• 10 •
On the Hudson and other rivers in the eastern United States steamboats were generally owned by companies, which paid captains to run them. Steamboats on the Mississippi and its tributaries, however, were in many cases owned by the captains who operated them. Alex Scott was one such Mississippi River owner-captain. He ordered a boat built and when it was put into service, running between St. Louis, Pittsburgh and New Orleans, he became Captain Scott and put himself to work at whatever tasks needed doing. When the boat was under way, he could usually be found on deck somewhere, often near the furnace doors, assisting the firemen. When the boat landed, he was up on the forecastle, assisting in one way or another the deckhands handling the freight. Ever alert to whatever was happening aboard his boat, he had a reputation for seldom sleeping while the boat was in operation.
On one rare occasion, though, he did fall asleep and became the victim of his crewmen’s practical joke. A mild-mannered, good-humored man (whose harshest expression was “by the Lord Harry!”), Scott was well liked by his crewmen, but they sometimes took advantage of his gentle nature. One night as his boat, the Majestic, was steaming up the Mississippi, Scott took a seat on the capstan, one of his favorite spots, and while sitting there, dozed off. Several crewmen noticed him sleeping and gingerly turned the capstan half way around so that instead of facing the jackstaff on the bow, Scott was facing the boilers while he slept. On a signal, the firemen opened all the fire doors at once, revealing the flames in the furnace, glowing brightly in the darkness, and at the same time they roused the captain. Seeing the light of the flames in front of him, he instantly concluded that another steamer was bearing down on his bow. He leaped from his seat on the capstan and yelled up to the pilothouse, “Stop her, Mister Pilot, or by the Lord Harry she will be into us!” When his crewmen broke into laughter, he realized his mistake and began laughing himself, enjoying the joke almost as much as the crew.
Some owners, such as James Dozier, from Nash County, North Carolina, were businessmen who were engaged in other enterprises and seeing opportunity in the steamboat business, entered it as well. As a young man Dozier moved to Paris, Tennessee, and began farming, became prosperous at it, then went into the mercantile business and later operated a tanning business with his father-in-law. After that he became a steamboat owner. By 1844 he had owned six steamers and with his sons he later became owner of at least three others. After the Civil War he moved to St. Louis, where he founded a large bakery.
Another steamboat entrepreneur was St. Clair Thomasson of Louisiana, who was a partner in a wholesale dry goods business and in 1843, with his business partner, Theo Shute, built the steamer Baton Rouge, which he captained and operated between New Orleans and Vicksburg.
Joseph Throckmorton was an owner-captain whose business career went the opposite way. He first owned several steamers that he operated on the upper Mississippi in the 1830s and 1840s, but around 1850 he decided to leave the river and try something else. He went into the insurance business in St. Louis and when that venture failed, he returned to what he knew best, steamboating. After he died in 1872 at age 72, a biographer poetically informed his readers that Throckmorton had “crossed the river that ferries but one way.”
In some cases owner-captains started their careers as boat-builders and knew steamboats from the inside out. James Ward first worked in a boatyard and from that job went to work as a carpenter on the steamer Ione and then on the Amaranth, operating out of St. Louis. In 1844 with three partners he built the steamer St. Croix and joined its crew as mate. He then sold his interest in the St. Croix and with two partners built the St. Peters, which he served as captain, running between St. Louis and Dubuque.
Many owner-captains in the 1830s and 1840s had first operated keelboats on the Mississippi and had then graduated to steamboats when they saw the steamers’ greater potential and superior working and living conditions. W.J. Koontz, born in Columbiana County, Ohio, in 1817, began his career on a keelboat that was owned by his brother. He later became a steamboat pilot, then a captain and then an owner-captain. He volunteered his services to U.S. general George B. McClellan during the Civil War, was made a commodore, posted to St. Louis and placed in charge of river transportation for Union troops.
L.T. Belt, born in St. Clair County, Illinois, in 1825, one of twelve children, was another owner-captain who advanced from keelboats to steamers. He and his brother Francis gave up keelboating and bought the steamer Planter in 1847 and operated it on the Mississippi between New Orleans and St. Louis. From that beginning Captain Belt eventually became president of the New Orleans and Bayou Teche Packet Company, operating steamers on Bayou Teche in Louisiana. Belt had other laudable accomplishments. For years he was superintendent of the Sunday school at the Rayne Memorial MethodistEpiscopal Church in New Orleans and was also, his biographer pointed out, an unusually dutiful son: “For the twenty years previous to her death, he never, but once, no matter how great the distance, failed to visit his aged mother on her birthday.”
