Category Archives: Writing

A Riverboat's Passangers

A Riverboat’s Passengers

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the fastest means of travel among the mid-western states was the steamboat. Trips that once took months—especially upriver—were reduced to weeks, and with this increase in speed, the shipment of freight formed a lively trade along the Mississippi and her tributaries.

It’s no wonder that passengers were attracted to steamboat travel. The broad decks were a luxury compared to cramped confines of stagecoaches or the hard life of the trail. To maximize profits riverboats maintained a wide variety of accommodations for all manner of traveler. These were largely separated into two categories, the hardscrabble experience of Deck Passage and the lavish Cabin Fare and the differences between the two were often striking.


Deck Passage

The lower deck—or main deck—was a loud, hot, dirty, and often a dangerous place. Boilers and engines rumbled at all hours. Freight was of prime importance and it was loaded before deck passengers—this included any animals. Fares could run as low as a quarter-center per mile which was appealing to the poor who chose to travel by packet, but while preferable to the road, this sort of passage was not easy.

“Whoever is not obliged to save a few dollars, should avoid this Trojan belly into which the poor are packed like herring, giving up all comfort.”

Samuel Ludvigh, Light And Silhouettes Of Republican States

Those who paid the meager fare for deck passage were largely left to their own devices. While meals could be purchased on some boats often these passengers were responsible for their own food and sleeping arrangements. Much of the time a stove was provided to prepare their own meals and provide warmth—but during the height of travel season with upwards of two-hundred deck passengers onboard, it was often difficult to get a turn.

American Agriculturist — A Night On The River — "Missouri Roustabouts" (Detail) - Click to see full version.
American Agriculturist — A Night On The River — “Missouri Roustabouts” (Detail) – Click to see the full version

Deck passengers were required to stay out of the way of the packet’s rousters and those that got in the way suffered abuse. Some captains allowed male deckers to reduce their fare aiding the crew in “wooding the boat” the act of loading cordwood fuel from woodyards erected alongside the river. If money was tight and one could handle the hard labor this could cut the already reduced fare in half.

Beds were where you found them. There was little space provided for sanitation, often just a bucket to draw river water. Weather could be harsh, and sickness was prevalent; cholera and yellow fever weren’t uncommon. Should the boat meet a disaster, often it was the deckers who suffered the most.


Cabin Fare

For those who could afford it, cabin fare was an extravagance compared to the hardships suffered below. Most boats offered comfortable accommodations while other packets were outfitted as luxurious floating hotels complete with service staff.

Cabin fare tickets provided the passenger with board, a comfortable bed, as well as transportation on the packet’s boiler deck—named so because it sat above the vessel’s boilers. Here, elegant staterooms flanked a central saloon that served as a dining hall and lounge. Toward the stern of the boat was a space reserved for ladies and families with children, while the menfolk tended to congregate near the vessel’s barroom—usually located forward.

“I could not help lolling carelessly upon the railings of the boiler deck to enjoy the envy of the country boys on the bank.”

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 5

When not feasting, drinking, gambling, or conversing cabin passengers could spend time strolling around the riverboat’s covered promenade that encircled the second deck. Here they watched the scenery drift past and enjoyed the fresh air. Like on the oceangoing steamers deck chairs were provided and the passengers could laze about, reading, chatting, or napping while they waited for their next meal.

Up the Hudson—Drawn by A. E. Emslie (Detail) - Click to see full version
Up the Hudson—Drawn by A. E. Emslie (Detail) – Click to see full version

Above the boiler deck was the hurricane deck—named for the constant wind that blew across its open expanse. Most captain’s allowed passengers to ascend and take in the expansive views of the river below and enjoy and enjoy the breeze. It wasn’t uncommon for travelers to pose for photos near the boat’s pilothouse as a souvenir of their travels.

Usually, this sort of journey was only made available to the white passenger, African Americans, Native Americans, and non-white immigrants were generally limited to deck passage. Later in the century, there were instances of first-class accommodations for black passengers. But these were built as an extension of the Texas deck, the uppermost deck constructed atop the hurricane deck, usually restricted to captain and crew. An early predecessor of racist “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws that would plague the South until nearly a century later.


