Tag Archives: packet

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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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 →

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.