Category Archives: Research

Riverboats Go to 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.


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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.


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 Crew

A Riverboat’s Roustabouts

These days, when someone uses the term, “roustabout,” they’re most likely referring to the workers on an oil rig. However, historically, the term was synonymous with unskilled laborers, and it was commonly used for those who worked onboard riverboats as deckhands. If the boilers were the heart of the boat, then the rousters were its lifeblood.

The crew of riverboats fell into three classes: officers, cabin crew, and deck crew. Officers included the pilot, clerk, and engineers. The cabin crew served as stewards, cooks, and chamber maids on the Boiler Deck and tended to work directly with passengers. The deck crew worked on the Main Deck and comprised the largest section of the boat’s crew. They performed broad-based, non-specific skills; they handled loading and unloading of freight, worked pumps and capstans, and joined in wooding (Loading fuel for the hungry boilers). Depending on the size of a packet, a crew could range from four or five or swell to an enormous size of one hundred twenty-one, like the crew found on the Eclipse.

“Dirtier and more toilsome work than this landing of the freight I have seldom seen.”

John Townsend Trowbridge, The South, p. 350

The pay for the rousters on the Main Deck was low; the average was about twenty-five dollars per month in the 1880’s. This is equivalent to five hundred and fifty dollars today. Life was tough. While meals were provided, accommodation most often was not. Crewmen were obliged to sleep where they could among the cargo and machinery, although occasionally a vessel might feature a tier of bunks on one side of the cargo room.

The cabin crew was paid less and was essentially a small hotel staff working on board. While their pay was lower, their living and working conditions were better than those of the men laboring below. They were able to sleep on the carpeted floors of the main cabin, and eat the leftovers from the extravagant meals served to the passengers. They also tended to be hired by season, unlike the deck crew who were hired by trip.

In this post, I’ve gathered numerous pictures of the crew, focusing mainly on the deckhands. You can check them out below.

The lives of the crew are fascinating to me. Learning about the nuances helped me expand my world in my current project, Coal Belly, a western fantasy set on a planet crisscrossed by interlocking rivers. It’s a place where riverboats are not only ubiquitous but necessary for everyday life. Many of the characters serve aboard riverboats, so it was important for me to understand the lives of the men and women who worked the packets.

Most of the images above have been collected over the last five years, so I am unsure from where they all come. As before, in some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. While my knowledge is not as extensive as others’, I’d be 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.

This is the latest in my series of posts sharing my findings from my research for Coal Belly. You can check out the other 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 →

How Airships Worked

How Passenger Airships Worked

For years I didn’t understand the steampunk community’s obsession with airships. I understood that they were transportation ephemera of a sort and that they harkened back to a bygone era, but I always thought they were too small. This was due in large part to my misunderstanding of their construction.

I was further confused when I realized I didn’t understand how mooring masts worked. The giant spire atop the Empire State Building was initially designed to be a mooring mast, but I could never understand how passengers would get down from the gondola. Ropes? Ladders? Either way, it sounded like it would be dangerous.

It wasn’t until I read Larry Correia’s novel Hard Magic in January that I decided to look further into dirigibles. His book utilizes them a great deal, but I was having a difficult time picturing the spaces described, so I began to research. It turns out my assumptions were very wrong. Airships had decks! Passenger cabins! Lounges! Promenades! As I started asking my friends, I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. I blame The Rocketeer.

So where were these accommodations? This surprised me as well. As the illustration below describes, they were most often inside the ridge frame of the airship itself.

A 1928 drawing by S.W. Clatworthy showing the accommodation aboard the R100
A 1928 drawing by S.W. Clatworthy showing the accommodation aboard the R100

For years, I operated under the assumption that passengers were as crammed into the tight space of a gondola (similar to military dirigibles.) But the tiny gondolas that dangled below looked uncomfortable for a long flight across the Atlantic. It turns out they were the exact opposite of cramped. When I realized they had more in common with starships, ocean liners, and riverboats, my perspective changed. They became something much more, and I immediately understood the obsession.

My research led me to The Airship Heritage Trust, which had a collection of images of the British R100, one of the premiere passenger airships of its day and similar in design to the famous Hindenburg. There you can find photos, ship plans, flight logs, and much more. If you’re looking for details, I highly recommend browsing that site.

Plans of the R100
Plans of the R100

I was fascinated by the layout, and the passion began to make sense. Below is a collection of images and some deck plans I have found relating to the interior and passenger spaces of airships. These come from the British R100 and R101 and the Nazi LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, LZ 129 Hindenburg, and LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II. I also included a photo at the end showing passengers boarding the R101 so you can see how mooring masts worked. Makes a lot more sense than what I had in my head. In some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping to give the gallery some unity.


[!] Note: While one of the most successful dirigibles, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin had a different layout than the others. It crammed passengers and crew into a large forward gondola that extended partly into the ship’s frame. You can see its design and deck plan here. The larger LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II moved passengers into the frame.