Many other Mississippi River captains, of course, were not boat owners, but rather salaried employees of the companies that owned the steamers of which they were masters. Charles S. Rogers, born in New Hampshire in 1816, moved to St. Louis when he was 22 and got a job as clerk on a Mississippi River steamboat in 1842. From that job he rose over time to captain and later became president of Naples Packet Company, which operated twentythree steamboats and a number of barges and wharf boats. Henry W. Smith began his working life at a country store in Missouri in 1855, then took a job as second clerk on the General Lane, a Missouri River steamer. He advanced to captain of another Missouri River steamer and later became captain of a steamboat running between New Orleans and St. Louis. After the Civil War he became president of the St. Louis & Memphis Packet Company and distinguished himself for building the company’s steamboat fleet into one of the fastest and finest on the Mississippi.
One of the more unusual captains was William F. Davidson, who late in life became a Christian, got caught up in the temperance movement and thereafter banned bars on the several steamers he controlled, which operated between St. Paul and St. Louis. William Dean, whose career spanned thirty years as a pilot and captain, was so conscientious in his Christian beliefs that he would not operate his boat on a Sunday. Another unusual captain was Mortimer Kennett, who was something of a violin virtuoso and every evening played his violin for his passengers. “No navigation,” it was said of him, “was too difficult or night too dark to induce him to decline the very pleasant duty of entertaining his passengers with the sweet strains of his violin.”1
The tasks of the owner-captain were varied and many. He was constantly alert for anything that needed his attention. “He watched the work of his engineer in the care of the machinery and the purchase of fuel, oil and other supplies. He checked up [on] his steward in the matters of food, tableware, linen, and all the other things necessary to the operation of a passenger boat. Under his eye the mate attended to the loading, stowage, and unloading of freight. And with the clerk he went over the boat’s accounts, decided where he was making money and where he was losing, and regulated his policies accordingly.”2 He also set freight and passenger rates, processed claims and made out the boat’s schedules, along with taking care of a host of other things that needed doing, including receiving complaints from his crew.
David Hiner was a captain who, according to an old story told about him, had his own way of dealing with his crew’s complaints. Not long after taking command of a fine steamer, he was practically besieged by members of his crew asking for more or better than what they had. The mate wanted a new hawser. The steward wanted a new cooking stove. The engineer wanted a new doctor engine. The porter wanted a new badge for his hat. The chambermaid wanted a glass pane installed in the window of her stateroom. Fed up with the crew’s gripes, Captain Hiner decided that what he wanted was a new crew. He fired the old one and hired a whole new one.
The captain’s job required that he exhibit the sort of pleasing, outgoing personality that would let him easily meet and mingle with shippers and passengers. It was his ability to attract and keep customers — as well as his business ability — that determined the financial success of his boat. To the cabin passengers aboard his vessel he was a gracious host. In many cases he developed lasting relationships with passengers and shippers. He often got to know not only his shippers but their families. His customers in turn often developed a friendly interest in him and his boat and once becoming comfortable with both, they seldom took their business elsewhere.
One big reason for shifting their business to another boat was a rate cut by a rival steamer, an act usually aimed at putting a competitor out of business. Owners faced with such competition often abandoned their boat’s ordinary run and shifted their operations to another section of the river or to another river entirely rather than engage in a ruinous rate war. Others, though, accepted the challenge of the rival steamer and fought back, cutting their rates to match or beat the rival’s. Rate wars often continued until one of the boats went broke and had to be sold to satisf y the debts resulting from its losses. The owner-captain, however, was usually soon back in business with another boat.
