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Life On The Mississippi, Complete by Mark Twain

Part 2 out of 8

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I presently climbed up on the bench; I did not think it was safe to go
to sleep while this lunatic was on watch.

However, I must have gone to sleep in the course of time, because the
next thing I was aware of was the fact that day was breaking, Mr. W----
gone, and Mr. Bixby at the wheel again. So it was four o'clock and all
well--but me; I felt like a skinful of dry bones and all of them trying
to ache at once.

Mr. Bixby asked me what I had stayed up there for. I confessed that it
was to do Mr. W---- a benevolence,--tell him where he was. It took five
minutes for the entire preposterousness of the thing to filter into Mr.
Bixby's system, and then I judge it filled him nearly up to the chin;
because he paid me a compliment--and not much of a one either. He said,

'Well, taking you by-and-large, you do seem to be more different kinds
of an ass than any creature I ever saw before. What did you suppose he
wanted to know for?'

I said I thought it might be a convenience to him.

'Convenience D-nation! Didn't I tell you that a man's got to know the
river in the night the same as he'd know his own front hall?'

'Well, I can follow the front hall in the dark if I know it IS the front
hall; but suppose you set me down in the middle of it in the dark and
not tell me which hall it is; how am I to know?'

'Well you've GOT to, on the river!'

'All right. Then I'm glad I never said anything to Mr. W---- '

'I should say so. Why, he'd have slammed you through the window and
utterly ruined a hundred dollars' worth of window-sash and stuff.'

I was glad this damage had been saved, for it would have made me
unpopular with the owners. They always hated anybody who had the name
of being careless, and injuring things.

I went to work now to learn the shape of the river; and of all the
eluding and ungraspable objects that ever I tried to get mind or hands
on, that was the chief. I would fasten my eyes upon a sharp, wooded
point that projected far into the river some miles ahead of me, and go
to laboriously photographing its shape upon my brain; and just as I was
beginning to succeed to my satisfaction, we would draw up toward it and
the exasperating thing would begin to melt away and fold back into the
bank! If there had been a conspicuous dead tree standing upon the very
point of the cape, I would find that tree inconspicuously merged into
the general forest, and occupying the middle of a straight shore, when I
got abreast of it! No prominent hill would stick to its shape long
enough for me to make up my mind what its form really was, but it was as
dissolving and changeful as if it had been a mountain of butter in the
hottest corner of the tropics. Nothing ever had the same shape when I
was coming downstream that it had borne when I went up. I mentioned
these little difficulties to Mr. Bixby. He said--

'That's the very main virtue of the thing. If the shapes didn't change
every three seconds they wouldn't be of any use. Take this place where
we are now, for instance. As long as that hill over yonder is only one
hill, I can boom right along the way I'm going; but the moment it splits
at the top and forms a V, I know I've got to scratch to starboard in a
hurry, or I'll bang this boat's brains out against a rock; and then the
moment one of the prongs of the V swings behind the other, I've got to
waltz to larboard again, or I'll have a misunderstanding with a snag
that would snatch the keelson out of this steamboat as neatly as if it
were a sliver in your hand. If that hill didn't change its shape on bad
nights there would be an awful steamboat grave-yard around here inside
of a year.'

It was plain that I had got to learn the shape of the river in all the
different ways that could be thought of,--upside down, wrong end first,
inside out, fore-and-aft, and 'thortships,'--and then know what to do on
gray nights when it hadn't any shape at all. So I set about it. In the
course of time I began to get the best of this knotty lesson, and my
self-complacency moved to the front once more. Mr. Bixby was all fixed,
and ready to start it to the rear again. He opened on me after this

'How much water did we have in the middle crossing at Hole-in-the-Wall,
trip before last?'

I considered this an outrage. I said--

'Every trip, down and up, the leadsmen are singing through that tangled
place for three-quarters of an hour on a stretch. How do you reckon I
can remember such a mess as that?'

'My boy, you've got to remember it. You've got to remember the exact
spot and the exact marks the boat lay in when we had the shoalest water,
in everyone of the five hundred shoal places between St. Louis and New
Orleans; and you mustn't get the shoal soundings and marks of one trip
mixed up with the shoal soundings and marks of another, either, for
they're not often twice alike. You must keep them separate.'

When I came to myself again, I said--

'When I get so that I can do that, I'll be able to raise the dead, and
then I won't have to pilot a steamboat to make a living. I want to
retire from this business. I want a slush-bucket and a brush; I'm only
fit for a roustabout. I haven't got brains enough to be a pilot; and if
I had I wouldn't have strength enough to carry them around, unless I
went on crutches.'

'Now drop that! When I say I'll learn{footnote ['Teach' is not in the
river vocabulary.]} a man the river, I mean it. And you can depend on
it, I'll learn him or kill him.'

Chapter 9 Continued Perplexities

THERE was no use in arguing with a person like this. I promptly put
such a strain on my memory that by and by even the shoal water and the
countless crossing-marks began to stay with me. But the result was just
the same. I never could more than get one knotty thing learned before
another presented itself. Now I had often seen pilots gazing at the
water and pretending to read it as if it were a book; but it was a book
that told me nothing. A time came at last, however, when Mr. Bixby
seemed to think me far enough advanced to bear a lesson on water-
reading. So he began--

'Do you see that long slanting line on the face of the water? Now,
that's a reef. Moreover, it's a bluff reef. There is a solid sand-bar
under it that is nearly as straight up and down as the side of a house.
There is plenty of water close up to it, but mighty little on top of it.
If you were to hit it you would knock the boat's brains out. Do you see
where the line fringes out at the upper end and begins to fade away?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Well, that is a low place; that is the head of the reef. You can climb
over there, and not hurt anything. Cross over, now, and follow along
close under the reef--easy water there--not much current.'

I followed the reef along till I approached the fringed end. Then Mr.
Bixby said--

'Now get ready. Wait till I give the word. She won't want to mount the
reef; a boat hates shoal water. Stand by--wait--WAIT--keep her well in
hand. NOW cramp her down! Snatch her! snatch her!'

He seized the other side of the wheel and helped to spin it around until
it was hard down, and then we held it so. The boat resisted, and refused
to answer for a while, and next she came surging to starboard, mounted
the reef, and sent a long, angry ridge of water foaming away from her

'Now watch her; watch her like a cat, or she'll get away from you. When
she fights strong and the tiller slips a little, in a jerky, greasy sort
of way, let up on her a trifle; it is the way she tells you at night
that the water is too shoal; but keep edging her up, little by little,
toward the point. You are well up on the bar, now; there is a bar under
every point, because the water that comes down around it forms an eddy
and allows the sediment to sink. Do you see those fine lines on the
face of the water that branch out like the ribs of a fan. Well, those
are little reefs; you want to just miss the ends of them, but run them
pretty close. Now look out--look out! Don't you crowd that slick,
greasy-looking place; there ain't nine feet there; she won't stand it.
She begins to smell it; look sharp, I tell you! Oh blazes, there you
go! Stop the starboard wheel! Quick! Ship up to back! Set her back!

