On the Water

Steamboat Torch Basket

This long-handled, iron basket, called a torch or fire basket, was used to help 19th century river pilots navigate in shallow waters at night. Filled with burning fuel and suspended off the side of a steamboat, the torch basket illuminated the shoreline, as well as snags or debris in the water that could damage the vessel. Steamboat crew also used torch baskets for lighting up the ship’s deck, the landing, or a levee during deliveries of cargo after dark.

Although the torch basket was invaluable for steamboats operating at night, the device sometimes proved disastrous. Typically the fuel consisted of oil-soaked scraps and "lightwood" or Southern pine covered in resinous sap, which could easily send off sparks. So as not to obstruct the light, these buckets of flames rarely had any sort of protective covering. But because steamboats were often loaded with highly flammable cargoes, such as cotton and lumber, it is not surprising that one stray spark could destroy an entire vessel. That may have been the fate for this torch basket, which was found by a net fisherman near Clinton, Iowa. It was pulled up from 30 feet of water in the Mississippi River.

By the early 20th century, torch baskets were becoming obsolete, replaced by electric lamps and incandescent light bulbs used to illuminate steamboats as well as the landings they served. Although the phasing-out of the torch basket lowered the risk of steamboat fires, some steamboat enthusiasts lamented the lost romance of waterways flickering with flame.

ID Number:
60 x 8 in.; 152.4 x 20.32 cm
Gift of Ida C. and Ray Allen Engleking