Category Archives: Research

A Riverboat's Paddlewheel

A Riverboat’s Paddlewheel

Oceangoing ships would opt for screw propulsion earlier than their riverboat counterparts. While constant contact with the water was beneficial in rough ocean conditions, it posed a detriment in early river travel. The wear and tear on screws were harsher in clogged and snag-prone conditions. Major damage could incapacitate a packet boat, and it was much easier for a riverboat’s carpenter to make repairs to a vessel’s above-water paddlewheel rather than a submerged screw prop.

A paddlewheel also allowed riverboats to ride at a shoal draft which permitted navigation among the shallow western tributaries. This helped extend the packet’s reach further inland. While future engineering would deepen and clean rivers, those early benefits allowed paddlewheels to be the dominant propulsion for almost a century.

The sidewheeler Belle of the Bends taking on cargo alongside the sternwheeler Belle of Calhoun
Two Misses in Memphis, 1906—The sidewheeler Belle of the Bends taking on cargo alongside the sternwheeler Belle of Calhoun. (See the full sized image over at Shorpy.)

Packets came in two distinct and common varieties dictated by their paddlewheel placement: the elegant sidewheeler and the labor-ready sternwheeler[1]. Early in their history, it was much easier to balance a pair of wheels at either side of the vessel — at first amid-ship but later moved just one-third forward of the stern. These boats proved superior to the cumbersome keelboats from earlier eras and quickly overtook the river trade. Their enormous paddleboxes or wheelhouses were bold, showy, and elegant. Early on, they proved to have some distinct advantages. Sidewheelers had a more stable foundation. On two-engine boats, one wheel could be reversed which allowed the packet greater maneuverability. As they became more popular, many captains grew to prefer the look, and the paddleboxes provided a foundation for wide traveler promenades.


“The sidewheel river packet is the most beautiful creation of man.”

—Captain Ellias C. Mace[2]


Unlike the sidewheeler, the sternwheeler was not as well-loved. Early sternwheelers were slow, ungainly, and unbalanced. As Hunter says in Steamboats on the Western Rivers: “Compared with the side-wheeler it was a dull, cart-horse sort of boat, useful only for the meaner kinds of work. For speed, pleasing lines, and flashing performance, the sidewheeler stood first from beginning to end; it was the western river steamboat par excellence.”[3]

Detail of the blueprints of the 1912 towboat Captain Stuart.
Detail of the blueprints of the 1912 towboat Captain Stuart. Click here to view the full blueprints.

Par excellence or not, technology and construction methods improved, and the sternwheel’s advantages began to outshine their formerly-favored cousins. The wheel at the aft allowed the hull to serve as a bulwark from logs, ice, and other debris which could jam or damage a wheel. Because of that, those packets didn’t have to stop as readily to avoid accident. As other methods of construction were developed, the sternwheeler’s capacity for hauling cargo was significantly increased. Single aft wheels were lighter and allowed for a wider beam which enabled a more shallow draft. This helped them become masters of the smaller tributaries. By the 1880s it was said that a sternwheeler under the same load as a sidewheel vessel of similar size would draw less than half as much water—an essential aspect of river trade.

My long-standing work in progress, Coal Belly, is a sprawling weird-west fantasy adventure set on a planet which is crisscrossed by interlocking rivers. Along the rivers of Achus, both side and sternwheeled steamboats are ubiquitous. In a world where massive rivers are the dominant source of transportation, trade, and security, I felt it was important for me to understand the advantages and disadvantages of riverboat propulsion. Understanding small details can have vast implications for a story, and while second world fantasy easily allows for historical aberration, it’s always beneficial to ground aspects of worldbuilding in reality.

Below are some photos of riverboat’s wheels, both side and stern, which I’ve gathered during the years of my research for Coal Belly. You can click on any photo to view it larger. I’ve tried to group them together so you can see sidewheels, stern wheels, and some of the odder experimentations.



As will all my riverboat research posts, 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.


More Riverboats

A Riverboat’s Paddlewheel 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.


