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 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
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.