The engine bells jingled and the engines answered promptly, shooting
white columns of steam far aloft out of the 'scape pipes, but it was too
late. The boat had 'smelt' the bar in good earnest; the foamy ridges
that radiated from her bows suddenly disappeared, a great dead swell
came rolling forward and swept ahead of her, she careened far over to
larboard, and went tearing away toward the other shore as if she were
about scared to death. We were a good mile from where we ought to have
been, when we finally got the upper hand of her again.

During the afternoon watch the next day, Mr. Bixby asked me if I knew
how to run the next few miles. I said--

'Go inside the first snag above the point, outside the next one, start
out from the lower end of Higgins's wood-yard, make a square crossing

'That's all right. I'll be back before you close up on the next point.'

But he wasn't. He was still below when I rounded it and entered upon a
piece of river which I had some misgivings about. I did not know that
he was hiding behind a chimney to see how I would perform. I went gaily
along, getting prouder and prouder, for he had never left the boat in my
sole charge such a length of time before. I even got to 'setting' her
and letting the wheel go, entirely, while I vaingloriously turned my
back and inspected the stem marks and hummed a tune, a sort of easy
indifference which I had prodigiously admired in Bixby and other great
pilots. Once I inspected rather long, and when I faced to the front
again my heart flew into my mouth so suddenly that if I hadn't clapped
my teeth together I should have lost it. One of those frightful bluff
reefs was stretching its deadly length right across our bows! My head
was gone in a moment; I did not know which end I stood on; I gasped and
could not get my breath; I spun the wheel down with such rapidity that
it wove itself together like a spider's web; the boat answered and
turned square away from the reef, but the reef followed her! I fled, and
still it followed, still it kept--right across my bows! I never looked
to see where I was going, I only fled. The awful crash was imminent--why
didn't that villain come! If I committed the crime of ringing a bell, I
might get thrown overboard. But better that than kill the boat. So in
blind desperation I started such a rattling 'shivaree' down below as
never had astounded an engineer in this world before, I fancy. Amidst
the frenzy of the bells the engines began to back and fill in a furious
way, and my reason forsook its throne--we were about to crash into the
woods on the other side of the river. Just then Mr. Bixby stepped calmly
into view on the hurricane deck. My soul went out to him in gratitude.
My distress vanished; I would have felt safe on the brink of Niagara,
with Mr. Bixby on the hurricane deck. He blandly and sweetly took his
tooth-pick out of his mouth between his fingers, as if it were a cigar--
we were just in the act of climbing an overhanging big tree, and the
passengers were scudding astern like rats--and lifted up these commands
to me ever so gently--

'Stop the starboard. Stop the larboard. Set her back on both.'

The boat hesitated, halted, pressed her nose among the boughs a critical
instant, then reluctantly began to back away.

'Stop the larboard. Come ahead on it. Stop the starboard. Come ahead
on it. Point her for the bar.'

I sailed away as serenely as a summer's morning Mr. Bixby came in and
said, with mock simplicity--

'When you have a hail, my boy, you ought to tap the big bell three times
before you land, so that the engineers can get ready.'

I blushed under the sarcasm, and said I hadn't had any hail.

'Ah! Then it was for wood, I suppose. The officer of the watch will
tell you when he wants to wood up.'

I went on consuming and said I wasn't after wood.

'Indeed? Why, what could you want over here in the bend, then? Did you
ever know of a boat following a bend up-stream at this stage of the

'No sir,--and I wasn't trying to follow it. I was getting away from a
bluff reef.'

'No, it wasn't a bluff reef; there isn't one within three miles of where
you were.'

'But I saw it. It was as bluff as that one yonder.'

'Just about. Run over it!'

'Do you give it as an order?'

'Yes. Run over it.'

'If I don't, I wish I may die.'

'All right; I am taking the responsibility.' I was just as anxious to
kill the boat, now, as I had been to save her before. I impressed my
orders upon my memory, to be used at the inquest, and made a straight
break for the reef. As it disappeared under our bows I held my breath;
but we slid over it like oil.

'Now don't you see the difference? It wasn't anything but a WIND reef.
The wind does that.'

'So I see. But it is exactly like a bluff reef. How am I ever going to
tell them apart?'

'I can't tell you. It is an instinct. By and by you will just
naturally KNOW one from the other, but you never will be able to explain
why or how you know them apart'

It turned out to be true. The face of the water, in time, became a
wonderful book--a book that was a dead language to the uneducated
passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its
most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice.
And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new
story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there
was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could
leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip,
thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There
never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest
was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every
reperusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar
sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did
not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED
passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest
capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it;
for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the
life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest
and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a
pilot's eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw
nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and
shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures
at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know
every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I
knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But
I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be
restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had
gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain
wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A
broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance
the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came
floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay
sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling,
tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy
flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful
circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our
left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this
forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like
silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a
single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor
that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected
images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and
near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every
passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The
world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home.
But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the
glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight
wrought upon the river's face; another day came when I ceased altogether
to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should
have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it,
inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have
wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small
thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef
which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights, if it
keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling 'boils' show a
dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in
the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is
shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest
is the 'break' from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very
best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead
tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then
how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night
without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the
value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it
could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since
those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely
flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a 'break' that ripples
above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick
with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he
ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her
professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to
himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or
lost most by learning his trade?

Chapter 10 Completing My Education

WHOSOEVER has done me the courtesy to read my chapters which have
preceded this may possibly wonder that I deal so minutely with piloting
as a science. It was the prime purpose of those chapters; and I am not
quite done yet. I wish to show, in the most patient and painstaking way,
what a wonderful science it is. Ship channels are buoyed and lighted,
and therefore it is a comparatively easy undertaking to learn to run
them; clear-water rivers, with gravel bottoms, change their channels
very gradually, and therefore one needs to learn them but once; but
piloting becomes another matter when you apply it to vast streams like
the Mississippi and the Missouri, whose alluvial banks cave and change
constantly, whose snags are always hunting up new quarters, whose
sandbars are never at rest, whose channels are for ever dodging and
shirking, and whose obstructions must be confronted in all nights and
all weathers without the aid of a single light-house or a single buoy;
for there is neither light nor buoy to be found anywhere in all this
three or four thousand miles of villainous river.{footnote [True at the
time referred to; not true now (1882).]} I feel justified in enlarging
upon this great science for the reason that I feel sure no one has ever
yet written a paragraph about it who had piloted a steamboat himself,
and so had a practical knowledge of the subject. If the theme were
hackneyed, I should be obliged to deal gently with the reader; but since
it is wholly new, I have felt at liberty to take up a considerable
degree of room with it.

When I had learned the name and position of every visible feature of the
river; when I had so mastered its shape that I could shut my eyes and
trace it from St. Louis to New Orleans; when I had learned to read the
face of the water as one would cull the news from the morning paper; and
finally, when I had trained my dull memory to treasure up an endless
array of soundings and crossing-marks, and keep fast hold of them, I
judged that my education was complete: so I got to tilting my cap to
the side of my head, and wearing a tooth-pick in my mouth at the wheel.
Mr. Bixby had his eye on these airs. One day he said--

'What is the height of that bank yonder, at Burgess's?'

'How can I tell, sir. It is three-quarters of a mile away.'

'Very poor eye--very poor. Take the glass.'

