Tag Archives: riverboat

A Riverboat's Paddlewheel

A Riverboat’s Paddlewheel

Oceangoing ships would opt for screw propulsion earlier than their riverboat counterparts. While constant contact with the water was beneficial in rough ocean conditions, it posed a detriment in early river travel. The wear and tear on screws were harsher in clogged and snag-prone conditions. Major damage could incapacitate a packet boat, and it was much easier for a riverboat’s carpenter to make repairs to a vessel’s above-water paddlewheel rather than a submerged screw prop.

A paddlewheel also allowed riverboats to ride at a shoal draft which permitted navigation among the shallow western tributaries. This helped extend the packet’s reach further inland. While future engineering would deepen and clean rivers, those early benefits allowed paddlewheels to be the dominant propulsion for almost a century.

The sidewheeler Belle of the Bends taking on cargo alongside the sternwheeler Belle of Calhoun
Two Misses in Memphis, 1906—The sidewheeler Belle of the Bends taking on cargo alongside the sternwheeler Belle of Calhoun. (See the full sized image over at Shorpy.)

Packets came in two distinct and common varieties dictated by their paddlewheel placement: the elegant sidewheeler and the labor-ready sternwheeler[1]. Early in their history, it was much easier to balance a pair of wheels at either side of the vessel — at first amid-ship but later moved just one-third forward of the stern. These boats proved superior to the cumbersome keelboats from earlier eras and quickly overtook the river trade. Their enormous paddleboxes or wheelhouses were bold, showy, and elegant. Early on, they proved to have some distinct advantages. Sidewheelers had a more stable foundation. On two-engine boats, one wheel could be reversed which allowed the packet greater maneuverability. As they became more popular, many captains grew to prefer the look, and the paddleboxes provided a foundation for wide traveler promenades.


“The sidewheel river packet is the most beautiful creation of man.”

—Captain Ellias C. Mace[2]


Unlike the sidewheeler, the sternwheeler was not as well-loved. Early sternwheelers were slow, ungainly, and unbalanced. As Hunter says in Steamboats on the Western Rivers: “Compared with the side-wheeler it was a dull, cart-horse sort of boat, useful only for the meaner kinds of work. For speed, pleasing lines, and flashing performance, the sidewheeler stood first from beginning to end; it was the western river steamboat par excellence.”[3]

Detail of the blueprints of the 1912 towboat Captain Stuart.
Detail of the blueprints of the 1912 towboat Captain Stuart. Click here to view the full blueprints.

Par excellence or not, technology and construction methods improved, and the sternwheel’s advantages began to outshine their formerly-favored cousins. The wheel at the aft allowed the hull to serve as a bulwark from logs, ice, and other debris which could jam or damage a wheel. Because of that, those packets didn’t have to stop as readily to avoid accident. As other methods of construction were developed, the sternwheeler’s capacity for hauling cargo was significantly increased. Single aft wheels were lighter and allowed for a wider beam which enabled a more shallow draft. This helped them become masters of the smaller tributaries. By the 1880s it was said that a sternwheeler under the same load as a sidewheel vessel of similar size would draw less than half as much water—an essential aspect of river trade.

My long-standing work in progress, Coal Belly, is a sprawling weird-west fantasy adventure set on a planet which is crisscrossed by interlocking rivers. Along the rivers of Achus, both side and sternwheeled steamboats are ubiquitous. In a world where massive rivers are the dominant source of transportation, trade, and security, I felt it was important for me to understand the advantages and disadvantages of riverboat propulsion. Understanding small details can have vast implications for a story, and while second world fantasy easily allows for historical aberration, it’s always beneficial to ground aspects of worldbuilding in reality.

Below are some photos of riverboat’s wheels, both side and stern, which I’ve gathered during the years of my research for Coal Belly. You can click on any photo to view it larger. I’ve tried to group them together so you can see sidewheels, stern wheels, and some of the odder experimentations.



As will all my riverboat research posts, all the images above were collected over the last six years, so I am unsure where they all come from (usually the Library of Congress or from research at my local libraries.) But, they’re all old enough they should all be in the public domain. If something looks or seems amiss, please let me know and I’ll correct it.

In some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping to keep it all visually consistent. 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.


More Riverboats

A Riverboat’s Paddlewheel is the latest in my series of posts sharing my research for my future novel Coal Belly. You can check out the other riverboat-related posts with the links below.


Footnotes and Citations

1 The key word here is “common.” There were a few outliers, of course. Ferries were often centerwheelers, with the paddlewheel built along the vessels beam and the boat constructed around it. There was also the batwing steamers—small vessels with two tiny side-wheels near the stern.

2 Mace, Ellis Clarence, 1862-. River Steamboats And Steamboat Men: a History With Articles And Pictures From My Scrap Book. Cynthiana, Ky.: The Hobson book press, 1944.

3 Hunter, Louis C, and Beatrice Jones Hunter. Steamboats On the Western Rivers: an Economic And Technological History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949.


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A Riverboat's Passangers

A Riverboat’s Passengers

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the fastest means of travel among the mid-western states was the steamboat. Trips that once took months—especially upriver—were reduced to weeks, and with this increase in speed, the shipment of freight formed a lively trade along the Mississippi and her tributaries.

