This quote resurfaced in an article from 2014 that was shared by my friend and fellow author Michael Ripplinger. The article itself, The Crossroads of Should and Must by Elle Luna is an excellent read, and worth spending some time with before the start of a new year—especially if you sit on the cusp of following a dream and you find yourself terrified.
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 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.
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 Mississippidescribing 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’scub 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.”
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.
Pilothouse of an Unknown Steamer
Pilothouse of the Str. Horatio Wright
Captain Mary Greene was captain of Greene Line steamboats, and the only female steamboat captain in Ohio
Hurricane Deck of the Str. Cape Girardeau Bell Pilothouse
A cat sits atop the wheel in the pilothouse of an unknown steamer
Captain Way was the youngest steamboat captain on the Mississippi River
Pilothouse of the Str. Golden Eagle
A pilot salutes in the pilothouse of the Str. Stacker Lee
Capt. Bruce Barnes stands at the wheel in the pilothouse
Fanciful ‘gingerbread’ decorates the pilothouse on the Str. Washington
View from behind the wheel of the Str. General Allen
View of the pilothouse of the Str. General John Newton
Pilothouse of the Str. Eureka, a sidewheel ferry
Pilot Lawrence H. Sanders at the wheel of the U. S. Mississippi River Commission Inspection Boat Mississippi, 1907
Pilot Edgar Brookhart in the pilothouse of the Queen City, 1910
Pilothouse of the Str. Sprague
Pilot Harry English at the wheel in the pilothouse of the Str. Queen City, 1918
Capt. James (Big Jim) Brusbee and Capt. Milt Campbell in the pilothouse of the Str. Cincinnati
A pilot stands at the wheel in the pilothouse of an unknown riverboat
Captain Ben Pattison and Pilot Harry W. Doss stand beside the wheel in the pilothouse of the Str. Island Queen
Pilothouse of the Str. Kate Adams, also know as “The Lovin’ Kate.”
A man sits at the wheel in the pilothouse of the Str. Delta Queen
Another view of the pilothouse of the Str. Sprague
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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It’s no secret how much I love riverboats. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen a few hints at my love. Some of my first posts on this blog were me sharing images steamboats and packets. I find them to be a fascinating piece of history, a mode of transportation that, like airships, have faded away from practical use but still retain a sense of wonder and freedom.
“It is a strange study, — a singular phenomenon, if you please, that the only real, independent and genuine gentlemen in the world go quietly up and down the Mississippi river, asking no homage of any one, seeking no popularity, no notoriety, and not caring a damn whether school keeps or not.”
—Mark Twain, Letter to Will Bowen, August 25, 1866
I like riverboats so much, I’m writing Coal Belly, a western fantasy set in a world covered in twisting rivers. It’s a place where riverboats are ubiquitous and necessary, and I have been having a blast writing it. It’s allowed me to do a ton of fascinating research. Along with extensive reading, I’ve been exploring the vaults of the Library of Congresslooking for images. Within, I have found quite a few old photos, and I figured it’d be fun to share a few with you.
There’s a lot out there, so I am going to pick a theme. Today’s theme focuses on steamboats alongside the levees where cargo and passengers were loaded and unloaded. You can click on any image to view it larger.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Cotton on the levee – New Orleans, Louisiana
Cotton on the levee – Location Unknown
New Orleans, Louisiana
Rousties loading a riverboat
Levee at St. Louis, Missouri
St. Paul, Minnesota
Sugar levee – New Orleans, Louisiana
If everyone enjoys this post, I’ll be sure to share more going forward. All images were acquired from the Library of Congress’s website. 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.
Hello, all you wonderful folks. I have returned from my brief hiatusin the mountains and I am back! Iceland was incredible, do yourself a favor and go. Get there. See the country and get lost on its backroads. It’s wild and raw and pictures don’t even begin to do it justice. (If you’re interested, I’ve been posting photos on Instagram.)
Travel is always a big part of my creative process. Old Broken Roadwas born in Norway. The Stars Were Right was forged while touring some of America’s best National Parks. I cannot encourage creatives enough to get out there. Experiencing a country (even your own), learn about its people, study its history, experience its culture, food, and traditions. You’ll be surprised what will come. One of my favorite quotes about travel is one I posted before, but it’s still apt:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Frankly, a week wasn’t nearly enough time for Iceland. We just got to explore the west side and a bit of the central Highlands, but there is so much more. We’re already planning a return visit. Meanwhile, the show must go on. I have a stack of emails to get through, and a book to launch. Expect some big announcements soon.
Found this quote as encouragement for a friend of mine and I figured I’d share it here with everyone. Stay away from the small people, their opinions are useless to your journey. Twain, as usual, is right. As I wrote to my friend: keep your head down, lock those shoulders forward, press through. You got this.
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 year? Let me know!
Mapping the world of Mark Twain
It’s no secret that Mark Twain is one of my favorite authors. I was excited when this showed up in my RSS feed. When I saw the map, I was blown away.
10 Key Fantasy Literature Terms
Nice write up covering the terms for the various sub-genres of fantasy. Everything from Portal Fantasy, Secondary Worlds, to the New Weird (technically the subgenre The Stars Were Right falls inside). It’s good info and worth checking out.
Joao Ruas’ “Verso”
Thinkspace gallery is featuring the work of one of my favorite artists: Joao Ruas. If you live anywhere near Culver City, California get yourself over to see this stuff. His work is incredible.
I Am Hello Kitty
Very beautiful and fascinating look into the people behind the iconic characters in New York’s Times Square.
Art of the Title: Black Sails
Art of the Title interviews the creators of the Black Sails title sequence. I love it, the music, the motion, basically everything. It’s awesome to know the creators were inspired by Kris Kuksi.
Please Advise Letters of Note shares this quick memo sent in 1969 by record producer Teo Macero to executives at Columbia Records over Miles Davis’ album: Bitches Brew. (In my humble opinion: one of the best jazz albums ever.)
Lovecraft Story of the Week:
A german u-boat and its cruel captain face terrors under the sea.