I took the glass, and presently said--'I can't tell. I suppose that that
bank is about a foot and a half high.'

'Foot and a half! That's a six-foot bank. How high was the bank along
here last trip?'

'I don't know; I never noticed.'

'You didn't? Well, you must always do it hereafter.'


'Because you'll have to know a good many things that it tells you. For
one thing, it tells you the stage of the river--tells you whether
there's more water or less in the river along here than there was last

'The leads tell me that.' I rather thought I had the advantage of him

'Yes, but suppose the leads lie? The bank would tell you so, and then
you'd stir those leadsmen up a bit. There was a ten-foot bank here last
trip, and there is only a six-foot bank now. What does that signify?'

'That the river is four feet higher than it was last trip.'

'Very good. Is the river rising or falling?'


'No it ain't.'

'I guess I am right, sir. Yonder is some drift-wood floating down the

'A rise starts the drift-wood, but then it keeps on floating a while
after the river is done rising. Now the bank will tell you about this.
Wait till you come to a place where it shelves a little. Now here; do
you see this narrow belt of fine sediment That was deposited while the
water was higher. You see the driftwood begins to strand, too. The bank
helps in other ways. Do you see that stump on the false point?'

'Ay, ay, sir.'

'Well, the water is just up to the roots of it. You must make a note of


'Because that means that there's seven feet in the chute of 103.'

'But 103 is a long way up the river yet.'

'That's where the benefit of the bank comes in. There is water enough
in 103 NOW, yet there may not be by the time we get there; but the bank
will keep us posted all along. You don't run close chutes on a falling
river, up-stream, and there are precious few of them that you are
allowed to run at all down-stream. There's a law of the United States
against it. The river may be rising by the time we get to 103, and in
that case we'll run it. We are drawing--how much?'

'Six feet aft,--six and a half forward.'

'Well, you do seem to know something.'

'But what I particularly want to know is, if I have got to keep up an
everlasting measuring of the banks of this river, twelve hundred miles,
month in and month out?'

'Of course!'

My emotions were too deep for words for a while. Presently I said--'

And how about these chutes. Are there many of them?'

'I should say so. I fancy we shan't run any of the river this trip as
you've ever seen it run before--so to speak. If the river begins to
rise again, we'll go up behind bars that you've always seen standing out
of the river, high and dry like the roof of a house; we'll cut across
low places that you've never noticed at all, right through the middle of
bars that cover three hundred acres of river; we'll creep through cracks
where you've always thought was solid land; we'll dart through the woods
and leave twenty-five miles of river off to one side; we'll see the
hind-side of every island between New Orleans and Cairo.'

'Then I've got to go to work and learn just as much more river as I
already know.'

'Just about twice as much more, as near as you can come at it.'

'Well, one lives to find out. I think I was a fool when I went into
this business.'

'Yes, that is true. And you are yet. But you'll not be when you've
learned it.'

'Ah, I never can learn it.'

'I will see that you DO.'

By and by I ventured again--

'Have I got to learn all this thing just as I know the rest of the
river--shapes and all--and so I can run it at night?'

'Yes. And you've got to have good fair marks from one end of the river
to the other, that will help the bank tell you when there is water
enough in each of these countless places--like that stump, you know.
When the river first begins to rise, you can run half a dozen of the
deepest of them; when it rises a foot more you can run another dozen;
the next foot will add a couple of dozen, and so on: so you see you have
to know your banks and marks to a dead moral certainty, and never get
them mixed; for when you start through one of those cracks, there's no
backing out again, as there is in the big river; you've got to go
through, or stay there six months if you get caught on a falling river.
There are about fifty of these cracks which you can't run at all except
when the river is brim full and over the banks.'

'This new lesson is a cheerful prospect.'

'Cheerful enough. And mind what I've just told you; when you start into
one of those places you've got to go through. They are too narrow to
turn around in, too crooked to back out of, and the shoal water is
always up at the head; never elsewhere. And the head of them is always
likely to be filling up, little by little, so that the marks you reckon
their depth by, this season, may not answer for next.'

'Learn a new set, then, every year?'

'Exactly. Cramp her up to the bar! What are you standing up through
the middle of the river for?'

The next few months showed me strange things. On the same day that we
held the conversation above narrated, we met a great rise coming down
the river. The whole vast face of the stream was black with drifting
dead logs, broken boughs, and great trees that had caved in and been
washed away. It required the nicest steering to pick one's way through
this rushing raft, even in the day-time, when crossing from point to
point; and at night the difficulty was mightily increased; every now and
then a huge log, lying deep in the water, would suddenly appear right
under our bows, coming head-on; no use to try to avoid it then; we could
only stop the engines, and one wheel would walk over that log from one
end to the other, keeping up a thundering racket and careening the boat
in a way that was very uncomfortable to passengers. Now and then we
would hit one of these sunken logs a rattling bang, dead in the center,
with a full head of steam, and it would stun the boat as if she had hit
a continent. Sometimes this log would lodge, and stay right across our
nose, and back the Mississippi up before it; we would have to do a
little craw-fishing, then, to get away from the obstruction. We often
hit WHITE logs, in the dark, for we could not see them till we were
right on them; but a black log is a pretty distinct object at night. A
white snag is an ugly customer when the daylight is gone.

Of course, on the great rise, down came a swarm of prodigious timber-
rafts from the head waters of the Mississippi, coal barges from
Pittsburgh, little trading scows from everywhere, and broad-horns from
'Posey County,' Indiana, freighted with 'fruit and furniture'--the usual
term for describing it, though in plain English the freight thus
aggrandized was hoop-poles and pumpkins. Pilots bore a mortal hatred to
these craft; and it was returned with usury. The law required all such
helpless traders to keep a light burning, but it was a law that was
often broken. All of a sudden, on a murky night, a light would hop up,
right under our bows, almost, and an agonized voice, with the backwoods
'whang' to it, would wail out--

'Whar'n the ---- you goin' to! Cain't you see nothin', you dash-dashed
aig-suckin', sheep-stealin', one-eyed son of a stuffed monkey!'

Then for an instant, as we whistled by, the red glare from our furnaces
would reveal the scow and the form of the gesticulating orator as if
under a lightning-flash, and in that instant our firemen and deck-hands
would send and receive a tempest of missiles and profanity, one of our
wheels would walk off with the crashing fragments of a steering-oar, and
down the dead blackness would shut again. And that flatboatman would be
sure to go into New Orleans and sue our boat, swearing stoutly that he
had a light burning all the time, when in truth his gang had the lantern
down below to sing and lie and drink and gamble by, and no watch on
deck. Once, at night, in one of those forest-bordered crevices (behind
an island) which steamboatmen intensely describe with the phrase 'as
dark as the inside of a cow,' we should have eaten up a Posey County
family, fruit, furniture, and all, but that they happened to be fiddling
down below, and we just caught the sound of the music in time to sheer
off, doing no serious damage, unfortunately, but coming so near it that
we had good hopes for a moment. These people brought up their lantern,
then, of course; and as we backed and filled to get away, the precious
family stood in the light of it--both sexes and various ages--and cursed
us till everything turned blue. Once a coalboatman sent a bullet through
our pilot-house, when we borrowed a steering oar of him in a very narrow

Chapter 11 The River Rises

DURING this big rise these small-fry craft were an intolerable nuisance.
We were running chute after chute,--a new world to me,--and if there was
a particularly cramped place in a chute, we would be pretty sure to meet
a broad-horn there; and if he failed to be there, we would find him in a
still worse locality, namely, the head of the chute, on the shoal water.
And then there would be no end of profane cordialities exchanged.