Footnotes and Citations

1 The key word here is “common.” There were a few outliers, of course. Ferries were often centerwheelers, with the paddlewheel built along the vessels beam and the boat constructed around it. There was also the batwing steamers—small vessels with two tiny side-wheels near the stern.

2 Mace, Ellis Clarence, 1862-. River Steamboats And Steamboat Men: a History With Articles And Pictures From My Scrap Book. Cynthiana, Ky.: The Hobson book press, 1944.

3 Hunter, Louis C, and Beatrice Jones Hunter. Steamboats On the Western Rivers: an Economic And Technological History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949.


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 →

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.


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 →

A Riverboat's Demise

A Riverboat’s Demise

The lifespan of most riverboats was short. The swirling waters and strong currents in a river presented many dangers. Snags and other obstructions beneath the surface could easily punch a hole in a hull, sinking a boat. Weather could also play a factor. Fierce storms wreaked havoc and winter ice would routinely destroy steamboats.

Steamboat Accidents on the Western Rivers 1811-1851, taken from Steamboats on the Western Rivers, sourced from Cist’s Weekly Advertiser (Cincinnati), July 16, 1852

The natural world wasn’t the only danger. Packets were rarely inspected and with little governmental oversight, many became death traps. All were made of timber and powered by fire-heated boilers, deadly blazes and boiler explosions were common, and the loss of life and property could be catastrophic. Mark Twain’s younger brother Henry Clemens was killed in a boiler explosion on the steamer Pennsylvania in 1858, an event Twain details in Life on the Mississippi.


“A steamer came along, finally, and carried the unfortunates to Memphis, and there the most lavish assistance was at once forthcoming. By this time Henry was insensible. The physicians examined his injuries and saw that they were fatal, and naturally turned their main attention to patients who could be saved.”

—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 20, A Catastrophe


My current project, Coal Belly, is a sprawling weird-west fantasy adventure set on a planet crisscrossed by interlocking rivers. Riverboats are necessary and ubiquitous, and with their use comes the hazards of operation. A world of riverboats means a world of riverboat wrecks and having a working knowledge of their dangers went a long way toward adding a level of authenticity to my manuscript.

Those packets which survived weather, explosion, and accident rarely operated long. Most boats were worked hard and maintained poorly, and that it took its toll on their lifespan. While a well-maintained riverboat can last decades, most of the boats that operated in the late-1800s lasted between two to five years.

In the 1800s photographic equipment wasn't standard. In place of photographs, many riverboat disasters were depicted by drawings of etchings. Left to Right: Str. Robert E. Lee, 1882, Str. Benjamin Franklin, 1836, Str. Sultana, 1865.
Left to Right: Fire takes the Str. Robert E. Lee killing 21 in 1882, a boiler explosion on the Str. Benjamin Franklin, 1836, The Sultana disaster claimed 1192 lives (perhaps up to 1800) outside Memphis, Tennessee in 1865, it remains one of the worst maritime disasters in United States history.

In the 1800s photographic equipment wasn’t as commonplace as it is today, and most of it wasn’t quick enough to capture riverboat disasters as they happened. In place of photographs, many tragedies were depicted by drawings or etchings. You can see a few above. Photographers, however, did manage to capture images of wrecked boats after they had been damaged, sunk, or destroyed. I’ve assembled a gallery below, you can click on any image to view it larger.


The pictures above have been collected over the last five years, so I am unsure where they all come (usually the Library of Congress.) But, they’re all old enough to be in the public domain. In some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. 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. I love comments.

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


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 →

A Riverboat's Pilothouse

A Riverboat’s Pilothouse

If the boilers are the heart, the engines the muscles, then the pilothouse is the brain of the riverboat. This small room perched high above the deck controls the steamboat. It is here where the pilot holds court, directing the engines, calling for leads, watching the waters, and guiding the big boat safely along its course.

Pilothouses came in all shapes and sizes, some were fanciful, onion-domed, and decorated with wooden designs known as gingerbread. Others were simple and austere, with little to no decorations and flat-roofed. Early pilothouses were open to the elements, while later pilothouses were glassed in to protect the pilot from the weather.