It’s no wonder that passengers were attracted to steamboat travel. The broad decks were a luxury compared to cramped confines of stagecoaches or the hard life of the trail. To maximize profits riverboats maintained a wide variety of accommodations for all manner of traveler. These were largely separated into two categories, the hardscrabble experience of Deck Passage and the lavish Cabin Fare and the differences between the two were often striking.


Deck Passage

The lower deck—or main deck—was a loud, hot, dirty, and often a dangerous place. Boilers and engines rumbled at all hours. Freight was of prime importance and it was loaded before deck passengers—this included any animals. Fares could run as low as a quarter-center per mile which was appealing to the poor who chose to travel by packet, but while preferable to the road, this sort of passage was not easy.

“Whoever is not obliged to save a few dollars, should avoid this Trojan belly into which the poor are packed like herring, giving up all comfort.”

Samuel Ludvigh, Light And Silhouettes Of Republican States

Those who paid the meager fare for deck passage were largely left to their own devices. While meals could be purchased on some boats often these passengers were responsible for their own food and sleeping arrangements. Much of the time a stove was provided to prepare their own meals and provide warmth—but during the height of travel season with upwards of two-hundred deck passengers onboard, it was often difficult to get a turn.

American Agriculturist — A Night On The River — "Missouri Roustabouts" (Detail) - Click to see full version.
American Agriculturist — A Night On The River — “Missouri Roustabouts” (Detail) – Click to see the full version

Deck passengers were required to stay out of the way of the packet’s rousters and those that got in the way suffered abuse. Some captains allowed male deckers to reduce their fare aiding the crew in “wooding the boat” the act of loading cordwood fuel from woodyards erected alongside the river. If money was tight and one could handle the hard labor this could cut the already reduced fare in half.

Beds were where you found them. There was little space provided for sanitation, often just a bucket to draw river water. Weather could be harsh, and sickness was prevalent; cholera and yellow fever weren’t uncommon. Should the boat meet a disaster, often it was the deckers who suffered the most.


Cabin Fare

For those who could afford it, cabin fare was an extravagance compared to the hardships suffered below. Most boats offered comfortable accommodations while other packets were outfitted as luxurious floating hotels complete with service staff.

Cabin fare tickets provided the passenger with board, a comfortable bed, as well as transportation on the packet’s boiler deck—named so because it sat above the vessel’s boilers. Here, elegant staterooms flanked a central saloon that served as a dining hall and lounge. Toward the stern of the boat was a space reserved for ladies and families with children, while the menfolk tended to congregate near the vessel’s barroom—usually located forward.

“I could not help lolling carelessly upon the railings of the boiler deck to enjoy the envy of the country boys on the bank.”

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 5

When not feasting, drinking, gambling, or conversing cabin passengers could spend time strolling around the riverboat’s covered promenade that encircled the second deck. Here they watched the scenery drift past and enjoyed the fresh air. Like on the oceangoing steamers deck chairs were provided and the passengers could laze about, reading, chatting, or napping while they waited for their next meal.

Up the Hudson—Drawn by A. E. Emslie (Detail) - Click to see full version
Up the Hudson—Drawn by A. E. Emslie (Detail) – Click to see full version

Above the boiler deck was the hurricane deck—named for the constant wind that blew across its open expanse. Most captain’s allowed passengers to ascend and take in the expansive views of the river below and enjoy and enjoy the breeze. It wasn’t uncommon for travelers to pose for photos near the boat’s pilothouse as a souvenir of their travels.

Usually, this sort of journey was only made available to the white passenger, African Americans, Native Americans, and non-white immigrants were generally limited to deck passage. Later in the century, there were instances of first-class accommodations for black passengers. But these were built as an extension of the Texas deck, the uppermost deck constructed atop the hurricane deck, usually restricted to captain and crew. An early predecessor of racist “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws that would plague the South until nearly a century later.


I’ve always been attracted to travel by boat, train, or airship. There’s something about the wide open space and private quarters that makes that type of travel more appealing. The traveler onboard a packet is free to wander and reflect on the passing countryside. The riverboat becomes a small world of its own for a time and its passengers a community—even temporarily. Add in the lives of the crew, the deck passengers, and the wealthy cabin passengers and you have a setting that is ripe for drama. That served as a major driving force for me to write Coal Belly. I liked the idea of a working vessel that was as much someone’s home as it was a means of transportation.

Below are some photos of riverboat passengers I’ve gathered during the years of my research for Coal Belly. You can click on any photo to view it larger. I’ve laid them out in the order of a trip, from passenger’s boarding, snapshots taken while underway, to the passenger’s final departure.


All the images above were collected over the last six years, so I am unsure where they all come from (usually the Library of Congress or from research at my local libraries.) But, they’re all old enough they should all be in the public domain. If something looks or seems amiss, please let me know and I’ll correct it.

In some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping to keep it all visually consistent. 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.

A Riverboat’s Passengers is the latest in my series of posts sharing my research for my future novel Coal Belly. You can check out the other riverboat-related posts with 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 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 →

A Riverboat's Roustabouts

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 →