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

By George Byron Merrick | Go to book overview

Chapter Χ
The Pilots and Their Work

We come now to the consideration of that part of river life of which I was an interested observer, rather than an active participant. Had not the great war burst upon the country, and the fever of railroad construction run so high, it is possible that I might have had my name enrolled in the list containing such masters of the profession as William Fisher, John King, Ed. West, Thomas Burns, Thomas Cushing, and a hundred others whose names were synonyms for courage, precision, coolness in danger, exact knowledge, ready resource, and all else necessary in the man who stood at the wheel and safely guided a great steamer through hundreds of miles of unlighted and uncharted river.

Compared with those days, the piloting of to-day, while still a marvel to the uninitiated, is but a primer compared to the knowledge absolutely necessary to carry a steamboat safely through and around the reefs, bars, snags, and sunken wrecks which in the olden time beset the navigator from New Orleans to St. Paul. The pilot of that day was absolutely dependent upon his knowledge of and familiarity with the natural landmarks on either bank of the river, for guidance in working his way through and over the innumerable sand-bars and crossings. No lights on shore guided him by night, and no “diamond boards” gave him assurance by day. No ready search-light revealed the “marks” along the shore. Only a perspective of bluffs, sometimes miles away, showing dimly outlined against a leaden sky, guided the pilot in picking his way over a dangerous crossing, where there was often less than forty feet to spare on either side of the boat’s hull, between safety and destruction.

To “know the river” under those conditions meant to know absolutely the outline of every range of bluffs and hills, as well

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