To members of the crew the captain was “captain” or “sir” when they spoke to him, but they were more likely to refer to him as “the old man,” no matter his age, when speaking about him, out of his hearing. “The old man” was a term of respect, even endearment, earned through the captain’s deeds and words. Over the members of his crew he held complete authority. “After leaving port, the captain on the river was as autocratic as his compeer on the ocean,” according to veteran steamboat pilot George Byron Merrick. “He might without notice discharge and order ashore any officer or man on board, and he could fill vacancies en route to any extent ... subject to the approval of the owner or manager on arrival at the home port.”3
There were boundaries, however, which the captain, even the ownercaptain, was loath to cross. Steamboat custom, tantamount to law, was that captains did not ever interfere with their pilots in the operation of the boat, even if the captain was himself a licensed pilot and was certain he knew better in certain situations than the man in the pilothouse. Neither was it a good idea to meddle with the mate during the performance of his duties or the engineer or the chief clerk during the performance of theirs. An emergency that threatened the safety of the boat was about the only good reason for the captain to interfere with those officers while they worked, and any captain who interfered without good reason suffered the loss of respect not only aboard his own boat but on others that plied the Mississippi. The captain might — and did — though, call an erring officer into his office and in private, away from the ears of crewmen and passengers, order him never to repeat whatever transgression had aroused the captain’s concern.
A visit to the captain’s quarters was not always an unpleasant experience. The captain’s cabin, or suite, was ordinarily the most spacious and best furnished of all the steamboat’s accommodations. It was usually at the forward end of the texas deck and it served as an office, sitting room, meeting room and private dining room; connected to that multi-purpose space was the captain’s bedroom. The captain used the multi-purpose space at times for conferences with his officers, for entertaining VIPs, or for merely dining, alone or with favored passengers. For passengers, an invitation to the captain’s quarters, to dine or be otherwise entertained, was a high honor and a special treat. The view there was spectacular. Large windows on the front and two sides of the multi-purpose room gave a panoramic vista of the river and the shore on both sides as the boat steamed ahead.
While in his cabin the captain could monitor his pilot in the pilothouse above him, detecting his movements at the wheel and hearing him pull the bells that signaled the engine room as the boat moved into dangerous water, often giving cause for the captain to return to the deck. During times of emergency, the captain was expected to keep a cool head. He, with the pilot, had to quickly decide where to beach the boat when fire broke out aboard the vessel. Moments of indecision or inaction could mean disaster for the boat and its passengers and crew. “In case of snagging, or being cut down by ice,” Merrick states, “it is his first duty to save his boat, if possible, by stopping the break [in the hull], at the same time providing for the safety of his passengers by beaching her on the nearest sand-bar.”4 The code of conduct that required the master of an ocean-going vessel to be the last man to leave it when it was burning or sinking applied equally to the steamboat captain, and many a steamer captain, according to Merrick, lost his life adhering to that code.
Among the owner-captain’s prerogatives was the naming of the vessel. The names chosen were often those of individuals, some prominent, such as Robert E. Lee, Tecumseh, Henry Clay, Robert Fulton and John Adams, and some not, such as A. T. Lacy, Henry J. King, Hiram Powers, Fannie Lewis and Grace Darling. Place names were also popular, such as Wyoming, Honduras, Pittsburgh, City of Alton, Denmark and Hawkeye State. Outside those two categories, almost any name was possible — such as Iron Duke, Resolute, Little Giant, Rover, Vixen, Editor, Post Boy, Fairy Queen, Fire Canoe, War Eagle, Harmonia, Greek Slave, Northern Light, Time and Tide and Ocean Wave. There was one group of names, though, that some owner-captains avoided, with what they believed to be good reason. Captain John N. Bofinger, whose Mississippi River experiences extended over forty years, explained the abhorrence of those names:
I do assert that, with barely an exception, that all steamboats built and run on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, whose names commenced with the letter M, were either burnt, sunk, exploded or unsuccessful as an investment to their owners. You can look over a long list of Missouri, Mississippi, Mary, Michigan, Marie, Monarch, Mediator, etc ., and you will find that they met the fate of one as above indicated.
Over thirty years ago, Capt. John Pierce built the Metamora. I tried my best to persuade the captain to name his boat some other name, and gave him my reasons, going over a large number of boats whose name had commenced with the letter M. He laughed at what he called a superstitious notion of mine and called his boat the Metamora. She was a great success, but sank above Choctaw island while she was in her prime. Capt. Charley Davis, about the same time, built a splendid Cincinnati and New Orleans boat. Davis, like his old partner, Pierce, would not listen to my idea, launched and christened her the Midas. She sank in the bend above Island 16. Capt. Joe Brown built the Mayflower sometime during the fifties. Long before she was launched I tried to talk him out of calling the boat by that name — no use. She was burned at Memphis.
