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

By George Byron Merrick | Go to book overview

Chapter XIV
Early Pilots

“How did the first steamboats find their way up the hundreds of miles of water heretofore unbroken by steam-driven wheel?” No voice out of the past will give an answer to this query. The imagination of the trained pilot, however, needs no written page to solve the problem of how it might have been done; and he can picture to himself the satisfaction, akin to joy, of the man at the wheel, picking his way amid the thousand islands and snaginfested channels innumerable, guided only by his power to read the face of the water, and his knowledge of the basic principles that govern the flow of all great rivers. Standing thus at his wheel, with new vistas of stream and wood and bluff opening to him as he rounded each successive bend, choosing on the instant the path as yet uncharted; unhampered by time-honored “landmarks”, with “all the world to choose from”, none might be so envied as he. But we will never know who had this pleasure all his own.

In thus picturing the passage of pioneer steamboats up the Mississippi, there is danger that we may inject into the scene the image of the modern floating palace, with her three decks, her tall chimneys, her massive side-wheels, her “Texas”, and her pilot house, fully equipped with spars, gang planks, jack staff, and all the paraphernalia of the beautiful and speedy “packets” of our day. Upon no such craft, however, did the early navigators pick their way into the solitudes of the upper river. Their boats were little better than the keel boats which they superseded—in fact they were keel boats operated by steam. The cargo-box afforded shelter for passengers, merchandise, and machinery. There was no pilot house in which to stand, fifty feet above the water, from that height to study the river bottom. The steersman stood at

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