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

By George Byron Merrick | Go to book overview

Chapter XI
Knowing the River

To “know the river” fully, the pilot must not only know everything which may be seen by the eye, but he must also feel for a great deal of information of the first importance which is not revealed to the eye alone. Where the water warrants it, he reaches for this information with a lead line; as on the lower river, where the water is deeper, and the draft of boats correspondingly great. On the upper river, a twelve-foot pole answers instead. The performance is always one of great interest to the passengers; the results are often of greater interest to the man at the wheel. The manner in which the reports of the leadsman are received and digested by the pilot, is not usually known to or comprehended by the uninitiated. The proceeding is picturesque, and adds one more “feature” to the novelties of the trip. It is always watched with the greatest interest by the tourist, and is apparently always enjoyed by them, whatever the effect upon the pilot; whether he enjoys it or not depends on the circumstances.

Soundings are not always necessarily for the immediate and present purpose of working the boat over any particular bar, at the particular time at which they are taken, although they may be taken for that purpose and no other. In general, during the season of low water, the leads are kept going in all difficult places as much for the purpose of comparison as for the immediate purpose of feeling one’s way over the especial reef or bar where the soundings are taken. If it is suspected that a reef is “making down”, the pilot wants to satisfy himself on that point, so that he may readjust his marks to meet the changed outlines. If a reef is “dissolving”, he also wants to know that, and readjust his marks accordingly—only in the first place, his marks will be set lower down the river; in case of a dissolving reef, his marks will be set

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