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

By George Byron Merrick | Go to book overview

Chapter V
The Engineer

It would be impossible to pick out any one man who handled an engine on the river fifty years ago, and in describing his habits and peculiarities claim him as a type of all river engineers of his time. The legendary engineer, such as Colonel Hay has given us, standing at the throttle of his engine on the ill-fated “Prairie Belle”, waiting for signals from the pilot house, his boat a roaring furnace of fire, and whose spirit finally ascended with the smoke of his steamer, was a true type of one class, and possibly a large class, of old-time river engineers. Reckless, profane, combative; yet courageous, proud of their calling, and to be depended upon to do their duty under any and all circumstances; giving, if need be, their lives for the safety of the passengers and crew of the boat—such was one class. Another was composed of men equally courageous, equally to be depended upon in time of danger, but sober, quiet, religious, family men, who never used a profane word, never went on sprees ashore, never supported one wife at home and another at “Natchez under the Hill.”

On the boat upon which I gained the greater part of my river experience, we had the two types: George McDonald, chief, and Billy Hamilton, assistant. Either would have died at his post, the one with a prayer upon his lips, and the other with a jest; both alike alert, cool, efficient. McDonald was a Scotch Presbyterian, and might have been an elder in the church at home—perhaps he was. He was a religious man on board his boat, where religion was at a discount. He was a capable engineer; he could make anything that it was possible to make, on the portable forge in the steamer’s smithy. He was always cool, deliberate, ready, and as chief was the captain’s right-hand man in the engine-room.

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