Our old townsman, Norman Cutter, Esq., bought a hull that had been built at Hannibal. Her cabin and machinery was put on at St. Louis, where she was finished.... It was the owner’s intention that I should have taken charge of the Charles Belcher, which was the name Mr. Cutter gave her about a month before the Belcher was ready to start on her first trip. I accidentally found out ... that she had been launched and christened Magnolia. That was enough for me. Nothing could have induced me to have taken charge of the Belcher. She was burned on her sixth trip at New Orleans.
I could name hundreds of instances to show the fatality that seems to shroud the steamboats whose name commenced with the letter M, but will content myself with giving one more instance. I was in New Orleans in May, 1875, where I met Capt. Frank Hicks and his clerk, Mr. Alf. Grissom, who were at that time building a hull at Metropolis, Ill. They talked of calling her the Mary Bell. I did my level best to persuade them not to call her that name or any name that commenced with M; gave them my reason and recited many instances of losses, etc, all to no good; the boat was called Mary Bell, made but a few trips and burnt with a full load at Vicksburg.
I do not pretend to give any reason why a steamboat’s name commencing with the letter M should be any more unlucky than one commencing with any other letter, but the fact still remains, superstitious or not.5
There were, of course, M-named steamers that escaped the supposed M curse and lasted the normal life span of a Mississippi River steamer. Some that did so were the Majestic, Mary Hunt, Music, Mary Foley and, perhaps the most outstanding exception to the rule, the Mollie Mohler, the double M of its name proving no bane as it operated successfully for many years, and after its superstructure was dismantled, a new boat was built on its hull.
Another superstition among steamboatmen was that a name with six letters in it was also unlucky.
The job of Mississippi River steamboat captain was not for men only. Women could take the rigorous examination administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce Steamboat Inspection Service, the same test that was required of men, and if they passed, they became qualified and licensed to operate steamboats on the river. Blanche Douglass Leathers, wife of Bowling Leathers, the son of Natchez owner-captain Thomas P. Leathers, was one of the most colorful and most written about women to captain a Mississippi River steamboat. Blanche married Bowling in 1880, moved into the captain’s cabin with him — rather than wait on land for him to return from his steamboat runs — and by 1894 she had earned a pilot’s license and her own captain’s license. Bowling, who succeeded his father as captain of the Natchez, was Blanche’s mentor. “He taught me everything I know,” Blanche claimed. “I would stand beside him at the wheel and repeat to him each snag, each bank, each plantation, each landing place.... I was constantly having my turn at the wheel, learning to take soundings, learning the signals, in fact all the intricate details that form part of a river captain’s training.
“At times my husband was being called away, and breaking in a new man was always a troublesome process. So it was decided that I should apply for a captain’s license.” Blanche was at the helm of a new Natchez, her first command, when it steamed out of New Orleans in November 1894. She became something of a celebrity — and a character — along the Mississippi and became known as “the little captain.” “I have done everything [on a steamboat] but marry people,” she told a newspaper reporter. “You see, the captain has full authority on board over everyone, from the first mate to the cat. It is perhaps the only job in existence where there is no one to answer to. And if you own your own boat, you are answerable only to God.”6
Blanche was the daughter of a Tensas Parish, Louisiana, cotton planter and had grown up beside the river. Her father was one of Tom Leathers’ regular shippers and a friend as well. A newspaper reporter described Blanche : “A slight figure, five feet five inches in height, with the contour of charming womanhood, small, white, well-kept and perfectly molded hands ornamented with two handsome diamond rings; a face, grand, true, and ennobling to look upon, a fair skin glowing with the pink hue of health, perfect teeth, and a full red-lipped mouth that tells the story of a woman born to love, to feel, and to act kindly toward all humanity.... Captain Blanche is the angel of the Mississippi.”7
Blanche’s brother, Allan Douglass, was somewhat more straightforward in speaking of her: “Aw, she never did all that stuff, the actual running of the boat. Sure, she had licenses all right. But she let Bowling and the men do that. She tended to the buying and the service. She watched the bills and the cash. Maybe you call that running the boat after all.”8 Blanche, along with Bowling, retired from running steamboats in 1901. She died on January 25, 1940.
Mary M. Miller, Mary Becker Greene and Callie Leach French, all wives of Mississippi steamboat owner-captains, were other women who were licensed captains. Mary Miller received her license in 1884, making her perhaps the first woman captain and authorizing her to command steam vessels on the Mississippi, Red, Ouachita and other western rivers. She was married to George “Old Natural” Miller, who owned the steamboat Saline, which she also captained.