Sometimes, in the big river, when we would be feeling our way cautiously
along through a fog, the deep hush would suddenly be broken by yells and
a clamor of tin pans, and all in instant a log raft would appear vaguely
through the webby veil, close upon us; and then we did not wait to swap
knives, but snatched our engine bells out by the roots and piled on all
the steam we had, to scramble out of the way! One doesn't hit a rock or
a solid log craft with a steamboat when he can get excused.

You will hardly believe it, but many steamboat clerks always carried a
large assortment of religious tracts with them in those old departed
steamboating days. Indeed they did. Twenty times a day we would be
cramping up around a bar, while a string of these small-fry rascals were
drifting down into the head of the bend away above and beyond us a
couple of miles. Now a skiff would dart away from one of them, and come
fighting its laborious way across the desert of water. It would 'ease
all,' in the shadow of our forecastle, and the panting oarsmen would
shout, 'Gimme a pa-a-per!' as the skiff drifted swiftly astern. The
clerk would throw over a file of New Orleans journals. If these were
picked up without comment, you might notice that now a dozen other
skiffs had been drifting down upon us without saying anything. You
understand, they had been waiting to see how No. 1 was going to fare.
No. 1 making no comment, all the rest would bend to their oars and come
on, now; and as fast as they came the clerk would heave over neat
bundles of religious tracts, tied to shingles. The amount of hard
swearing which twelve packages of religious literature will command when
impartially divided up among twelve raftsmen's crews, who have pulled a
heavy skiff two miles on a hot day to get them, is simply incredible.

As I have said, the big rise brought a new world under my vision. By the
time the river was over its banks we had forsaken our old paths and were
hourly climbing over bars that had stood ten feet out of water before;
we were shaving stumpy shores, like that at the foot of Madrid Bend,
which I had always seen avoided before; we were clattering through
chutes like that of 82, where the opening at the foot was an unbroken
wall of timber till our nose was almost at the very spot. Some of these
chutes were utter solitudes. The dense, untouched forest overhung both
banks of the crooked little crack, and one could believe that human
creatures had never intruded there before. The swinging grape-vines, the
grassy nooks and vistas glimpsed as we swept by, the flowering creepers
waving their red blossoms from the tops of dead trunks, and all the
spendthrift richness of the forest foliage, were wasted and thrown away
there. The chutes were lovely places to steer in; they were deep,
except at the head; the current was gentle; under the 'points' the water
was absolutely dead, and the invisible banks so bluff that where the
tender willow thickets projected you could bury your boat's broadside in
them as you tore along, and then you seemed fairly to fly.

Behind other islands we found wretched little farms, and wretcheder
little log-cabins; there were crazy rail fences sticking a foot or two
above the water, with one or two jeans-clad, chills-racked, yellow-faced
male miserables roosting on the top-rail, elbows on knees, jaws in
hands, grinding tobacco and discharging the result at floating chips
through crevices left by lost teeth; while the rest of the family and
the few farm-animals were huddled together in an empty wood-flat riding
at her moorings close at hand. In this flat-boat the family would have
to cook and eat and sleep for a lesser or greater number of days (or
possibly weeks), until the river should fall two or three feet and let
them get back to their log-cabin and their chills again--chills being a
merciful provision of an all-wise Providence to enable them to take
exercise without exertion. And this sort of watery camping out was a
thing which these people were rather liable to be treated to a couple of
times a year: by the December rise out of the Ohio, and the June rise
out of the Mississippi. And yet these were kindly dispensations, for
they at least enabled the poor things to rise from the dead now and
then, and look upon life when a steamboat went by. They appreciated the
blessing, too, for they spread their mouths and eyes wide open and made
the most of these occasions. Now what COULD these banished creatures
find to do to keep from dying of the blues during the low-water season!

Once, in one of these lovely island chutes, we found our course
completely bridged by a great fallen tree. This will serve to show how
narrow some of the chutes were. The passengers had an hour's recreation
in a virgin wilderness, while the boat-hands chopped the bridge away;
for there was no such thing as turning back, you comprehend.

From Cairo to Baton Rouge, when the river is over its banks, you have no
particular trouble in the night, for the thousand-mile wall of dense
forest that guards the two banks all the way is only gapped with a farm
or wood-yard opening at intervals, and so you can't 'get out of the
river' much easier than you could get out of a fenced lane; but from
Baton Rouge to New Orleans it is a different matter. The river is more
than a mile wide, and very deep--as much as two hundred feet, in places.
Both banks, for a good deal over a hundred miles, are shorn of their
timber and bordered by continuous sugar plantations, with only here and
there a scattering sapling or row of ornamental China-trees. The timber
is shorn off clear to the rear of the plantations, from two to four
miles. When the first frost threatens to come, the planters snatch off
their crops in a hurry. When they have finished grinding the cane, they
form the refuse of the stalks (which they call BAGASSE) into great piles
and set fire to them, though in other sugar countries the bagasse is
used for fuel in the furnaces of the sugar mills. Now the piles of damp
bagasse burn slowly, and smoke like Satan's own kitchen.

An embankment ten or fifteen feet high guards both banks of the
Mississippi all the way down that lower end of the river, and this
embankment is set back from the edge of the shore from ten to perhaps a
hundred feet, according to circumstances; say thirty or forty feet, as a
general thing. Fill that whole region with an impenetrable gloom of
smoke from a hundred miles of burning bagasse piles, when the river is
over the banks, and turn a steamboat loose along there at midnight and
see how she will feel. And see how you will feel, too! You find
yourself away out in the midst of a vague dim sea that is shoreless,
that fades out and loses itself in the murky distances; for you cannot
discern the thin rib of embankment, and you are always imagining you see
a straggling tree when you don't. The plantations themselves are
transformed by the smoke, and look like a part of the sea. All through
your watch you are tortured with the exquisite misery of uncertainty.
You hope you are keeping in the river, but you do not know. All that you
are sure about is that you are likely to be within six feet of the bank
and destruction, when you think you are a good half-mile from shore. And
you are sure, also, that if you chance suddenly to fetch up against the
embankment and topple your chimneys overboard, you will have the small
comfort of knowing that it is about what you were expecting to do. One
of the great Vicksburg packets darted out into a sugar plantation one
night, at such a time, and had to stay there a week. But there was no
novelty about it; it had often been done before.

