Tag Archives: life on the mississippi

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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My Two Projects

So what am I working on? Since starting this blog I’ve been fairly vague. Talking about queries and partials and never anything about what I am actually writing. I feel it’s important to share a little info about my two projects:

Coal Belly

This is the finished manuscript I am currently shopping. (The one with three partials currently out in the ether) It sits at 133k words. Which is kinda in that new-writer danger zone. (Most publishers won’t accept over 120k words for a new writer.) Coal Belly is a speculative title set on the fictional, river covered, world of Vale. It’s probably easier to post my query letter since it’s a good synopsis of what is happening:

Rumors whisper from the corners of the city: the world is breaking. Mountains swallow distant towns. Strange creatures prowl the ridges.

Captain Erasmus Hale can’t be bothered with the rumors. Broke, cheated, and facing repossession of his riverboat, the Transcendent; Hale accepts the offer of a mysterious stranger for a dangerous late-season trip upriver… unaware of the danger he’ll place upon himself, his passengers, his crew, and his boat.

Torrenting is changing the world. Its practitioners bend reality: lighting lamps, heating steam engines, and smelting iron without the need for fuel. And yet student torrenter Lisette Wakefield struggles with even the most basic fundamentals. When an old professor offers to send her north to a distant campus she agrees, and embarking on a journey that will change her life forever.

Beset by enemies on all sides, and with rumors of revolution brewing, the mood among the rivermen in Commonwealth’s Flotilla is tense. Gunny Cooper Rueben is a loyal, yet his ironclad loyalties are shattered. After a drunken mistake, he is betrayed by his country, sold into slavery, and forced to serve as a groom for a brilliant young torrenter.

Coal Belly (133,000 words) is a swashbuckling adventure set during an age of industry that tells the story of a shattering world, and the passengers and crew of an old riverboat steaming headlong toward its breaking. It’s Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself meets Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi: high adventure, a bit of romance, and a little magic.

And… that is why I’m always posting pictures of riverboats. I’ll keep you updated as I keep getting responses from agents.


The Stars Were Right

Stars is my new project while I shop Coal Belly – I’m about a third done with my rough draft. It currently hovers around 36k words and is always growing. It is weird fiction heavily influenced by my appreciation for the works of H.P. Lovecraft and China Miéville and movies from my childhood. With Stars I’m trying to avoid the fantasy tropes while keeping it chock full of the fantastical stuff that makes weird fiction so great: strange races, interesting locals, unique cultures, dusty tomes, gigantic monsters, and death cults. You know, the fun stuff.

It centered around this quote from H.P. Lovecraft’s “Call of Cuthulu:”

When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live.

The plot is told from the perspective of Waldo “Wal” Bell, a caravan master leading caravans between the frontier city of Syringa and the multilevel megalopolis of Lovat. Fresh from a finishing recent cargo delivery for the importer Wilem, Black & Bright, Wal is arrested and accused of murdering two close friends.

All signs seem to point to him, though Wal is adamant he didn’t commit the murders. When the cops refuse to listen Wal makes a daring escape from his holding cell. Running from the law, he seeks to unravel the mystery and find out who is really killing his friends and how it’s all connected to him.

Short description, it’s the Fugitive if it was directed by Guillermo del Toro and art directed by WETA.

So those are my two projects. The things that occupy my free evenings and weekends and keep me up at night. I figured covering them in at least a basic level will help make sense of this whole journey so as you follow this blog. Hopefully this will be of interest and if you are writing something you’ll be able to learn from both my mistakes and my victories as I continue this journey.