River Pilots

Steamboat pilots learned from experience, and the nation’s western rivers were strict, fickle teachers. Knowing the channel wasn’t nearly enough. The required learning included the locations of snags, rocks, sandbars, and landmarks, the depth of the water, and the strength of the current. As soon as they learned these vital facts, some changed. From the feel of the boat, the color of the water, and ripples and swirls, they had to deduce new information about what lay ahead. They put this knowledge to use day and night, in all kinds of weather, and in all seasons.

Pilot Edgar Brookhart in the pilothouse of the Queen City, about 1910

Pilothouse of the Great Republic

Bell pulls, speaking tubes, and the giant wheel for steering were critical for navigation and communication inside a pilothouse.

From Scribner’s Monthly, October 1874

A pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth.
—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1883


Pilot Wheel from the Ferryboat Kiwanis, 1923

This wheel is from the Kiwanis, which operated as a ferry across the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. Standing high above the vessel’s deck, the river pilot steered by standing to one side of the wheel or the other.

Gift of Frederick C. Danforth in memory of John Stuart Hacker through the National Museum of Transport


Steam Whistle, 1895

River pilots signaled their actions to others boats and the shore with loud steam whistles. “I grew up partially deaf from being right under the whistle all summer for many years,” wrote Dorothy Heckmann, daughter, granddaughter, and niece of steamboat captains. This whistle served the steamboat John Heckmann in the early 1900s.

Gift of Dorothy Heckmann Shrader


Gift of Ida C. and Ray Allen Engleking

View object record

Torch Basket

Steamboats working at night suspended iron baskets filled with oil-soaked scraps over their sides to illuminate the shore. Torch baskets helped pilots navigate, but they also posed a risk of fire if sparks landed on flammable cargo.

Wooding up at Night

A torch basket is used to illuminate the steamer’s deck for workers loading wood for fuel.

Courtesy of the Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Louisiana at Lafayette