The expansive pilothouse of an unknown towboat
The expansive pilothouse of an unknown towboat

The enormous spoked pilotwheel was the focal point of the room. It rose arcing from the floor and connected to a tiller rope giving the pilot command of the steamboat’s rudders. Wheels varied in size, but most were quite large. The Steamer Sprague had an enormous wheel that measured over thirteen feet.

Speaking tube onboard the Str. W.P. Snyder Jr.
Speaking tube onboard the Str. W.P. Snyder Jr.

Communication between the pilothouse and the engine room varied from boat to boat. Before the inventions of the engine-order telegraph, pilots communicated by signaling the engineers via bells-and-gongs systems. Bells ropes were pulled and down below bells rang signaling the engineers to stop, start, and reverse engines. Many boats also had a series of hollow (usually one way) speaking tubes which allowed the pilot to get a little more creative in their communication. (See Mark Twain’s copious notes in Life on the Mississippi describing the flowery cursing that was common among pilots and crew.)

Most pilothouses had stoves to keep the pilot warm, and a lazy bench as seating for visitors and guests. Large bells on the roof of the boat signaled the leadsman. Whistles, often controlled by treadles on the floor, allowed the pilot to blow the steam whistle.

Mark Twain, served as Horace Ezra Bixby’s cub pilot on the steamer Paul Jones, a 172′ sidewheeler out of Pittsburgh. He described her pilothouse as “cheap, dingy, battered rattle-trap, cramped for room” but after the Jones, he and his mentor spent some time on a much larger and finer vessel1 and the pilothouse there was entirely different:

“…here was a sumptuous glass temple; room enough to have a dance in; showy red and gold window-curtains; an imposing sofa; leather cushions and a back to the high bench where visiting pilots sit, to spin yarns and ‘look at the river;’ bright, fanciful ‘cuspadores’ instead of a broad wooden box filled with sawdust; nice new oil-cloth on the floor; a hospitable big stove for winter; a wheel as high as my head, costly with inlaid work; a wire tiller-rope; bright brass knobs for the bells; and a tidy, white-aproned, black ‘texas-tender,’ to bring up tarts and ices and coffee during mid-watch, day and night.”

—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

My new novel Coal Belly is a weird-west steampunky fantasy set on a planet crisscrossed by interlocking rivers. It’s a rough-and-tumble place where riverboats are omnipresent and necessary for everyday life. One of the main characters in the novel is a riverboat pilot, and learning the ins and outs of the pilothouse, how a pilot moved, and how they behaved in their domain was key to making my pilot an authentic character. I’m still hard at work on editing the manuscript (which I finished earlier this year), but I believe people will enjoy reading about her adventures among the Thousand Streams.

Below are some images of pilots and pilothouses which I have collected during my research. You’ll see rooms of all types, from the simple to the more fanciful and you’ll meet some of the people that worked there as well.



The pictures above have been collected over the last five years, so I am unsure where they all come (usually the Library of Congress.) But, they’re all old enough to be in the public domain. In some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. 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. I love comments.

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


1 It’s possible this was the pilothouse to the Crescent City, he and Bixby worked onboard from April to July of 1857, shortly after serving onboard the Paul Jones. It regularly ran between New Orleans to St. Louis.


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 →

Riverboats at War

Riverboats at War

Those who have spent any time in an American History class is aware of the famous Battle of Hampton Roads. It’s the infamous naval conflict between the Merrimack (captured and renamed the CSS Virginia) and the USS Monitor, two of the world’s first ironclads gunboats, which duked it out to a draw in the waters of Chesapeake Bay.