I’ve always been attracted to travel by boat, train, or airship. There’s something about the wide open space and private quarters that makes that type of travel more appealing. The traveler onboard a packet is free to wander and reflect on the passing countryside. The riverboat becomes a small world of its own for a time and its passengers a community—even temporarily. Add in the lives of the crew, the deck passengers, and the wealthy cabin passengers and you have a setting that is ripe for drama. That served as a major driving force for me to write Coal Belly. I liked the idea of a working vessel that was as much someone’s home as it was a means of transportation.

Below are some photos of riverboat passengers I’ve gathered during the years of my research for Coal Belly. You can click on any photo to view it larger. I’ve laid them out in the order of a trip, from passenger’s boarding, snapshots taken while underway, to the passenger’s final departure.


All the images above were collected over the last six years, so I am unsure where they all come from (usually the Library of Congress or from research at my local libraries.) But, they’re all old enough they should all be in the public domain. If something looks or seems amiss, please let me know and I’ll correct it.

In some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping to keep it all visually consistent. I’m happy to answer any questions folks have about any of these images or riverboats in general. (Sometimes it gives me a good excuse to research something.) You can send me an email or leave a comment below.

A Riverboat’s Passengers is the latest in my series of posts sharing my research for my future novel Coal Belly. You can check out the other riverboat-related posts with the links below.


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Choose Your Fighter: An Oxford Comma or Five Million Dollars

Choose Your Fighter: An Oxford Comma or a Five Million Dollar Legal Loss

In this house, we respect and hold to the Oxford comma. We believe its existence is essential for clear communication and AP Style is inferior because of its omission.

But what if I told you that we’ve gone beyond opinion? What if here in the States a missing Oxford comma now holds legal implications, and its exclusion can cost a lot? Well, we Oxford comma disciples have recently won a great victory. Thanks to a 2017 ruling from The State of Maine we now have a legal precedent for the inclusion of our beloved Oxford comma as this handy video from Half as Interesting explains.

Huzzah! Long live the Oxford Comma! Long live our Punctuation Champion of the World!


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

Introducing: Gleam Upon the Waves

Introducing: Gleam Upon the Waves

It’s been far too long so let’s make this official. If you’ve followed my Project Tracker, you’ll have noticed that I’m now halfway into writing the fourth novel of The Bell Forging Cycle. It’s high time I announce it.

Waldo Bell will return in: Gleam Upon the Waves.


Hired to work security for a political envoy, Waldo Bell and the crew of the Bell Caravans find themselves en route to Empress, the capital city of the hermit-nation of Victory. But things are never as simple as they seem. Sinister forces are circling; stuck in the middle, Wal will learn that darkness runs much deeper than he ever thought possible, reality is not what it seems, and a new apocalypse is much closer than anyone anticipates.


I’m targeting Gleam Upon the Waves to be about the length of Red Litten World. The story itself will be standalone, but we’re now at a point where reading the previous books will be helpful. If you read Red Litten World, you understand that there are a lot of moving parts now.

A teaser site has been live for a while but, you can see it here and read the epigraph. You can also check out my inspiration board over on Pinterest. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the plan is to work on this until it’s out. Y’all have been more than patient, and I’m excited. I think you’ll enjoy it.

I’ll see you on the trails, roaders. Things are going to get weird.


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

Learning to Say "No"

Learning to Say ‘No’

Distraction is one of my biggest struggles; something I grapple with on a daily basis. A few days ago, I posted how we as creatives need to choose to make time for our craft. I referred to time as the “currency for creation.” But there’s another metaphor that works just as well: time is the medium from which we craft our creative work. Without time we cannot produce—everything else: charcoal, oil paint, clay, wood, words, everything, is secondary to time. Yet, in an ever-connected world finding those moments can often feel difficult and overwhelming. When we do find the time it’s often fleeting, and we’re bogged down by distraction.

Those called to creation understand this on a very personal level. Obligations already eat away at the narrow slivers of time from which we hone our craft. And the siren call of distraction is always there to lure us away. Occupying oneself into idleness is easy. At the end of the day, the week, the month, the year one looks back and find themselves unfulfilled and wonders: what happened?


