On the Water

Reading the River

River pilots guided steamboats up and down the heartland’s great rivers, a skill still practiced on inland towboats.

In the heyday of the riverboat, pilots were the heroes and celebrities of river commerce. They faced shipboard explosions and fires as well as snags, ice, shifting channels, and all the other obstacles of a changing river. A journey’s success, the ship owners’ fortunes, and the lives of the passengers rested on how well pilots read the river.

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 Sternwheel Ferry Kiwanis, 1923 [1923]
Pilot Wheel from the Sternwheel Ferry Kiwanis, 1923

Pilot Wheel from the Ferryboat Kiwanis, 1923

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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

Steamship John Heckmann’s Steam Whistle [1895]
Steamship John Heckmann’s Steam Whistle

Steam Whistle, 1895

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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

Steamboat Torch Basket [1800s]
Steamboat Torch Basket

Gift of Ida C. and Ray Allen Engleking

Torch Basket

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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

Steering with Sticks, 2008

Modern towboats are steered with “joy-sticks,” not a wheel. The backing rudders are controlled by the upper set of sticks, the steering by the lower set.

Pilot Jack Libbey in the pilothouse of the Mississippi River towboat James Faris, in Dubuque, Iowa.

Courtesy of Jack Libbey

SB [Steering bridge] Keep stern on light and head on tank. When pilot house passes black buoy bring jackstaff around to 3rd pier out from channel span. Hold until red buoy below bridge opens up half-way. Keep jackstaff on red buoy and stern 100 yds over from first Miss stacks. Slow ahead until lined up.
—Capt. Jack Libbey, entry in navigation chart on steering under bridges in shallow waters, December 10, 1975

River Conditions

The great rivers of the West and Midwest remade themselves continuously. Their currents piled up sandbanks, scoured away riverbanks, gathered trees and debris in underwater snags, built ice floes, and even changed course.

Shipbuilders and pilots had to adapt to these changes. Riverboats were designed to ride high in the water so they could slip across shallows. Pilots learned and relearned the river on every trip. Still, hundreds of steamboats wrecked on the rivers in the 1800s, and hundreds of passengers and crew lost their lives.

The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.
—Mark Twain, 1866

City of Cincinnati crushed in ice at Cincinnati, January 1918

A Stranded Steamboat

In March 1910, the Virginia sailed over a flooded cornfield in Willow Grove, West Virginia, and got stuck. When the Ohio River receded a week later, the boat was trapped a half mile from shore. Hauled back to the river and refloated, it served for another 18 years.

Abraham Lincoln Patent Model Replica [1978]
Abraham Lincoln Patent Model Replica

Patent No. 6,469, May 22, 1849

Abraham Lincoln’s Patent Model [replica]

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Shallow water was a chronic problem on western rivers. Lawyer Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, Illinois, thought inflatable rubber-cloth chambers could help boats float over shallow spots. He patented his idea in 1849, submitting a model along with his application. His “adjustable buoyant chambers” proved impractical, but Lincoln became the only president to hold a U.S. patent.

Mississippi Waterway, 1900–2000

Videos produced by the History Channel

Rigged Model, Towboat Jack D. Wofford [1977]
Rigged Model, Towboat Jack D. Wofford

Towboat Jack D. Wofford

Built at Jeffersonville, Indiana, 1966

Gift of Jack D. Wofford

Mississippi River Towboat Jack D. Wofford

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River towboats are small but powerful vessels used to push barges up and down inland waterways. Most towboats push 15 barges at a time, lashed together three wide and five long. Fifteen barges carry as much freight as a three-mile long freight train or a string of tractor-trailers stretching 35 miles.

The Jack D. Wofford was built in 1966 and was still transporting cargo between St. Louis and Minneapolis in 2007. At the boat’s bow are two large steel “knees” that push against and brace the barges. To avoid the Mississippi’s many sandbars, the Wofford has a very shallow hull, rarely reaching depths of more than 9 feet.

Chart Book, Upper Mississippi River [1972]
Chart Book, Upper Mississippi River

Gift of Jack Libbey

One Pilot’s Story

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River pilots are as important as ever. Most of the nation’s bulk cargoes, including grain and coal, travel up and down rivers. Modern towboat pilots are trained, tested, and licensed, but experience on the river is still the best teacher.

In the 1970s, Capt. Jack Libbey used this book of navigation charts of the upper Mississippi River. Virtually every page has Libbey’s markings and notations. He meticulously printed the names of major navigation aids on both sides of the river, as well as reminders of how to steer through tricky situations.