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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 →

2015 in Ten Awesome Photos

2015 in Ten Awesome Photos

Last year, I published a post summing up my 2014 In Ten Awesome Photos. It was a fun challenge because a lot of stuff happened and it was a good way for me to reflect on the year. Going forward, I want to make this post a regular thing, I like the idea of a yearly recap of the ups and downs of my year condensed into ten pictures.

Going back through these photos has made my 2015 seem so much longer. Since I have made the decision to focus on my writing in my free time, I’ve noticed that time for me has slowed down. It feels like ages since I launched The Stars Were Right, but the reality is that it has only been three years. Losing myself to the creative process has forced me to enjoy the moment so much more, as Ze Frank says in An Invocation for Beginnings, “life isn’t just a sequence of waiting for things to be done.” For me, the journey has become as engaging as the destination.

So let’s take a look at ten stops in my 2015 together…


2015_01Like every year, Kari-Lise, myself, and some friends started the year off with a hike. This photo was taken on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound at a National Historic Reserved named Ebey’s Landing. It’s also a great place to see incredible views of both the Olympic Mountains and Mt. Baker. The first hike of the year has become a right of passage for Kari-Lise and me, and it’s a good way to start the year out right. I wonder where we’ll end up in 2016.

2015_02In February, I put The Stars Were Right on sale for 99¢ and promoted it through BookBub. The result was astounding, I sold hundreds and hundreds of copies, and the book was propelled to the top of the Amazon Bestseller List for a day. I wrote a whole post about it.

The Stars Were Right hanging next to Hugh Howey's Wool

There’s always a bit of nervous excitement when this happens, but overall I was excited to see how many new readers loved the story and continued on to Old Broken Road.


2015_03Kari-Lise and I went down to San Diego for the opening of her show Inflorescence. The show was fantastic, and we were able to spend some time exploring the city and its environs. While there we made the trip out to Joshua Tree National Park. I haven’t visited this stretch of desert in over a decade, and the return was purifying in a way you can only experience in a desert.


2015_04In March, I went to Norwescon 38. It was incredible. I sold out of books. I met a lot of amazing people, and I was threatened by Rorschach! I had so much fun that I’m doing it again in 2016. Norwescon 39 here I come!


2015_05After Norwescon, I hit up CthulhuCon in Portland, Oregon. It was great to gather together with so many fellow mythos fans. There was short films, tons of books, great panels, amazing art, and so much more. The show was a big success, and I was able to not only participate in a reading of The Stars Were Right, but I also sat on the “Creating a Mythos” panel moderated by Ross Lockheart. Like Norwescon, I met some great people along the way, and I’m hoping to return this year.


2015_07In the summer, I was asked to be a best man at the wedding of Steve and Sarah, easily two of the best people I know. The weekend was centered around a group camp and held at Dash Point State Park here in Washington. It was a fun weekend, and that’s coming from a guy who isn’t generally much of a camper. The wedding was incredible, and it was touching to see Steve and Sarah share their love in front of a whole bunch of pretty amazing friends and family. I was so glad I attended and honored to be a small part of it.


Remembering JakeSadly, this summer my friend Jake Rogers lost his battle with cystic fibrosis. Jake was one of the kindest, caring, and supportive people I’ve known. He has been an inspiration to me and many others, and he is and will always be missed. (I didn’t take this photo, but I needed to include Jake in this list.)


2015_08At the end of the summer, Kari-Lise and I went to Iceland. It was a quick trip (only a week) but we saw a lot of the country and we’re plotting a return. Getting out into the world with Kari-Lise has had a fundamental impact on both our lives and my writing. I’m glad that we’re able to do it together. Travel doesn’t have to be expensive, and there are many ways to explore this beautiful world. Do it. You’ll thank me later.


2015_09In September, we traveled to San Francisco for the opening of Kari-Lise’s second solo show of the year, A Lovelorn Theft. The opening was terrific and like her previous show, it did really well. It was great to see so many fans coming out to support her and check out the work in person.


Red Litten WorldIn October, we returned to Lovat when I launched The Bell Forging Cycle, Book III: Red Litten World. It was my largest book launch yet, and the book continues to do well. People seem to really enjoy Waldo Bell’s latest adventure that makes me happy. With its release The Bell Forging Cycle has become a trilogy!  You can buy it right now!


Behold my 2015! There’s a lot in those ten photos, but there is so much I left out: Mariners games, Seahawk games, Kari-Lise’s documentary, book research, I finished another manuscript, I took more pictures of Iceland, I spent more time in the mountains, I went to other conventions, I took pictures of my dogs, I explored my city, and so much more. I gleaned a lot of these images from my Instagram account which I like to keep as a running record of my life (and I’ll occasionally talk about my books.)

As before, why not keep this ten awesome photos thing going? Post ten awesome photos of your own on your blog and leave a link in the comments below so others can see what happened in your year. I’ll even update this post to include links to your ten photos!

2014 In Ten Awesome Photos

2014 In Ten Awesome Photos

So, a friend of mine challenged a few of us to summarize our 2014 in ten photos. At first I figured this would be daunting, since I spend a large majority of my time in my home office hunkered down and writing, however, in looking through my Instagram account it seems like I had a pretty epic year and it ended up being really hard to choose! So follow along with me as I revisit my 2014 in ten awesome photos…


Shipping signed copies of #TheStarsWereRight to the giveaway winners!I started the year off by wrapping up my first giveaway. In the end I had over 1400 people sign up! It was a great feeling and a great way to start the year. (I ended up doing two more over the course of the year, and there’s one going on right now!)

Southern Hemisphere bound.In late winter my wife, Kari-Lise, and I packed up our bags and flew to Melbourne, Australia for a solo-show at Auguste Clown Gallery in Fitzroy. Love that country.

At Kari-Lise's show! Nearly sold out. :D The show sold-out! You can see the full show here. Was awesome to see so many folks come out. We had a blast.

Today is @karlise and my last day in Melbourne. Amazing city. Going to miss this place.Together, this babe and I ended up spending two solid weeks exploring Melbourne. We met and made some great friends and fell in love with the city. We’re planning a return, and have even talked about making it permanent.

#PacificNorthBestAfter we returned the spring became a blur. I was working on the first draft of Red Litten World and starting edits on Old Broken Road, but we still found time to be among the mountains. (This was taken at Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park.)

“Going to the mountains is going home.”

John Muir

Incredible holiday weekend here in the #PacificNorthBest. …it was a trend. (This was taken in the Buckhorn Wilderness.)

Let me tell you about #SpoCon. In August I went to SpoCon, my first convention as an author. Sold a bunch of books, met some incredible people and came home exhausted. It was worth it. I’m planning to heading to more in 2015.

UPS just delivered a Fresh box of Old Broken Road. :D Yay!!Oh yeah! I wrote another book! And you can buy it today!

Today (as a surprise) everyone at work came dressed like me. Black teeshirt, jeans, beanie/ball cap. ☺ Feeling pretty loved. Ain't going to lie. Here's a pretty epic selfie from the gathering.For Halloween, everyone at work dressed up like me! It’s a flattering and surreal experience but it made for a pretty epic selfie.

Last day! Photo 5 of 5 for the #5shotchallenge - Go Hawks!Finally, this November, I went to my first NFL game at CenturyLink Field. (Seahawks vs. Cardinals, the Hawks won.)


So that’s my 2014! I’m excited and looking forward to what the next year holds. Why not keep this ten awesome photos thing going? Post ten awesome photos of your own on your blog and leave a link in the comments so others can see what happened in your year. I’ll even update this post to include links to your ten photos!