"The Monitor and Merrimac: The First Fight Between Ironclads", a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, produced by Louis Prang & Co., Boston
“The Monitor and Merrimac: The First Fight Between Ironclads,” a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, produced by Louis Prang & Co., Boston

While these two vessels have become legendary, they weren’t alone; many more gunboats were fighting on the rivers during the American Civil War. Technology had begun to modernize, and the gunboats of the Union Navy and Confederate fleets were no different. The war revealed a point of transition in the evolution of sail to steam as watercraft shifted from the traditional frigate-style sailing vessel towards the warships we see today. Turrets were introduced, armor became commonplace, and propulsion was beginning to change from paddle-wheels to the screws. The era of wooden ships of the line died in 1862 as the ironclads rose to prominence.

Officers on board the USS Hunchback
Officers on board the USS Hunchback

My current project, Coal Belly, is a weird west fantasy set on a planet crisscrossed by interlocking rivers. It’s a rough-and-tumble world where riverboats are omnipresent and necessary for everyday life and used in war. In the book, the empires of Artada, Othwell, and Cyr patrol their territory with a variety of gunboats, and I wanted a spark of authenticity. With that in mind, I felt it necessary for to research the naval fleets of 19th Century, with the Mississippi and its tributaries playing such a vital part in the American Civil War, it was the perfect place to start.

The Union dominated naval warfare from the outset. Where the Confederate forces saw some early advances with the capture of the Merrimack and its retrofitting, it didn’t take long for the Union to catch up and overwhelm the Rebels. Gunboats came in many varieties and could be broken down into four main categories: Rams, Timberclads, Tinclads, and of course the emerging Ironclads. There was a fifth category as well, used primarily by the Confederates, which is commonly called the Cottonclads. Let’s look into each of them.


Rams

These were the creation of Colonel Charles Ellet Jr., a Navy man who was convinced that the ancient ram technology could be adapted to modern usage. Under his guidance, he built out the United States Ram Fleet. The rams tended to be sidewheelers and were usually faster than their civilian counterparts, and unlike other navy boats they carried few guns; instead, they used reinforced timber bows to smash into opposing boats.

Timberclads

Only four timberclads were used during the war, the USS Tyler, USS Conestoga, USS Lexington, and the USS Avenger. While these were modeled after standard sidewheel riverboats, these vessel’s crew were protected from small-arms fire by 5-inch thick oaken bulkheads. To me, they’ve always looked like a floating windowless factory.

Tinclads

The most common gunboat of the Union Navy’s river fleet were the tinclads. These were usually sternwheelers with metal sheeting tacked to the side to protect the crews. Keep in mind that this thin sheeting wasn’t useful while under fire by heavy artillery. It was chosen to protect against small arms. Where civilian packets tend to feature open decks and promenades, most tinclads have a boxed-in look. Each of these boats was assigned a number which was painted on their pilothouse.

Ironclads

The first iron vessels were designed to be ocean-going and operated mostly along the coast. The French Glorie was the first, but more followed her. On the rivers and during the American Civil War, Ironclads came in many varieties—two were most common. The first was the turreted Monitors named after the famous warship the USS Monitor designed by John Ericsson.


John Ericsson

“The sea shall ride over her and she shall live in it like a duck.”

John Ericsson, Inventor of the USS Monitor


The second type was the casemate-style gunboats with sloping sides, not unlike the USS Merrimack. These were more commonly found on the rivers. At the beginning of the war, the Union converted civilian packets, but later they developed the City-class ironclad; these 13-cannon gunboats ruled the river. After their introduction, they were present at every major conflict along the Mississippi. Interestingly, many of these City-class ironclads were centerwheelers with their paddle wheels located at the aft-end of the center keel and protected by bulkheads and armor plating.

Internal arrangement of the USS Cairo
Internal arrangement of the USS Cairo, a Union casemate-style ironclad

Cottonclads

A creation of the Confederate fleets, the cottonclads looked much like their counterpart riverboats. However, as an added form of protection, their hollow bulkheads were filled with packed cotton. Cotton bales were also set up around guns and pilothouses as additional forms of protection.


You could write entire books on gunboat strategy in the American Civil War which isn’t the goal of these posts. However, if you’re interested in learning more, I’d recommend starting with Sam Smith’s article, The River War. But for this post, let’s take a gander at some images I’ve gathered as a part of my research over the last few years. These will provide visual examples of the five categories of naval gunboats and give a glimpse of the life of a brown water riverman; check them out below.