Callie French’s husband was Augustus Byron French, who over a span of years operated five Mississippi River showboats, all of them named New Sensation. At least two of them operated at the same time, Augustus captaining one and Callie the other. Callie already held a pilot’s license when she received her captain’s license in 1895. Extremely versatile — and useful — she was much more than a steamboat captain and pilot. She wrote jokes for the showboat’s players and on occasion even joined the troupe as one of the actors. When necessary, she cooked, sewed and did whatever nursing was required. Unlike Blanche Leathers, Callie — known as Aunt Callie to thousands who were the New Sensation’s patrons — did “all that stuff ” that constituted the actual running of a steamboat. What’s more, she did so without ever having an accident.
Mary Greene, known as Ma Greene on the river, received her captain’s license in 1897 and with her husband, Gordon C. Greene, operated the Bedford, which they owned. She later captained the sidewheeler Greenland from Pittsburgh to St. Louis for the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.
The captain’s right-hand man in running a steamboat, the officer in charge of the nitty-gritty of boat operations, was the first mate, who on many steamers was the only mate. As the boat’s second in command, he was responsible for running the boat when the captain was off duty and he did all that the captain did while in command. He was, though, first of all, boss of the deck crew, a job that often required him to be a stern disciplinarian and manager of men. Deckhands could be an unruly, willful, lazy, irresponsible and even mutinous lot, and it took a tough taskmaster to handle them. The veteran pilot Merrick described a mate who served with him and told how he handled his job. He was Billy Wilson, from Pennsylvania, smooth-shaven, redfaced, about five-foot-eight and about a hundred and sixty pounds, a wellread and ordinarily quiet man. The crew that Wilson managed comprised about forty deckhands, men hired off the riverfront at St. Louis, Galena, Dubuque and St. Paul, riffraff who would get drunk whenever they could get whiskey, which was not infrequent. It took Wilson’s constant vigilance to prevent the deckhands from drinking too much and fighting among themselves, def ying the boat’s officers in the process. Wilson was, like other mates, a driver of men.
He made a habit of carrying with him a paddle fashioned from a barrel stave, with one end forming a handle and the other end flattened like a canoe paddle, into which had been bored holes a quarter inch in diameter. “When the case was one of mere sluggishness on the part of one of the hands,” Merrick reported, “a light tap with the flat part of this instrument was enough to inspire activity. When the case was one of moroseness or incipient mutiny, the same flat side, applied by his [Wilson’s] powerful muscles, with a quick, sharp stroke, would leave a blood blister for every hole in the paddle; and when a drunken riot was to be dealt with, the sharp edge of the paddle on a man’s head left nothing more to be done with that man until he ‘came to.’ With a revolver in his left hand and his paddle in his right, he would jump into the middle of a gang of drunken, mutinous men, and striking right and left would intimidate or disable the crowd in less time than it takes to tell it.”9
Over time, the deckhands who worked under Wilson learned to fear him. On a cold, rainy night on the upper Mississippi Wilson’s boat put into a woodyard to take on fuel, and Wilson ordered the deck crew to turn out and carry the wood aboard, shouting, “All hands! Wood up!” Most turned out, but Wilson saw that ten or so hands were missing and went looking for them, paddle in hand. He first searched their bunks and failing to find them there, moved on to the boilers, under which, he knew, the men sometimes slept in cold weather, to keep warm and to dry out their clothes. He crawled under the boilers and started swinging his paddle blindly in the dark, striking whomever the paddle found, and issuing a loud stream of profanity as he did so. The shirkers quickly scooted out from under the boilers and fell into line with the other hands, carrying the wood aboard. At the next wooding stop, there was no one found soldiering, hiding out to escape work. Wilson’s technique was to speak softly and carry his big paddle — until provoked into strong language. Other mates drove the men with the force of their voices, backed up often by the force of their physique. Merrick recalled one, a second mate, a big man with a big voice, who “roared and swore at the crew all the time.” Merrick claimed that in those days men who hired on as deckhands were at the very bottom of the social scale, men who, whether black or white, were used to being driven. “They would not work under any other form of authority,” he said. It was the mate’s duty to exercise the necessary authority, whatever it took to have the deck crew do their jobs, and mates were determined to do their duty. Eventually, however, after many reports of abuse of crewmen by steamboat officers, the United States Congress as well as some states, such as Louisiana, enacted legislation to regulate river navigation and define the powers of steamboat officers. Brutal treatment of crewmen was thus outlawed, and public outcry demanded the laws be enforced.