I thought I had finished this chapter, but I wish to add a curious
thing, while it is in my mind. It is only relevant in that it is
connected with piloting. There used to be an excellent pilot on the
river, a Mr. X., who was a somnambulist. It was said that if his mind
was troubled about a bad piece of river, he was pretty sure to get up
and walk in his sleep and do strange things. He was once fellow-pilot
for a trip or two with George Ealer, on a great New Orleans passenger
packet. During a considerable part of the first trip George was uneasy,
but got over it by and by, as X. seemed content to stay in his bed when
asleep. Late one night the boat was approaching Helena, Arkansas; the
water was low, and the crossing above the town in a very blind and
tangled condition. X. had seen the crossing since Ealer had, and as the
night was particularly drizzly, sullen, and dark, Ealer was considering
whether he had not better have X. called to assist in running the place,
when the door opened and X. walked in. Now on very dark nights, light is
a deadly enemy to piloting; you are aware that if you stand in a lighted
room, on such a night, you cannot see things in the street to any
purpose; but if you put out the lights and stand in the gloom you can
make out objects in the street pretty well. So, on very dark nights,
pilots do not smoke; they allow no fire in the pilot-house stove if
there is a crack which can allow the least ray to escape; they order the
furnaces to be curtained with huge tarpaulins and the sky-lights to be
closely blinded. Then no light whatever issues from the boat. The
undefinable shape that now entered the pilot-house had Mr. X.'s voice.
This said--

'Let me take her, George; I've seen this place since you have, and it is
so crooked that I reckon I can run it myself easier than I could tell
you how to do it.'

'It is kind of you, and I swear _I_ am willing. I haven't got another
drop of perspiration left in me. I have been spinning around and around
the wheel like a squirrel. It is so dark I can't tell which way she is
swinging till she is coming around like a whirligig.'

So Ealer took a seat on the bench, panting and breathless. The black
phantom assumed the wheel without saying anything, steadied the waltzing
steamer with a turn or two, and then stood at ease, coaxing her a little
to this side and then to that, as gently and as sweetly as if the time
had been noonday. When Ealer observed this marvel of steering, he wished
he had not confessed! He stared, and wondered, and finally said--

'Well, I thought I knew how to steer a steamboat, but that was another
mistake of mine.'

X. said nothing, but went serenely on with his work. He rang for the
leads; he rang to slow down the steam; he worked the boat carefully and
neatly into invisible marks, then stood at the center of the wheel and
peered blandly out into the blackness, fore and aft, to verify his
position; as the leads shoaled more and more, he stopped the engines
entirely, and the dead silence and suspense of 'drifting' followed when
the shoalest water was struck, he cracked on the steam, carried her
handsomely over, and then began to work her warily into the next system
of shoal marks; the same patient, heedful use of leads and engines
followed, the boat slipped through without touching bottom, and entered
upon the third and last intricacy of the crossing; imperceptibly she
moved through the gloom, crept by inches into her marks, drifted
tediously till the shoalest water was cried, and then, under a
tremendous head of steam, went swinging over the reef and away into deep
water and safety!

Ealer let his long-pent breath pour out in a great, relieving sigh, and

'That's the sweetest piece of piloting that was ever done on the
Mississippi River! I wouldn't believed it could be done, if I hadn't
seen it.'

There was no reply, and he added--

'Just hold her five minutes longer, partner, and let me run down and get
a cup of coffee.'

A minute later Ealer was biting into a pie, down in the 'texas,' and
comforting himself with coffee. Just then the night watchman happened
in, and was about to happen out again, when he noticed Ealer and

'Who is at the wheel, sir?'


'Dart for the pilot-house, quicker than lightning!'

The next moment both men were flying up the pilot-house companion way,
three steps at a jump! Nobody there! The great steamer was whistling
down the middle of the river at her own sweet will! The watchman shot
out of the place again; Ealer seized the wheel, set an engine back with
power, and held his breath while the boat reluctantly swung away from a
'towhead' which she was about to knock into the middle of the Gulf of

By and by the watchman came back and said--

'Didn't that lunatic tell you he was asleep, when he first came up


'Well, he was. I found him walking along on top of the railings just as
unconcerned as another man would walk a pavement; and I put him to bed;
now just this minute there he was again, away astern, going through that
sort of tight-rope deviltry the same as before.'

'Well, I think I'll stay by, next time he has one of those fits. But I
hope he'll have them often. You just ought to have seen him take this
boat through Helena crossing. I never saw anything so gaudy before. And
if he can do such gold-leaf, kid-glove, diamond-breastpin piloting when
he is sound asleep, what COULDN'T he do if he was dead!'

Chapter 12 Sounding

WHEN the river is very low, and one's steamboat is 'drawing all the
water' there is in the channel,--or a few inches more, as was often the
case in the old times,--one must be painfully circumspect in his
piloting. We used to have to 'sound' a number of particularly bad places
almost every trip when the river was at a very low stage.

Sounding is done in this way. The boat ties up at the shore, just above
the shoal crossing; the pilot not on watch takes his 'cub' or steersman
and a picked crew of men (sometimes an officer also), and goes out in
the yawl--provided the boat has not that rare and sumptuous luxury, a
regularly-devised 'sounding-boat'--and proceeds to hunt for the best
water, the pilot on duty watching his movements through a spy-glass,
meantime, and in some instances assisting by signals of the boat's
whistle, signifying 'try higher up' or 'try lower down;' for the surface
of the water, like an oil-painting, is more expressive and intelligible
when inspected from a little distance than very close at hand. The
whistle signals are seldom necessary, however; never, perhaps, except
when the wind confuses the significant ripples upon the water's surface.
When the yawl has reached the shoal place, the speed is slackened, the
pilot begins to sound the depth with a pole ten or twelve feet long, and
the steersman at the tiller obeys the order to 'hold her up to
starboard;' or, 'let her fall off to larboard;'{footnote [The term
'larboard' is never used at sea now, to signify the left hand; but was
always used on the river in my time]} or 'steady--steady as you go.'

When the measurements indicate that the yawl is approaching the shoalest
part of the reef, the command is given to 'ease all!' Then the men stop
rowing and the yawl drifts with the current. The next order is, 'Stand
by with the buoy!' The moment the shallowest point is reached, the
pilot delivers the order, 'Let go the buoy!' and over she goes. If the
pilot is not satisfied, he sounds the place again; if he finds better
water higher up or lower down, he removes the buoy to that place. Being
finally satisfied, he gives the order, and all the men stand their oars
straight up in the air, in line; a blast from the boat's whistle
indicates that the signal has been seen; then the men 'give way' on
their oars and lay the yawl alongside the buoy; the steamer comes
creeping carefully down, is pointed straight at the buoy, husbands her
power for the coming struggle, and presently, at the critical moment,
turns on all her steam and goes grinding and wallowing over the buoy and
the sand, and gains the deep water beyond. Or maybe she doesn't; maybe
she 'strikes and swings.' Then she has to while away several hours (or
days) sparring herself off.

Sometimes a buoy is not laid at all, but the yawl goes ahead, hunting
the best water, and the steamer follows along in its wake. Often there
is a deal of fun and excitement about sounding, especially if it is a
glorious summer day, or a blustering night. But in winter the cold and
the peril take most of the fun out of it.

A buoy is nothing but a board four or five feet long, with one end
turned up; it is a reversed school-house bench, with one of the supports
left and the other removed. It is anchored on the shoalest part of the
reef by a rope with a heavy stone made fast to the end of it. But for
the resistance of the turned-up end of the reversed bench, the current
would pull the buoy under water. At night, a paper lantern with a
candle in it is fastened on top of the buoy, and this can be seen a mile
or more, a little glimmering spark in the waste of blackness.

Nothing delights a cub so much as an opportunity to go out sounding.
There is such an air of adventure about it; often there is danger; it is
so gaudy and man-of-war-like to sit up in the stern-sheets and steer a
swift yawl; there is something fine about the exultant spring of the
boat when an experienced old sailor crew throw their souls into the
oars; it is lovely to see the white foam stream away from the bows;
there is music in the rush of the water; it is deliciously exhilarating,
in summer, to go speeding over the breezy expanses of the river when the
world of wavelets is dancing in the sun. It is such grandeur, too, to
the cub, to get a chance to give an order; for often the pilot will
simply say, 'Let her go about!' and leave the rest to the cub, who
instantly cries, in his sternest tone of command, 'Ease starboard!
Strong on the larboard! Starboard give way! With a will, men!' The cub
enjoys sounding for the further reason that the eyes of the passengers
are watching all the yawl's movements with absorbing interest if the
time be daylight; and if it be night he knows that those same wondering
eyes are fastened upon the yawl's lantern as it glides out into the
gloom and dims away in the remote distance.

One trip a pretty girl of sixteen spent her time in our pilot-house with
her uncle and aunt, every day and all day long. I fell in love with
her. So did Mr. Thornburg's cub, Tom G----. Tom and I had been bosom
friends until this time; but now a coolness began to arise. I told the
girl a good many of my river adventures, and made myself out a good deal
of a hero; Tom tried to make himself appear to be a hero, too, and
succeeded to some extent, but then he always had a way of embroidering.
However, virtue is its own reward, so I was a barely perceptible trifle
ahead in the contest. About this time something happened which promised
handsomely for me: the pilots decided to sound the crossing at the head
of 21. This would occur about nine or ten o'clock at night, when the
passengers would be still up; it would be Mr. Thornburg's watch,
therefore my chief would have to do the sounding. We had a perfect love
of a sounding-boat--long, trim, graceful, and as fleet as a greyhound;
her thwarts were cushioned; she carried twelve oarsmen; one of the mates
was always sent in her to transmit orders to her crew, for ours was a
steamer where no end of 'style' was put on.

We tied up at the shore above 21, and got ready. It was a foul night,
and the river was so wide, there, that a landsman's uneducated eyes
could discern no opposite shore through such a gloom. The passengers
were alert and interested; everything was satisfactory. As I hurried
through the engine-room, picturesquely gotten up in storm toggery, I met
Tom, and could not forbear delivering myself of a mean speech--

'Ain't you glad YOU don't have to go out sounding?'

Tom was passing on, but he quickly turned, and said--

'Now just for that, you can go and get the sounding-pole yourself. I was
going after it, but I'd see you in Halifax, now, before I'd do it.'

'Who wants you to get it? I don't. It's in the sounding-boat.'

'It ain't, either. It's been new-painted; and it's been up on the
ladies' cabin guards two days, drying.'

I flew back, and shortly arrived among the crowd of watching and
wondering ladies just in time to hear the command:

'Give way, men!'

I looked over, and there was the gallant sounding-boat booming away, the
unprincipled Tom presiding at the tiller, and my chief sitting by him
with the sounding-pole which I had been sent on a fool's errand to
fetch. Then that young girl said to me--

'Oh, how awful to have to go out in that little boat on such a night! Do
you think there is any danger?'

I would rather have been stabbed. I went off, full of venom, to help in
the pilot-house. By and by the boat's lantern disappeared, and after an
interval a wee spark glimmered upon the face of the water a mile away.
Mr. Thornburg blew the whistle, in acknowledgment, backed the steamer
out, and made for it. We flew along for a while, then slackened steam
and went cautiously gliding toward the spark. Presently Mr. Thornburg

'Hello, the buoy-lantern's out!'

He stopped the engines. A moment or two later he said--

'Why, there it is again!'

So he came ahead on the engines once more, and rang for the leads.
Gradually the water shoaled up, and then began to deepen again! Mr.
Thornburg muttered--

'Well, I don't understand this. I believe that buoy has drifted off the
reef. Seems to be a little too far to the left. No matter, it is safest
to run over it anyhow.'

So, in that solid world of darkness we went creeping down on the light.
Just as our bows were in the act of plowing over it, Mr. Thornburg
seized the bell-ropes, rang a startling peal, and exclaimed--

'My soul, it's the sounding-boat!'

A sudden chorus of wild alarms burst out far below--a pause--and then
the sound of grinding and crashing followed. Mr. Thornburg exclaimed--

'There! the paddle-wheel has ground the sounding-boat to lucifer
matches! Run! See who is killed!'

I was on the main deck in the twinkling of an eye. My chief and the
third mate and nearly all the men were safe. They had discovered their
danger when it was too late to pull out of the way; then, when the great
guards overshadowed them a moment later, they were prepared and knew
what to do; at my chiefs order they sprang at the right instant, seized
the guard, and were hauled aboard. The next moment the sounding-yawl
swept aft to the wheel and was struck and splintered to atoms. Two of
the men and the cub Tom, were missing--a fact which spread like wildfire
over the boat. The passengers came flocking to the forward gangway,
ladies and all, anxious-eyed, white-faced, and talked in awed voices of
the dreadful thing. And often and again I heard them say, 'Poor fellows!
poor boy, poor boy!'

By this time the boat's yawl was manned and away, to search for the
missing. Now a faint call was heard, off to the left. The yawl had
disappeared in the other direction. Half the people rushed to one side
to encourage the swimmer with their shouts; the other half rushed the
other way to shriek to the yawl to turn about. By the callings, the
swimmer was approaching, but some said the sound showed failing
strength. The crowd massed themselves against the boiler-deck railings,
leaning over and staring into the gloom; and every faint and fainter cry
wrung from them such words as, 'Ah, poor fellow, poor fellow! is there
no way to save him?'

But still the cries held out, and drew nearer, and presently the voice
said pluckily--

'I can make it! Stand by with a rope!'

What a rousing cheer they gave him! The chief mate took his stand in
the glare of a torch-basket, a coil of rope in his hand, and his men
grouped about him. The next moment the swimmer's face appeared in the
circle of light, and in another one the owner of it was hauled aboard,
limp and drenched, while cheer on cheer went up. It was that devil Tom.

The yawl crew searched everywhere, but found no sign of the two men.
They probably failed to catch the guard, tumbled back, and were struck
by the wheel and killed. Tom had never jumped for the guard at all, but
had plunged head-first into the river and dived under the wheel. It was
nothing; I could have done it easy enough, and I said so; but everybody
went on just the same, making a wonderful to do over that ass, as if he
had done something great. That girl couldn't seem to have enough of
that pitiful 'hero' the rest of the trip; but little I cared; I loathed
her, any way.

The way we came to mistake the sounding-boat's lantern for the buoy-
light was this. My chief said that after laying the buoy he fell away
and watched it till it seemed to be secure; then he took up a position a
hundred yards below it and a little to one side of the steamer's course,
headed the sounding-boat up-stream, and waited. Having to wait some
time, he and the officer got to talking; he looked up when he judged
that the steamer was about on the reef; saw that the buoy was gone, but
supposed that the steamer had already run over it; he went on with his
talk; he noticed that the steamer was getting very close on him, but
that was the correct thing; it was her business to shave him closely,
for convenience in taking him aboard; he was expecting her to sheer off,
until the last moment; then it flashed upon him that she was trying to
run him down, mistaking his lantern for the buoy-light; so he sang out,
'Stand by to spring for the guard, men!' and the next instant the jump
was made.