Controlling the Mississippi River and its tributaries was a vital part of the war effort. I can see why so much innovation happened in such a short amount of time. Technology provided an advantage, and in the narrow confines of a river, that advantage is beneficial for a brown water navy. With the tale crossing empires, expect to read about plenty of gunboats within the pages of Coal Belly.

The pictures above have been collected over the last five years, so I am unsure from where they all come (usually the Library of Congress.) But, they’re all old enough to be in the public domain. As before, in some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. 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. I love comments.

This is the latest in my series of posts sharing my findings from my research for Coal Belly. You can check out the other riverboat-related posts in the links below.


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 →

Finding the Yellow Sign

Hunting The Yellow Sign

In 1895, Robert W. Chambers published The King in Yellow a collection of short stories. Over the years, it has become his seminal work, and due to Lovecraft’s interest in the book and his incorporations of Chamber’s ideas, The King in Yellow inevitably became connected to the mythos. Chamber’s eponymous King in Yellow, became Lovecraft’s Hastur, and the empty streets of dim Carcosa are now as familiar to cosmic horror fans as the sunken city of R’lyeh and the sagging gambrel roofs of Innsmouth.[1]


“Have you found the Yellow Sign?”

— Robert W. Chambers, The Yellow Sign, Chapter 14


For a long time, fans of Chambers’ work have hunted for The Yellow Sign. After all, it is important enough to justify a story within the book. But, unlike Lovecraft who was fond of random sketches, as far as we know Chambers never drew out the symbol. All we have are his descriptions. So what is the Yellow Sign? Did Chambers leave us any clues outside his story?

First, we need to address the Ross Sign. In 1989 Chaosium released The Call of Cthulhu 4th Edition, a role-playing game based on Lovecraft’s mythos. Within the supplemental book, The Great Old Ones, game designer Kevin A. Ross created a striking symbol of The Yellow Sign[2] for his adventure scenario entitled Tell Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?

The Kevin A. Ross interpretation of The Yellow Sign
The Kevin A. Ross interpretation of The Yellow Sign

In the years since Ross’ symbol has become the go-to image whenever anyone evokes The Yellow Sign in popular media. A quick google image search will reveal a few variants, but most follow the same pattern. But, as engaging as it is, it’s important to note that the Ross Sign is not official. It’s not the mark described by Chambers, merely an interpretation by Ross adopted by the community at large. So what is The Yellow Sign? To find out, it’s best to return to the text where we find it described.


“…inside lay a clasp of black onyx, on which was inlaid a curious symbol or letter in gold. It was neither Arabic nor Chinese, nor, as I found afterwards, did it belong to any human script.”

— Robert W. Chambers, The Yellow Sign, Chapter 2


That quote taken from The Yellow Sign, (the fourth story in The King in Yellow), led me back to the original 1895 edition published by F. Tennyson Neely. They’re difficult to find physically, but most have been scanned are now available to read online. While the interiors were sparse, I found a few original covers of the first edition, which had a variety of printings featuring different covers.

The King in Yellow First Edition Covers
The King in Yellow First Edition Covers, starting left First Printing to Third

The books above are ordered by the print run. You’ll note, that each cover bears a similar symbol with strange angles and sweeping curls. At fist glance, it certainly fits the description. It’s script like, and could easily be reminiscent of non-English glyphs. I did some work to pull the icon from the old covers so we could see it without all the filigree.

The Neely The Yellow Sign.
The Neely Sign from the first editions

I’m dubbing this the Neely Sign, and I was ready to accept it as the official version. And I wasn’t alone, I’ve seen it used by others. It’s clear that it’s in the zeitgeist just not as popular as the Ross Sign. It is similar to the description, looking not unlike Arabic letterforms or Chinese hànzì, but it’s clearly not born of either. I can see the appeal. My own rendering of Aklo follows similar patterns, loops, dashes, and dots. (You can see the writing here, just scroll down to book IV, V, and VI.) However, after some digging, I came across another cover; a cover that ruined any assumption of the Neely Sign being our infamous Yellow Sign.