Handling some of the steamboat’s more tranquil responsibilities was its chief clerk, who was in charge of the boat’s business office, as a purser is today. He issued passenger tickets, received payments for passage and for the shipment of freight, kept the account books, made out the boat’s payroll, answered passengers’ questions, showed them around the boat, acted as cashier and generally made himself helpful to first-class passengers. The chief clerk usually had an assistant, officially designated the second clerk but commonly known as the mud clerk. He got the dirty work. One part of his job was to go ashore and oversee and record the receipt and delivery of freight, a duty that required working outdoors in all kinds of weather, including cold and rainy. Rain frequently turned earthen levees into muddy mounds, up and along which the clerk trudged to get his job done, after which he returned to the boat well muddied. Hence the term mud clerk.
In the middle of a gloomy night a lantern might be spied waving along the shore, signaling the steamer to stop for passengers or freight, and after the boat had pulled up to the riverbank, the mud clerk, by the light of iron torch baskets, filled with bright-burning pine wood or oily rags set alight and suspended from long poles aboard the vessel, would jump ashore to find out what business there was for the boat, while the mate shouted to the roustabouts to wake up and run out the landing stage to receive whatever was about to come aboard. When the boat needed refueling, it was the mud clerk who got the task of measuring the cords of wood taken aboard at wooding stops, to make sure the boat was getting all that it was paying for.
Along with its captain and pilots, a steamer’s engineers — there were usually two aboard, the chief engineer and the second engineer — carried a certain prestige in the steamboat community. Engineering was considered a profession, and those who mastered it earned status — and a good deal of job security — among steamboat operators and fellow officers. Engineers ordinarily worked their way up to the position of chief engineer through years of learning the mechanics of propelling a steamboat. In the early days of steamboating engineers were not much more than engine tenders and were usually firemen who had graduated from stoking furnaces to running the boat’s machinery, which at that time was not terribly complicated. As engines and mechanical systems became more sophisticated, though, more preparation for an engineer’s job was demanded, and in order for an engineer to become licensed, considerable knowledge and skill were required.
The usual starting point for a steamboat engineer was as a striker, or cub, whose work was both taxing and constant. One of the most onerous chores of the beginning striker on the Mississippi was cleaning the accumulated mud from the boat’s boilers, the thick sediment that had been unavoidably pumped into the boilers along with the river water. When the boat put into a port for a day or two, while other members of the crew were enjoying themselves ashore, the striker entered the boiler, from which the water had been drained, through a manhole, an opening in the boiler not much larger than the striker himself, and with a hammer and chain began pounding on the two flues and the sides of the boiler to dislodge the mud, which was then washed out of the boiler with a stream of water pumped through a hose. On a good-sized steamer there could be as many as eight boilers to be cleaned periodically.
Engineers were expected to be not only mechanics, able to repair the boat’s machinery, but also skilled ironworkers, able to fabricate missing or broken parts of the machinery and make miscellaneous metal devices (including bolts, nuts, hog chains and chimney guy wires) from wrought-iron bars that were kept on board for such purposes. Steamboats were equipped with a blacksmith’s forge and anvil, and the needed parts were beat out by the engineers with a twelve-pound striking hammer and a two-pound shaper.
Continuous maintenance was a large part of an engineer’s job. The boat’s boilers, its propulsion engines, its hoisting engine that was used for warping the boat over sandbars, and its doctor — the small engine used to pump water from the river into the boilers and into the boat’s hoses — had to be repeatedly overhauled to keep them in perfect operating condition. Engineers went through a long checklist of things to do in preparation for each trip, so that when the signal came from the pilothouse to get under way, the big paddle wheels would actually start turning and the boat would begin moving.
The engineer received signals from the pilot by way of a set of gongs and jinglers, little tinkling bells that were attached to cords extending from the pilothouse down to the engine room. The pilot would pull on the appropriate bell cord to give a specific order to the engineer. Side-wheelers had a set of bells for each of its two engines. The boats also had a pipelike speaking tube that ran from the pilothouse down to the engine room on the main deck, ending in a flared opening, like the bell of a trumpet, mounted above the engineer’s head. According to Mississippi River steamboat historians Herbert and Edward Quick, messages on the tube sometimes got a little heated: “When the signalers needed more expression than was afforded by the bells, the bells being unable to curse, no matter how furiously jingled, the speaking tube was used to good purpose.” Engineers, however, were at a disadvantage when those tube exchanges took place, for the big end of the tube, in the engine room, was designed for listening, the small end, in the pilothouse, for speaking, making the conversation mostly one way. The engineer had a bell pull of his own, which he used to signal the firemen when he wanted them to open the furnace doors to help decrease steam pressure.
