair-use provisions via this Web site. Please note that the Stratton House Inn iteration of this entry does NOT include the subject headings assigned the entry for use in the Fulltext eBooks database.
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