Old Times on the Upper Mississippi: Recollections of a Steamboat Pilot from 1854-1863

By George Byron Merrick | Go to book overview

Chapter IV
In the Engine-room

Before leaving the main deck, with its savory scents of scorching oil, escaping steam, and soft-coal gas, let me describe some of the sights, sounds, and activities which impressed themselves upon the memory of the young “cub” during his brief career as an embryo engineer.

The engine-room crew of a Mississippi steamer varies as the boat is a side-wheeler or a stern-wheeler. In my day, a sternwheeler carried two engineers, a “first” and a “second”. The former was chosen for his age and experience, to him being confided the responsibility of the boat’s machinery. His knowledge, care, and oversight were depended upon to keep the engines, boilers, etc., in good repair, and in serviceable condition. The second engineer received less wages, and his responsibility ended in standing his watch, handling the engines, and in keeping enough water in the boilers to prevent the flues from burning, as well as to avoid an explosion. If a rival boat happened to be a little ahead or a little behind, or alongside, and the “second” was on watch, the margin of water between safety and danger in the boilers was usually kept nearer the minimum than it would have been were the “chief” in command. It is very much easier to get hot steam with little water than with much; and hot steam is a prime necessity when another boat is in sight, going the same direction as your own.

On the “Fanny Harris”, the pilots always depended upon Billy Hamilton when in a race, as he would put on the “blowers” —the forced draft, as it is called in polite, though less expressive language—and never let the water get above the second gauge, and never below the first, if he could help it. Sometimes it was a matter of doubt where the water really was, the steam coming

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