In the struggle of creation, eventually, the creator must learn to say ‘no.’


In the struggle of creation, eventually, the creator must learn to say ‘no.’ At first, it’s terrifying. In our culture of ‘yes’ a word like ‘no’ sounds final. (It’s not, but that doesn’t matter.) Your friends won’t get it. The family won’t understand. Entertainment and Social Media hate hearing ‘no,’ they feed off distraction. Our phones are abuzz with alerts demanding attention. The 24-hour news cycle wants you to believe everything is a crisis. Click ‘yes’ to receive alerts for this random website. It’s endless. Empathy for the creator—when it exists at all—is ephemeral. Dreams and drives get brushed aside as frivolous whims. Oh, that. That’s just a hobby. Nothing will come of that. Do that instead. Watch this. Come here. Go there. Play this. Guilt and shame are wielded with selfish abandon. But it’s for you! They say when really it’s for them.


It was so dumb I had to do it.

Facing those pressures is difficult. We’ve all crumbled and given in, and those slivers of time are lost forever. You don’t get them back. Hence, the lesson of ‘no.’ Learning to say ‘no’ allows us to set boundaries. It establishes what is important and it set priorities. It’s the first step in building a routine, making the work habitual, and living in the moment.

To be effective ‘no’ is something every creator has to master. Shut out the distractions. No, Twitter isn’t important. No, you don’t need to watch that latest reboot on Netflix. No, you don’t need to make that phone call. No, brunch isn’t necessary this weekend. Face the pressure head on, stand your ground, and make the choices for what matters to you. It’s important for our mental health. It’s important for the work. It’s important for creation. ‘No’ lets us carve out moments in time, and after all, time is the true medium.


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. Alexander

Want to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

Choosing Time

Choosing Time

Most “rules” for writing are hyper-personal. What works for one writer will not work for another writer. We each discover our own path in the journey of creation and each path is as different as the person who walks it. But there is one bit of advice that remains true regardless of our course: to become a writer, you have to write.

That is a choice in itself. It doesn’t matter what we desire to do, if you’re driven to create then you have to participate in that act of creation. What you’re doing at that moment isn’t choosing to write but choosing the time to write. Time is the currency for creation. That applies to every creator working in any medium and is not restricted to writers.


Time is the currency for creation.


During the nineteenth-century labor movement, Robert Owen began the push for the eight-hour workday. It was he who coined the slogan “Eight hours labor, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest.” Since then, it’s been co-opted by labor movements and labor organizations across the world. Most artists I know have to work full-time jobs (sometimes many)—art is often secondary to that work. That leaves sixteen hours (if we’re lucky[1]) to divide between rest and creation. From the onset, many of us are already limited in the amount of time we can spend walking our path.

A group of Australian ‘red raggers’ (railway drivers and firemen) pose in front of an 888 banner symbolizing the divisions of the day, 1912. More info on Wikipedia

Time is finite. Once spent it cannot be reclaimed. If a creator is driven to create, then we need to learn to spend our time wisely. If we work full-time jobs, we’re already limited. We need to set priorities that permit us the time to create. That requires sacrifice. Choosing time means making sacrifices and cutting out other things that serve only as a distraction.

For me, that meant I quit playing video games. I stopped watching movies. Television went by the wayside. This year, I’ve significantly cut back on live sports as well—I no longer choose to sacrifice four hours to a football or baseball game, not when my time is limited.[2]

As with the individual’s path of creation, the path of sacrifice will be different for each creator. The choices you make will be personal. But you’re going to have to make them. In the end, it’s up to you. It’s your choice.[3]


1 This is a topic for another time, but I know many artists who have to work several jobs. For some it’s so they can afford health insurance, for others, it’s so they can afford food or rent. This only further limits their time, and further restricts their choices.

2 This isn’t to say you can’t enjoy these things. You can! I haven’t become a Luddite. But I treat each of these as rewards instead of as a lifestyle. That makes my time with each more special.

3 “Choose wisely.” —Grail Knight


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. Alexander

Want to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →