Steamer Officer Biographies
Steamboat captains and pilots were seasoned gamblers and practical businessmen. Their skills were pitted against the river’s surprises. High risks and high rewards awaited the rivermen, and peak excitement was never ruled out for the passengers. Old time steamboaters were also superstitious. Old steamboaters believed that birds emboddied the souls of river pilots; for who knew the chutes, shoals, and channels better than a leggy heron? Mark Twain said you should never have a preacher and a white horse on the same boat. You had to throw one or the other overboard, and he preferred riddance of the preacher.
Officers and Their Duties.
Captain. The captain often came through the ranks with a record as a mate, clerk, and pilot. Although the captain was first in command, under some conditions, he was subordinate by law to the pilot. The captain’s attention was directed to the overall management of the boat as a business enterprise. He watched the work of the engineer in the care of the machinery; he checked with his steward in the matter of food, tableware, etc for the operation of a passenger boat; under his eye, the mate directed loading, stowing, unloading of freight; and with the clerk he managed the boat’s accounts. He was the legal authority on the boat after leaving port with dominion over both the passengers and crew. Generally, the captain was an investor or owner of the vessel.
- Capt Thomas S Calhoon (left) aboard the Virginia 1896 (From the Collection of The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County)
Pilot. Pilots were the princes of the river. The most skilled and according the best compensated of the officers. As a cub, the pilot had to learn the name of every town, point, bend, island, sandbar, snag, and wreck on the river. There was no external aid to navigation; it was all in their mind. Without pilots, a tall stack packet could not move. Not all captains were qualified pilots, and not all pilots aspired to be captains. Even when serving a captain who himself was a qualified pilot, the pilot at the wheel reigned supreme during his allotted watch. The actual navigation of the boat was the responsibility of the pilot on duty.
Clerk. The first or chief clerk was a human calculator in charge of the financial management of the steamer. The second clerk, or “Mud Clerk”, in the absence of the chief clerk, issued tickets for passage and staterooms, made himself agreeable to the comforts of the passengers, and received and delivered freight on unpaved levees which were usually muddy. The reputation of the packet depended greatly upon the esteem in which the captain, clerks and pilots were held by the traveling public.
Mate. The mate directed the work of the deck hands often by dominating the men with curses and brute intimidation. It was commonly said that a good mate could curse the black off a crow. His vocabulary was enriched with blue-streaked deliveries from all the ports between Pittsburgh and New Orleans.
Engineer. The engineer was responsible for the operation and safety of the steam engines. His job was as important as any aboard although he worked in grease and sweat and obscurity while the captain played host and the pilot played lord. When the pilot rang the signals, the engineer had to respond, and if the engineer was not top class the pilot’s skills were wasted.
The crew. Steamboat crews on a moderate sized, first class sternwheeler numbered numbered from 75-90 persons. The officers were: one captain, two clerks, two pilots, four engineers, two mates (boatswains), and one steward. The crew included one head cook and two assistants, one hostellier (barkeep), seven cabin boys or 6 chambermaids and one laundress, one porter, one barber, four firemen, one watchman, one lamplighter, one carpenter, one painter, and forty plus deckhands.
The issuance and revocation of captain’s and pilot’s licenses controlled by the Steamboat-Inspection Service was established by the steamboat act of Aug 30, 1852. On Aug 30 1852, licenses were required for all pilots and engineers and the steam vessels were required to post a certificate of inspection valid for 12 months. The 1871 Act added masters and chief mates to the list of steam vessel officer’s licenses. After an amendment in 1891, the licenses were issued for five years and renewal was at any time before expiration.
The purpose of the steamboat act was to reduce the number passenger deaths due to steamboat disasters often caused by boiler explosions. The steamboat act indirectly provided an organized campaign to curb riverboat racing. Boat inspections and the licensing process did improve safety, but the act did not eliminate steamboat racing. Not directly advertised, racing events were well known to the public. Often races were falsely claimed to be the accidental departure of two packets from the same city at the same time with the same destination and no intermediate stops except for wooding (refueling).
Steamboat racing was a popular activity of the day. The term “fighting pilot” was used to describe a pilot who took great pleasure in racing. For a fighting pilot, the balance between speed and safety tilted toward speed. Speed equaled dollars. Fast boats attracted more passengers and better rates for cargo. Americans of the time were obsessed with speed, as they are today. A boat that held the honor of fastest time on any trade route was awarded a mount of gilded antlers which were proudly strung between the high stacks of the boat or mounted in the pilot house. Its officers were rewarded with greater pay even if they moved on to another steamer.
