The “Old Man”
It would be interesting to trace the origin of this term, which is universally applied to the captain in nautical circles, either on shipboard, among deep-sea sailors, on the great lakes, or on the inland waters. He may not be half as old as the speaker; still, in speaking of him, not to him, he is the “old man.” It is used in no disrespectful sense; indeed, it is rather an endearing term. In speaking to him, however, it is always Captain, or Sir. But in detailing what the Captain has said or done the narrator says that the “old man” says so, or is about to do so, and his auditors, if river men, know of but one “old man” aboard the boat, although the steamer may be freighted with octogenarians.
The captain usually reaches the “roof” from one of two directions, either going up from mate, or coming down from the pilot house. Occasionally he emerges from the clerk’s office, or from the engine-room; but the line of promotion is usually drawn from mate or pilot to captain, these being also the normal lines of education for that post. Perhaps the greater number of captains serving on the river in the early days, down to 1860, began their careers on the river as pilots, very often combining the two offices in one person.
The captain’s official requirements are not altogether ornate. It is true that he must have sufficient polish to commend himself to his passengers. That is essential in popularizing his boat; but in addition he must thoroughly know a steamboat, from stem to stern, and know what is essential to its safety, the comfort of his passengers, and the financial satisfaction of its owners. Nearly every old-time captain on the river could, in case of necessity, pilot his boat from St. Paul to Galena. Every captain could, and of necessity did, handle the deck crew, with the second mate as go-