Tag Archives: mark twain

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.


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Mark Twain - Samuel Langhorne Clemens

Two Most Important Days

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Mark Twain


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.

❄️ 💀 ❄️

Research: 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 →

Research: Riverboats and Levees

Riverboats & Levees

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 Congress looking 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.

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.

Lavafield in Iceland

I Have Returned

Hello, all you wonderful folks. I have returned from my brief hiatus in 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 Road was 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.”

Mark Twain

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.

All in all, it’s good to be back.

Mark Twain

Become Great

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

Mark Twain

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.