Chapter 13 A Pilot's Needs

BUT I am wandering from what I was intending to do, that is, make
plainer than perhaps appears in the previous chapters, some of the
peculiar requirements of the science of piloting. First of all, there is
one faculty which a pilot must incessantly cultivate until he has
brought it to absolute perfection. Nothing short of perfection will do.
That faculty is memory. He cannot stop with merely thinking a thing is
so and so; he must know it; for this is eminently one of the 'exact'
sciences. With what scorn a pilot was looked upon, in the old times, if
he ever ventured to deal in that feeble phrase 'I think,' instead of the
vigorous one 'I know!' One cannot easily realize what a tremendous
thing it is to know every trivial detail of twelve hundred miles of
river and know it with absolute exactness. If you will take the longest
street in New York, and travel up and down it, conning its features
patiently until you know every house and window and door and lamp-post
and big and little sign by heart, and know them so accurately that you
can instantly name the one you are abreast of when you are set down at
random in that street in the middle of an inky black night, you will
then have a tolerable notion of the amount and the exactness of a
pilot's knowledge who carries the Mississippi River in his head. And
then if you will go on until you know every street crossing, the
character, size, and position of the crossing-stones, and the varying
depth of mud in each of those numberless places, you will have some idea
of what the pilot must know in order to keep a Mississippi steamer out
of trouble. Next, if you will take half of the signs in that long
street, and CHANGE THEIR PLACES once a month, and still manage to know
their new positions accurately on dark nights, and keep up with these
repeated changes without making any mistakes, you will understand what
is required of a pilot's peerless memory by the fickle Mississippi.

I think a pilot's memory is about the most wonderful thing in the world.
To know the Old and New Testaments by heart, and be able to recite them
glibly, forward or backward, or begin at random anywhere in the book and
recite both ways and never trip or make a mistake, is no extravagant
mass of knowledge, and no marvelous facility, compared to a pilot's
massed knowledge of the Mississippi and his marvelous facility in the
handling of it. I make this comparison deliberately, and believe I am
not expanding the truth when I do it. Many will think my figure too
strong, but pilots will not.

And how easily and comfortably the pilot's memory does its work; how
placidly effortless is its way; how UNCONSCIOUSLY it lays up its vast
stores, hour by hour, day by day, and never loses or mislays a single
valuable package of them all! Take an instance. Let a leadsman cry,
'Half twain! half twain! half twain! half twain! half twain!' until it
become as monotonous as the ticking of a clock; let conversation be
going on all the time, and the pilot be doing his share of the talking,
and no longer consciously listening to the leadsman; and in the midst of
this endless string of half twains let a single 'quarter twain!' be
interjected, without emphasis, and then the half twain cry go on again,
just as before: two or three weeks later that pilot can describe with
precision the boat's position in the river when that quarter twain was
uttered, and give you such a lot of head-marks, stern-marks, and side-
marks to guide you, that you ought to be able to take the boat there and
put her in that same spot again yourself! The cry of 'quarter twain' did
not really take his mind from his talk, but his trained faculties
instantly photographed the bearings, noted the change of depth, and laid
up the important details for future reference without requiring any
assistance from him in the matter. If you were walking and talking with
a friend, and another friend at your side kept up a monotonous
repetition of the vowel sound A, for a couple of blocks, and then in the
midst interjected an R, thus, A, A, A, A, A, R, A, A, A, etc., and gave
the R no emphasis, you would not be able to state, two or three weeks
afterward, that the R had been put in, nor be able to tell what objects
you were passing at the moment it was done. But you could if your
memory had been patiently and laboriously trained to do that sort of
thing mechanically.

Give a man a tolerably fair memory to start with, and piloting will
develop it into a very colossus of capability. But ONLY IN THE MATTERS
IT IS DAILY DRILLED IN. A time would come when the man's faculties could
not help noticing landmarks and soundings, and his memory could not help
holding on to them with the grip of a vise; but if you asked that same
man at noon what he had had for breakfast, it would be ten chances to
one that he could not tell you. Astonishing things can be done with the
human memory if you will devote it faithfully to one particular line of

At the time that wages soared so high on the Missouri River, my chief,
Mr. Bixby, went up there and learned more than a thousand miles of that
stream with an ease and rapidity that were astonishing. When he had seen
each division once in the daytime and once at night, his education was
so nearly complete that he took out a 'daylight' license; a few trips
later he took out a full license, and went to piloting day and night--
and he ranked A 1, too.

Mr. Bixby placed me as steersman for a while under a pilot whose feats
of memory were a constant marvel to me. However, his memory was born in
him, I think, not built. For instance, somebody would mention a name.
Instantly Mr. Brown would break in--

'Oh, I knew HIM. Sallow-faced, red-headed fellow, with a little scar on
the side of his throat, like a splinter under the flesh. He was only in
the Southern trade six months. That was thirteen years ago. I made a
trip with him. There was five feet in the upper river then; the "Henry
Blake" grounded at the foot of Tower Island drawing four and a half; the
"George Elliott" unshipped her rudder on the wreck of the "Sunflower"--'

'Why, the "Sunflower" didn't sink until--'

'I know when she sunk; it was three years before that, on the 2nd of
December; Asa Hardy was captain of her, and his brother John was first
clerk; and it was his first trip in her, too; Tom Jones told me these
things a week afterward in New Orleans; he was first mate of the
"Sunflower." Captain Hardy stuck a nail in his foot the 6th of July of
the next year, and died of the lockjaw on the 15th. His brother died
two years after 3rd of March,--erysipelas. I never saw either of the
Hardys,--they were Alleghany River men,--but people who knew them told
me all these things. And they said Captain Hardy wore yarn socks winter
and summer just the same, and his first wife's name was Jane Shook--she
was from New England--and his second one died in a lunatic asylum. It
was in the blood. She was from Lexington, Kentucky. Name was Horton
before she was married.'

And so on, by the hour, the man's tongue would go. He could NOT forget
any thing. It was simply impossible. The most trivial details remained
as distinct and luminous in his head, after they had lain there for
years, as the most memorable events. His was not simply a pilot's
memory; its grasp was universal. If he were talking about a trifling
letter he had received seven years before, he was pretty sure to deliver
you the entire screed from memory. And then without observing that he
was departing from the true line of his talk, he was more than likely to
hurl in a long-drawn parenthetical biography of the writer of that
letter; and you were lucky indeed if he did not take up that writer's
relatives, one by one, and give you their biographies, too.

