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.   Normally, boatmen were silently waiting for something to happen, knowing quite well that it certainly would.  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 Duties.

 

Captain.  The captain  was much more than a mere navigator.  He was expected to exude assurance, competence, and charm.  Often he rose 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.    His first consideration was the safety of the passengers and boat.   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.  He was one part businessman, one part navigator, and one part social club director.  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)
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 accordingly the best compensated of the officers.  Reading the water is a gift given but a few men according to  Capt William L Heckman. 

In reading the waters of the Missouri, the waves are highest at the point of deepest water if the wind is upstream; if the wind is downstream the waves are highest where the water is shallowest. When it is raining, all water looks alike. 

The training required years of apprenticeship.  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.  The pilot was the flesh and blood GPS without whom 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.  His word was law before which everyone bowed.  A pilot’s chief indulgence was hero worship.  Their heroes were those of their own profession who had undertaken the most thrilling adventures.

 

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 or invent a couple of new blasphemies for a specific occasion.  His original vocabulary of metaphors and similes was enriched with blue-streaked deliveries from all the ports between Pittsburgh and New Orleans.  The unending stream of profanity was an art with a rhythm laced with insults and directions for the deck hands.

 

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 engineers and firemen or stokers were called “the black gang”.  It was a reference not to race but rather to wood or coal dust that coated their bodies. 

 

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.[1]   Before the Civil War, the deckhands were all white, mostly Irish.  Blacks at that time were property too valuable to risk harm as a roustabout or fireman.

 

 

License Certification.

 

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.

 

 

Prominent Packet Speed Records[2]

Trade Route Date Packet
New Orleans – St Louis 4 Jul 1870 Robert E Lee
 
Cincinnati – New Orleans 5 Feb 1893 Louiseville
New Orleans – Cincinnati 15 Jun 1887 Chas Morgan
 
Cincinnati – Pittsburgh 1 May 1850 Buckeye State
Pittsburgh – Concinnati 5 Mar 1944 JM White I
 
Louisville – Cincinnati 1 Mar 1894 Louiseville
Cincinnati- Louisville 4 Apr 1895 Louiseville
 
St Louis – Ft Benton 26 May 1868 Sallie

 

Buckeye State Postcard (F Nash Collection)

Buckeye State Postcard (F Nash Collection)

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 Statewhen she made her famous run.

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

Superstitions.

 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”.[3]

 

 

Georgetown Steamboat Families.

 

The following list of packet captains and pilots and crew is the combination of two lists compiled by:

    (1)  Dr John C Ewing, the grandson of Capt Thomas Stevenson Calhoon [4] 

    (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

Year of Birth

Year of 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

Calhoon, William
Dawson, Amos

18??

1852

Dawson, George W
Dawson, RD
Ebert, George Washington

1814

1879

Ebert, Theodore

1853

Ebert, Harrison

1818

1898

Kinsey, Harry

1811

1899

Kinsey, Henry

1812

 1889

Kinsey, Jesse

1813

1848

Kinsey, Jonathon QA

1838

 1899
Kinsey,Thomas

1824

 1880
Kinsey, Zebulon

1792

 1852
Laughlin, BM

1827

1908

Laughlin, GeorgeD

1828

1908

Laughlin, RD

1839

1924

McCurdy, John Newton
McMillen, John S                       1817                      1893
Mackall, John  1790  1856
Parr, Andrew Hague

1839

1902

Parr, William J

1826

1898

Parr, Jesse S

1836

1881

Peppard, Standish

1813

1874

Poe, Adam

1816

1895

Poe, Andrew

1809

1887

Poe, George W

1830

1884

Poe, George Washington Ebert

1844

1943

Poe, Jacob

1813

1889

Poe, Thomas

1783

1859

Poe, Thomas Washington 

1819

1881

Potts, Thomas
Stockdale, Jackman Taylor

1828

1887

Trimble, James Hervey

1829

Trimble, Samuel C

1830

1892

Trimble, John A

1833

1912

Wilkins, James
Wood, Jonathan
Clerks

Year of Birth

Year of Death

Calhoon, Thomas Stevenson

1834

1910

Laughlin John E
Parr, Jesse

1836

1939

Parr, John Quincy Adams

1837

1885

Peppard, Richard
Peppard, Standish

1813

1874

Poe, John W

1849

1888

Poe, TC

1861

1950

Trimble , Samuel C

1830

1892

Engineers

Year of Birth

Year of Death

Ewing, George W
Ewing, Jacob
Kinsey, B D
Kinsey, James M

1841

1905

Kinsey, Quigley  1913
Lyons, George D

1865

1942

 Lyons, Samuel Sr  1834  1898
Lyons, Samuel Jr
McCurdy, Newton
McMillen, Steel
Smith, John E
Mates

Year of Birth

Year of Death

Conkle, Ben  1835

1864

Conkle, Sam
Dawson, Benoni
Dawson, Fred
Dawson, Harrison

1846

1914

Heckathorn, Charles
Laughlin, Thomas
Mackall, GW
Mackall, James
Mackall, John D
Thompson, Montgomery
Poe, Andrew
Ship Carpenters

Year of Birth

Year of Death

Lake, Clint  1831

1901

McHaffie, W G
Nash, George

1827

1904

Sutherland, Ayers
Stewards

Year of Birth

Year of Death

Calhoon George W

1847

1914

Calhoon, Thomas K
Conkle, James  1844  1902
Conkle, John
Conkle, Thomas
Ewing, Malin E
Dawson, GW
Kinsey, Hamilton
Laughlin, Charles B

1842

1899

Laughlin, Robert D

1839

1924

Laughlin, TG
Laughlin, TS
McHaffie, Hyram

1839

1914

McHaffie, James C
Parr, Jesse
Porter, JH

 

  

 

References.

 

[1]  John G Lepley, Packets to Paradise Steamboating to Fort Benton, (River & Plains Society, 2001), p 80.

[2]  Phil Cole, Steamboat Echoes, University of Kentucky Press, 1995, p 58.

[3]  Walter Havighurst, Tales of the River, 1964.

[4]  Gladys L Hoover, Georgetown Was Center For Crews, Beaver County Times, 14 Sep 1973.

Copyright © 2013 Francis W Nash All Rights Reserved