When the boat was under way, the engineer kept to his station in the engine room, despite fire, collision, grounding or some other emergency, for when the pilot rang the signals, the steamer’s powerful engine, in the hands of the engineer, had to respond as ordered. “The engineer knew his job was as important as any aboard, even if he did do his work in grease and sweat and was usually laboring in obscurity while the captain and pilot were going through the pomp and show of landing and departing,” the Quicks reported. “Let the captain play host and the pilot play lord.... But when she [the boat] drifted down to a shoal, and at just the right instant the pilot rang full steam ahead, it was the engineer on watch below who must know that his engines were ready, who must apply the power that carried her across.”10
Not quite so dramatic was the role of the boat’s steward. His main job was to keep the first-class passengers fed and comfortable. To help him do so he commanded a staff of assistant stewards, cooks, bakers, waiters, pantrymen and maids, among others, whom he both hired and supervised. Good stewards — and the cuisine they were able to produce for the benefit of passengers and a boat’s reputation — were so valued by steamboat owners that their pay, about two hundred dollars a month, ordinarily equaled that of the chief engineer, the mate and the clerk and sometimes even that of the boat’s captain, who made about three hundred dollars a month.
The chief steward and two other officers aboard the steamer J.M. White. The steward’s main job was to keep the first-class passengers well fed and comfortable with help from his staff of assistant stewards, cooks, bakers, waiters, pantrymen and maids, whom he hired and directed (Library of Congress).
It was a demanding job, though. The steward procured all necessary foodstuffs and therefore was required to be acquainted with all sorts of food suppliers in the river’s port cities and obscure communities along the boat’s route as well. He made up the daily menus, supervised the food preparation, oversaw all aspects of the dining service and directed the maids’ care of the cabins and of the passengers’ personal needs. He also planned and directed leisure activities for the passengers and to the passengers was the chief enforcer of the boat’s rules. His guiding principle was, according to one account, to “spare neither pains nor money to make the passengers comfortable.”
By the middle of the nineteenth century many, if not most, Mississippi River steamboat stewards were black men. It was a job at which they apparently excelled and one that rewarded them not only with handsome salaries but with status, particularly in the black communities along the river. Black stewards, however, sometimes ran into trouble with white workers whom they supervised and with white passengers who refused to accept the steward’s authority, as was the case in one incident when a passenger seated himself at the officers’ table and when told by the steward he was in violation of the rules, the passenger struck the steward in the head with his cane and told him, “No black bastard can tell me where to sit.”
In a class of his own among steamboat officers was the pilot. “Pilots,” the Quicks commented, “were treated with a great deal of respect by every one aboard a steamboat : captains, waiters, deckhands, clerks, engineers, firemen and passengers. Ashore they were envied for the pay they drew [about five hundred dollars a month, compared to the captain’s three hundred].... They never asked any one for any thing : On all occasions they gave orders. They were, in fact, the accepted aristocrats of the steamboat business.”11
To many youngsters growing up in towns along the Mississippi, the steamboat pilot was an object of envy and hero worship. He was the person that a boy with a fondness for the river would most like to be. Some who aspired to the position eventually made their dream come true, but only by dint of devotion to the study of the river and a dogged determination to master it. When the Mississippi was low, pilots rarely ventured downstream at night. The danger was too great. The boat at slow speed was hard to steer with the force of the current behind it, pushing it toward whatever obstacle lay before it. Voyages upstream in the dark were somewhat safer, because of better steering against the current. It was important, furthermore, that nothing interfere with the pilot’s vision at night, and pains were taken to prevent any diminution of his ability to see as best he might in the dark. Canvas curtains were draped over the forward part of the boiler deck, where the cabin passengers were, and the forecastle was covered to block the light emanating from the furnace doors. Skylights were also draped, and according to one account, on the hurricane deck, up near the pilothouse, not even lighted cigars were allowed.
