Tag Archives: history

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.


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The Royal Game of Ur

The Royal Game of Ur

I love history. I love board games. So I was intrigued when I saw this video from The British Museum about the national board game of ancient Mesopotamia, the Royal Game of Ur. In it, Dr. Irving Finkel (noted philologist, Assyriologist, and the discoverer of the rules) takes on Tom Scott in the ancient race game.

If you’re interested in learning how Dr. Finkel discovered the rules. Make sure to check out this Curator’s Corner video where he goes into detail.

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.

The Masonic Gunboat

The Masonic Ironclad

Recently, I have found myself researching the American Civil War for my “riverpunk” project, Coal Belly. I have always been drawn to that era, the division of the United States was dramatic enough, but couple that with the rapid advances in technology and it makes for a strange world. Since Coal Belly is primarily a Weird Western that centers around steamboats and rivers, I was doing research into the riverboats of the Union Navy during the Civil War. That, in turn, led me to pictures of ironclad gunboats, which brought me to the USS Baron DeKalb.

USS St. Louis later renamed the USS Baron Dekalb
Commissioned as the USS St. Louis, this gunboat was later renamed the USS Baron DeKalb

It’s an intriguing photo that displays the tank-like aspect of early naval gunboats; because of their half-submerged shell-like appearance you can see how they got the nickname “pook turtles.” Usually, I file away images like this into an “Inspirations” folder, but before I could do that, I noticed something strange in the picture. There is a small, odd object hanging on the spreader bars between the DeKalb’s stacks. Let’s zoom in a bit closer…

Masonic Symbol hanging between the stacks of the USS Baron Dekalb
Is that a Masonic symbol hanging between the stacks of the USS Baron DeKalb?

Look familiar? That certainly appears to be the Freemason Square and Compasses hanging above the boat. There’s even a ghostly “G” fixed in the middle. Now, there have been are many books (fiction and nonfiction works) and loads of silly conspiracy theories written about Freemasonry’s ties to the founding of America. It is common knowledge that many of our founding fathers were involved in fraternal organizations. So while seeing a Freemason device hanging on the spreader bars of a US naval vessel did not come as a surprise to me; I was intrigued.

The mystery did not stop there. I spent more time poking around and found a few other interesting tidbits. One site noted the odd similarities between this photos of the USS Baron DeKalb and the USS Carondelet. It’s pretty uncanny. In fact, you could argue they are the same picture, just edited ever so slightly. The forward flag has changed between the images, and the Carondelet seems to have an inverted star in place of the Masonic symbol, but a lot of the photo is identical, even the trees in the background.

USS Carondelet (Left) and the USS Baron Dekalb (Right)
USS Carondelet (Left) and the USS Baron DeKalb (Right)

I also found an article reposted from the Scottish Rite Journal that suggested that one of the Dekalb’s captains was most likely a Mason, which could explain the symbol. Additionally, General Baron DeKalb—the riverboat’s namesake—was also a Freemason. So it’s possible the device was hung out of respect for him.

What does this all mean? I don’t know! Nevertheless, it is an entertaining little mystery and one I was happy to stumble upon. Many of my loyal readers know that I am a collector of American folk art that stems from American fraternal organizations and secret societies (particularly the Independent Order of Odd Fellows,) so it is always fun when I find bits and bobs like this during research. It’s a good example of how rich and complex our history can be, and how little details can lead to expansive stories in their own right. Plus, it was just too much fun to keep to myself.

Friday Link Pack 06/27/2014

Medievally Styled Illustrations by Sergey Yuhimov
It’s time to share a few interesting links I have found throughout the week. Some of these I mention on Twitter, if you’re not already following me there, please do! Have a link I should feature in the upcoming link pack? Let me know!

Writing:

6 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books To Share With The App Generation
Nice list from Idea.TED to encourage the imagination and something something creative writing. I guess I get where they’re coming with the whole “App Generation” idea, but really, these are all real good summer reading for any generation.

Words For That
Need a word? A word for that? Well Words for That is a fun little site that is here to help. Worth checking out.

Breaking The Perfectionism–Procrastination Infinite Loop
We have all struggled with perfectionism and fought against procrastination. Denise Jacobs over at Web Standard Sherpa has some great advice on how to shake out of that loop. Really great for any creative.

I’m STILL having a Kindle Sale!
For the few weeks The Stars Were Right is available for only $1.99! Now is a good chance for Kindle owners to pick up a copy. Click here for more info. Tell your friends!

Art:

Sergey Yuhimov’s Medieval-Style Illustrations for Lord of the Rings
Beautiful images. The scene of Boromir’s death stands out in particular. (It’s my favorite scene from the book.) You should also check out the set of illustrations of the Hobbit I featured in a Link Pack earlier this year.

Bill Viola Projects Martyrs Within St. Paul’s Cathedral
Stunning permanent video installation. Not something I’d expect to see in a church. I think that’s why I dig it so much. It pushes the boundaries of what is usually considered proper or traditional.

After The Storm Limited Edition Prints
As of this morning there’s only a few of Kari-Lise‘s latest limited edition run of After the Storm. So nab it while you can.

Random:

America’s Abandoned Shopping Malls
I was real impressed with this series of photographs by Seph Lawless. He is able to capture feelings of tragedy and bleakness in a landscape that is all too familiar.

The Occult History of the Television Set
Television shows like Star Trek had tricorders and communicators that inspired the creation of the iPhone. What was the pop-culture phenomena that pushed the inventors of the television? Would you believe it’s own history is rooted in the occult? Interesting story.

The Best Infinite Looping GIFs on the Internet
It’s always hard making these lists because there all billions of great GIFs out there. That being said, there are some gems here.

Lovecraft Story of the Week:

The Festival
Written in 1923 this is considered one of the first mythos stories. It also happens to be one of the first tales to feature Arkham, and the first to expand on the mysterious Cryptonomicon.

Farewell Gif of the Week:
Selfies.

(Brittany: I hope this kept you entertained for the rest of your Friday.)