Father Stafford by Anthony Hope, published by F. Tennyson Neely
Father Stafford by Anthony Hope, published by F. Tennyson Neely

Anthony Hope’s Father Stafford features the same mark, and it’s important to note that this book isn’t connected to the mythos. It has been described as a “county-house comedy” which is far different from the grim nature of The King in Yellow. So if that is The Yellow Sign on the cover it would be wildly out of place. So what is it? The connection lies with the publisher. Both Father Stafford and The King in Yellow were published by F. Tennyson Neely under the Neely’s Prismatic Library imprint. You can easily see the letters F, T, and N in the symbol, and the periods clearly indicate initials. Further research found the symbol on other covers as well, including this copy of Master and Man by Tolstoy. So, it seems the Neely Sign was the publisher’s mark and not the official Yellow Sign as many have hoped. So I was back to square one… or was I?


“We talked on, unmindful of the gathering shadows, and she was begging me to throw away the clasp of black onyx quaintly inlaid with what we now knew to be the Yellow Sign.”

— Robert W. Chambers, The Yellow Sign, Chapter 18


I eventually found an old post from 2010 on of my favorite blogs, Propnomicon. It’s a fantastic site focused on documenting the creation of realistic props that evoke Lovecraftian mythos (and horror in general.) Within the post, they suggest that the image on the spine of third first-edition printing (and arguably the most memorable) might be The Yellow Sign. It begged a closer look.

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers, published by F. Tennyson Neely
The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers, First Edition, Third Printing published by F. Tennyson Neely

It’s a remarkable symbol. You can see a similar object held by the figure. A torch consuming itself, or a burning scepter perhaps? When isolated it looks a bit like a caduceus turned upside down. Could this inverted caduceus, a symbol typically used to represent healing, be a representation of corruption? I think there is merit in that interpretation. After all, Hastur clads himself in yellow, which is opposite on the color wheel of purple, the standard color of royalty. Even Carcosa itself is often shown as a corrupted reflection of our world. Plus when stylized, the inverted torch looks like something you could see embroidered on the stoles and hoods of a Yellow King secret society. It has a symmetry, not unlike the Rebekah’s beehive or the Masonic square and compasses and that is advantageous in a symbol’s use. Effective symbols are easy to reproduce, and while the Ross and Neely signs are interesting, they’re overly complex.

Symbol on the spine of The King in Yellow
Symbol from the spine of Chambers’ The King in Yellow

By this point, I think it will be difficult to uncouple popular culture from the Ross Sign. But, personally, I’ve become a fan of the inverted torch and I will probably go forward using it to represent Hastur within my own work. I like that it has more connection with the original text than the Ross creation and it’s not a misinterpretation like the Neely Sign. Even if it doesn’t fully match the description it’s visually evocative.

While there have been other less grounded interpretations[3], there is no one definite answer. Chambers, for his part, was vague; I’d wager that was intentional. He left the titular Sign open to discussion and that is why it remains undiscovered. For me, that adds to the myth and it helps expand the world of cosmic horror. The mystery becomes a part of the draw and that is something I can appreciate.

Then again, there’s also this strange little mark…

A strange symbol on The King in Yellow's Dedication Page


1 It should be noted that Ambrose Bierce was the first to name both Hastur and Carcosa. They appeared in his short stories Haïta the Shepherd, and An Inhabitant of Carcosa found in his 1893 collection Can Such Things Be? Both stories were drawn upon by Chambers for The King in Yellow.

2 It’s important to note that the Ross Sign that we see today is actually a corruption of Ross’ initial design. Chaosium printed the image both upside-down and backward.

3 See True Detective’s use of the Archimedean spiral and deer antlers, objects more evocative of Ireland’s Newgrange than the standard “symbol from beyond” typically found in cosmic horror.


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