While airships won’t be appearing in my writing anytime soon, I now understand the attraction. They’re an ocean liner in the sky, a home to their crew, and a hotel to their passengers. They’re not at all cramped. I can see why they’d be the transportation choice for pulpy adventures. Just make sure you have your ticket.

A Riverboat's Menu

A Riverboat’s Menu

Food and food culture say a lot about a place and its people, in many ways it helps defines them. While you don’t have to go to the detailed lengths of George R. R. Martin, it’s important to have a working knowledge of the food culture in your settings. Especially in fantasy worlds. The river nations in my latest project, Coal Belly, are no exception. Since a great portion of the book takes place on a sternwheel riverboat, I spent some time looking into the preparation of food onboard. After all, I want to make sure that everything feels both realistic and natural.

Dining onboard a passenger packet wasn’t all too different from dining at a nice restaurant. Cooks serving onboard a riverboat managed to create extravagant meals of multiple courses from tiny kitchens and working with a small staff. Attentive waiters served the diners during the meal. Ingredients were usually purchased at ports of call and were varied. While every riverboat was different, pantries were often located on the Boiler Deck just off from the Main Cabin and connected by stair to the kitchen. You can see the kitchen of the Cincinnati in the photos below.

While gathering and compiling images for my Riverboat Interiors post from a few weeks ago, I found myself reading a blog entitled The American Menu. There I found the menu from the U.S. Mail Packet Princess dated 1857. This is the same vessel captured in the Marie Adrien Persac painting from the last post. I found the menu itself a fascinating window into the past, and I wanted to share. I’ve posted it below, click to view it larger.

Menu for the Str. Princess
Bill of Fare from the Str. Princess, April 19th, 1857

Henry Voight, the curator of The American Menu, had a lot of interesting observations regarding the Princess’ menu. He notes the lack of French (common on upper-class menus the mid-1800s), spelling differences, and the particular regional ingredients featured among the pound cake and roast beef. Check out his full post over on The American Menu. It’s worth the read, you can learn what “macararonia” happens to be, and get a glimpse into the diet of the Antebellum South, and discover the fate of the Princess.

Lunch in the kitchen at night (Riverboat unknown)
Lunch in the kitchen at night (Riverboat unknown)

If you’re looking for more information and photos of riverboats why not check out my post on Riverboats & Leeves. If you’d to see more of the internals of these boats be sure to look at my post on Riverboat Interiors. Likewise, make sure to spend a few moments investigating the strange case of The Masonic Ironclad. While my knowledge is not as extensive as others, I’d be happy to answer any questions folks have about anything posted above or riverboats in general, you can send me an email or leave a comment below.

Riverboat Interiors

In 1861, the Louisiana artist Marie Adrien Persac painted “Saloon of Mississippi River Steamboat Princess.” In it, he depicted men and women in Victorian finery moving about inside a cavernous Main Cabin onboard an antebellum Mississippi riverboat. It’s an interesting piece, one that partly inspired me to write Coal Belly. I’ve embedded it below.

"Saloon of Mississippi River Steamboat Princess" (Adrien Persac, 1861)
“Saloon of Mississippi River Steamboat Princess” —Marie Adrien Persac, 1861

It’s a classic view, looking down the length of the boat. A purser’s office and a refreshment window are in the foreground, while the Main Cabin extends back, lined with the doors that led to passenger’s staterooms. Most of the riverboats operating today have been updated and modernized, but the bones of the old layout remain. Passenger cabins flank an interior salon that transforms into a dining hall during meals.

Usually, riverboats only had a single deck for passenger cabins, located on the second deck of the boat traditionally called the Boiler Deck. (Because it sat atop the boilers.) Later, on larger boats like the Delta Queen and the Gordon C. Greene, other passenger decks were added. This allowed for larger and more extravagant interior spaces, dining salons, bigger passenger cabins, and grand stairwells. Passenger decks were usually elegant and richly appointed, though they tended to be a bit more cramped and not quite as roomy as Persac’s painting suggested. Images of riverboat interiors are rare, but in them, we can see that Persac’s depiction isn’t that far off. Below are a few photos from the interior of riverboats. You can click on any image to view it larger.

My current project, Coal Belly, is a western-fantasy set in a world covered by twisting and interlocking rivers. It’s a place where riverboats are ubiquitous and necessary for everyday life. The complexity of the interiors makes them the perfect mode of conveyance. Riverboats are a mobile cargo vessel for freight, a luxurious hotel for passengers, and home for their crew. While similarities persisted across all packets, each had their own unique style, which allows for a lot of variety and many places to explore. I can’t wait to introduce readers to the world of Achus and give you the chance to wander the decks of the riverboats in Coal Belly.

If you’re looking for other photos, check out my post on Riverboats & Leeves or look into the strange discovery of The Masonic Ironclad. Most of these images above have been collected over the last five years, so I am unsure from where they all come. As before, in some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. While my knowledge is not as extensive as others, I’d be happy to answer any questions folks have about any of these images or riverboats in general, you can send me an email or leave a comment below.