Trade route Date Packet
New Orleans – St Louis 4 Jul 1870 Robert E. Lee
Cincinnati – New Orleans 3 Feb 1893 Louisville
New Orleans – Cincinnati 15 Jun 1887 Chas Morgan
Cincinnati – Pittsburgh 1 May 1850 Buckeye State
Pittsburgh – Cincinnati 6 Mar 1944 JM White I
Louisville – Cincinnati 1 Mar 1894 Louisville
Cincinnati – Louisville 4 Apr 1896 Louisville
St Louis – Ft Benton 26 May 1868 Sallie
20 Jun 1867 Octavia
The Sallie was owned and operated by Thomas S Calhoon of Georgetown, PA and was the firs to arrive at the Ft Benton Levee in 1868. It was unclear whether the Octavia trip in 1867 was timed from St Louis or a port further up the Missouri. Whether the speed record of the Sallie was ever broken is unknown. Capt Standish Peppard was first clerk aboard the Buckeye State when she made her famous run.
All sailors are superstitious, so it stands to reason that steamboat captains, pilots, and crew would also be superstitious. Like hotels and public buildings, there was never a stateroom 13. To use that unlucky number would put a “hoodoo”, the old riverman’s word for a curse, on the boat.
Capt Frederick Way Jr said that there was a hoodoo against naming a boat with the letter “M”. Not only is the letter “M” the thirteenth letter in the alphabet, but according to a Civil War Captain every boat whose name started with “M” burnt, sunk, exploded”. The Maria and the Moselle are good examples of the “M” hoodoo.
Different captains had superstitions about different colors. White cats are trouble. Rats were good luck. Never throw anything off the head of the boat because it is bad luck to pass over your own waste. And never let the calliope play “Home Sweet Home”.
Georgetown Steamboat Families.
The following list of packet captains and pilots and crew is the combination of two lists compiled by:
(2) TS Laughlin (taken from the Beaver County Times dated 14 Sep 1973)
Although there was considerable overlap, the two lists differed. My list was alphabetized for your convenience. Dates of birth and death have been added to identify men with the same name. Honor be to their memories.
Masters and Pilots DoB Death
Calhoon, Richard 1795 1873
Calhoon, John 1809 1846
Calhoon, James Hutchinson 1813 1849
Calhoon, Richard 1814 1895
Calhoon, Millton 1817 1889
Calhoon, George Groshorn 1820 1850
Calhoon, Thomas Dawson 1822 1860
Calhoon, Joseph MC 1823 1855
Calhoon, Thomas Stevenson 1834 1910
Calhoon, Thomas Poe 1843 1883
Dawson, Amos 18?? 1852
Dawson, George W
Ebert, George Washington 1814 1879
Ebert, Harrison 1818 1898
Kinsey, Harry 1811 1899
Kinsey, Henry 1812
Kinsey, Jesse 1813 1848
Kinsey, Jonathon 1822
Kinsey, Thomas 1826
Kinsey, Zebulon 1792
Laughlin, BM 1827
Laughlin, George D 1828
McCurdy, John Newton
McMillen, John S
Parr, Andrew Hague 1839 1902
Parr, William J 1826 1898
Parr, Jesse S 1836 1881
Peppard, Standish 1813 1874
Poe, Andrew 1809 1887
Poe, Jacob 1813 1889
Poe, Adam 1816 1895
Poe, Andrew 1809 1887
Poe, Thomas 1783 1859
Poe, Thomas Washington 1819 1881
Poe, George W 1830 1884
Poe, George Washington Ebert 1844 1943
Stockdale, Jackman Taylor 1828 1887
Trimble, James Hervey 1829
Trimble, Samuel C 1830 1892
Trimble, John A 1833 1912
Calhoon, Thomas Stevenson 1834 1910
Laughlin John E
Parr, Jesse 1836 1939
Parr, John Quincy Adams 1837 1885
Peppard, Standish 1813 1874
Poe, John W 1849 1888
Poe, TC 1861 1950
Trimble , Samuel C 1830 1892
Ewing, George W
Kinsey, B D
Kinsey, James M 1841 1905
Lyons, George D 1865 1942
Lyons, Samuel Sr
Lyons, Samuel Jr
Smith, John E
Mackall, John D
McHaffie, W G
Calhoon George W
Calhoon, Thomas K
Ewing, Malin E
Laughlin, Charles B
Laughlin, Robert D
Mchaffie, James C
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