Feeling their way along the river at night, pilots sometimes made use of not only what they could see but what they could hear. A pilot on the Missouri River took notice of a well known dangerous spot by the sound of a barking dog, which always came from the same location along the river, and he blindly steered the boat to avoid the danger by the sound of the barking. One night, though, the dog barked from a different place, and shortly thereafter, the boat ran onto a sandbar and was wrecked.
The fund of knowledge required of a pilot was enormous, as the Quicks pointed out. “The depth of the channel at every point, at all stages of the river, the amount of water on the bars, the habits of the river in tearing down banks and building up bars, the changing depth of the water between one trip and the next — all these things he had to know; also the marks, the trees, houses, points, bars, posts, hollows — anything by which to lay his course through every mile of the river. And as the river changed, he had to know the new marks, new channels, new bars, new islands.”12
Pilots had to know not only what was along the river but what was in the river. They had to know how to read the river. A line appearing on the river’s surface, for example, told the pilot, peering ahead through the windows of the pilothouse, that a reef of mud and sand lay just beneath the surface. The wind sometimes made a similar mark on the river, but not exactly, and the pilot had to know the difference. A combination of lines and circles on the water revealed a spot that was developing into a shoal. A dimple on the water indicated a rock below. A streak like a boat’s wake showed that a snag lay hidden right below the surface.
At times when it was simply impossible to see or otherwise know what lay ahead, as frequently happened on the lower Mississippi when sugar cane growers burned the cane stalks after the juice had been pressed from them and smoke from the burning heaps of cane spread over the river like a dense fog, prudent pilots put their boats into shore and tied up against the levee until daylight came or the wind shifted and removed the smoke from the river.
“You can not steer a boat by landmarks ten feet ahead of her,” former pilot Merrick remarked. “The pilot searches for landmarks a mile away, and must be able to distinguish between two kinds of blackness — the blackness of the night below [on the river], and the blackness of the sky above, and from the dividing line between the two must read his marks and determine his course.”13
Thomas Burns, a native of Boston who grew up in Galena, Illinois, was a pilot on the upper Mississippi just before and right after the Civil War and knew the upper Mississippi so well, it was said, that he could get out of bed on the darkest night, head for the pilothouse to take over his duties and before he reached the pilothouse door could tell in what section of the river the boat was steaming.
For cub pilots, Burns had a guiding principle to help keep them and their boats out of serious trouble in time of unknown danger. Having learned that a steamboat standing still in the water was less likely to damage itself or inflict damage on any other boat in the stream, he would tell his student pilots, “When in doubt, ring the stopping bell and set her back.” A memorable and merciful golden rule.
By the 1880s, when Samuel Clemens revisited the Mississippi after a twenty-one-year absence, electricity and navigational aids had reduced the demands on steamboat pilots, as Clemens discovered on his voyage up the river. “As we approached famous and formidable Plum Point,” he wrote, “darkness fell, but that was nothing to shudder about — in these modern times. For now the national government has turned the Mississippi into a sort of two-thousand-mile torchlight procession. In the head of every crossing, and in the foot of every crossing, the government has set up a clear-burning lamp. You are never entirely in the dark now; there is always a beacon in sight, either before you, or behind you, or abreast.”14
Clemens conceded that lighting the Mississippi’s danger spots had made river travel safer and made the pilot’s job easier, but the improvement had come at a cost. “This thing,” he complained, “has knocked the romance out of piloting.”
Steamboat officers alternated their duties on shifts, or watches. The captain and the mate were on duty six hours and off duty six hours, one relieving the other, around the clock. The chief clerk and the mud clerk also were on six hours and off six. The engineers and pilots generally stood a threehour watch, believed to lessen the monotony of the job and the boredom of off-duty time. The captain and the chief clerk began their first watch of the day at six A.M., right after breakfast. At noon they were relieved by the mate and the second clerk, who were on duty till six P.M., at which time the captain and chief clerk returned to duty. After supper, the mate and second clerk were able to sleep until midnight, when they had to rouse themselves and go back on watch.
“While each class of officers was on duty the same number of hours each day,” George Merrick pointed out, “the difference lay in the fact that the junior officers were compelled by this arrangement to turn out at midnight throughout the season. It was this turning out at midnight that made the mate’s watch ... very undesirable.... A man can knock about until midnight very agreeably, after a short nap in the afternoon, provided he can have a sound sleep during the ‘dead hours’ from midnight until six o’clock in the morning. To turn out at midnight every night and work until six is an entirely different matter.”15