Such a memory as that is a great misfortune. To it, all occurrences are
of the same size. Its possessor cannot distinguish an interesting
circumstance from an uninteresting one. As a talker, he is bound to
clog his narrative with tiresome details and make himself an
insufferable bore. Moreover, he cannot stick to his subject. He picks
up every little grain of memory he discerns in his way, and so is led
aside. Mr. Brown would start out with the honest intention of telling
you a vastly funny anecdote about a dog. He would be 'so full of laugh'
that he could hardly begin; then his memory would start with the dog's
breed and personal appearance; drift into a history of his owner; of his
owner's family, with descriptions of weddings and burials that had
occurred in it, together with recitals of congratulatory verses and
obituary poetry provoked by the same: then this memory would recollect
that one of these events occurred during the celebrated 'hard winter' of
such and such a year, and a minute description of that winter would
follow, along with the names of people who were frozen to death, and
statistics showing the high figures which pork and hay went up to. Pork
and hay would suggest corn and fodder; corn and fodder would suggest
cows and horses; cows and horses would suggest the circus and certain
celebrated bare-back riders; the transition from the circus to the
menagerie was easy and natural; from the elephant to equatorial Africa
was but a step; then of course the heathen savages would suggest
religion; and at the end of three or four hours' tedious jaw, the watch
would change, and Brown would go out of the pilot-house muttering
extracts from sermons he had heard years before about the efficacy of
prayer as a means of grace. And the original first mention would be all
you had learned about that dog, after all this waiting and hungering.

A pilot must have a memory; but there are two higher qualities which he
must also have. He must have good and quick judgment and decision, and
a cool, calm courage that no peril can shake. Give a man the merest
trifle of pluck to start with, and by the time he has become a pilot he
cannot be unmanned by any danger a steamboat can get into; but one
cannot quite say the same for judgment. Judgment is a matter of brains,
and a man must START with a good stock of that article or he will never
succeed as a pilot.

The growth of courage in the pilot-house is steady all the time, but it
does not reach a high and satisfactory condition until some time after
the young pilot has been 'standing his own watch,' alone and under the
staggering weight of all the responsibilities connected with the
position. When an apprentice has become pretty thoroughly acquainted
with the river, he goes clattering along so fearlessly with his
steamboat, night or day, that he presently begins to imagine that it is
HIS courage that animates him; but the first time the pilot steps out
and leaves him to his own devices he finds out it was the other man's.
He discovers that the article has been left out of his own cargo
altogether. The whole river is bristling with exigencies in a moment; he
is not prepared for them; he does not know how to meet them; all his
knowledge forsakes him; and within fifteen minutes he is as white as a
sheet and scared almost to death. Therefore pilots wisely train these
cubs by various strategic tricks to look danger in the face a little
more calmly. A favorite way of theirs is to play a friendly swindle upon
the candidate.

Mr. Bixby served me in this fashion once, and for years afterward I used
to blush even in my sleep when I thought of it. I had become a good
steersman; so good, indeed, that I had all the work to do on our watch,
night and day; Mr. Bixby seldom made a suggestion to me; all he ever did
was to take the wheel on particularly bad nights or in particularly bad
crossings, land the boat when she needed to be landed, play gentleman of
leisure nine-tenths of the watch, and collect the wages. The lower river
was about bank-full, and if anybody had questioned my ability to run any
crossing between Cairo and New Orleans without help or instruction, I
should have felt irreparably hurt. The idea of being afraid of any
crossing in the lot, in the DAY-TIME, was a thing too preposterous for
contemplation. Well, one matchless summer's day I was bowling down the
bend above island 66, brimful of self-conceit and carrying my nose as
high as a giraffe's, when Mr. Bixby said--

'I am going below a while. I suppose you know the next crossing?'

This was almost an affront. It was about the plainest and simplest
crossing in the whole river. One couldn't come to any harm, whether he
ran it right or not; and as for depth, there never had been any bottom
there. I knew all this, perfectly well.

'Know how to RUN it? Why, I can run it with my eyes shut.'

'How much water is there in it?'

'Well, that is an odd question. I couldn't get bottom there with a
church steeple.'

'You think so, do you?'

The very tone of the question shook my confidence. That was what Mr.
Bixby was expecting. He left, without saying anything more. I began to
imagine all sorts of things. Mr. Bixby, unknown to me, of course, sent
somebody down to the forecastle with some mysterious instructions to the
leadsmen, another messenger was sent to whisper among the officers, and
then Mr. Bixby went into hiding behind a smoke-stack where he could
observe results. Presently the captain stepped out on the hurricane
deck; next the chief mate appeared; then a clerk. Every moment or two a
straggler was added to my audience; and before I got to the head of the
island I had fifteen or twenty people assembled down there under my
nose. I began to wonder what the trouble was. As I started across, the
captain glanced aloft at me and said, with a sham uneasiness in his

'Where is Mr. Bixby?'

'Gone below, sir.'

But that did the business for me. My imagination began to construct
dangers out of nothing, and they multiplied faster than I could keep the
run of them. All at once I imagined I saw shoal water ahead! The wave
of coward agony that surged through me then came near dislocating every
joint in me. All my confidence in that crossing vanished. I seized the
bell-rope; dropped it, ashamed; seized it again; dropped it once more;
clutched it tremblingly one again, and pulled it so feebly that I could
hardly hear the stroke myself. Captain and mate sang out instantly, and
both together--

'Starboard lead there! and quick about it!'

This was another shock. I began to climb the wheel like a squirrel; but
I would hardly get the boat started to port before I would see new
dangers on that side, and away I would spin to the other; only to find
perils accumulating to starboard, and be crazy to get to port again.
Then came the leadsman's sepulchral cry--

'D-e-e-p four!'

Deep four in a bottomless crossing! The terror of it took my breath

'M-a-r-k three!... M-a-r-k three... Quarter less three!... Half twain!'

This was frightful! I seized the bell-ropes and stopped the engines.

'Quarter twain! Quarter twain! MARK twain!'

I was helpless. I did not know what in the world to do. I was quaking
from head to foot, and I could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck
out so far.

'Quarter LESS twain! Nine and a HALF!'

We were DRAWING nine! My hands were in a nerveless flutter. I could not
ring a bell intelligibly with them. I flew to the speaking-tube and
shouted to the engineer--

'Oh, Ben, if you love me, BACK her! Quick, Ben! Oh, back the immortal
SOUL out of her!'

I heard the door close gently. I looked around, and there stood Mr.
Bixby, smiling a bland, sweet smile. Then the audience on the hurricane
deck sent up a thundergust of humiliating laughter. I saw it all, now,
and I felt meaner than the meanest man in human history. I laid in the
lead, set the boat in her marks, came ahead on the engines, and said--

'It was a fine trick to play on an orphan, WASN'T it? I suppose I'll
never hear the last of how I was ass enough to heave the lead at the
head of 66.'

'Well, no, you won't, maybe. In fact I hope you won't; for I want you
to learn something by that experience. Didn't you KNOW there was no
bottom in that crossing?'

'Yes, sir, I did.'

'Very well, then. You shouldn't have allowed me or anybody else to
shake your confidence in that knowledge. Try to remember that. And
another thing: when you get into a dangerous place, don't turn coward.
That isn't going to help matters any.'

It was a good enough lesson, but pretty hardly learned. Yet about the
hardest part of it was that for months I so often had to hear a phrase
which I had conceived a particular distaste for. It was, 'Oh, Ben, if
you love me, back her!'

Chapter 14 Rank and Dignity of Piloting

IN my preceding chapters I have tried, by going into the minutiae of the
science of piloting, to carry the reader step by step to a comprehension
of what the science consists of; and at the same time I have tried to
show him that it is a very curious and wonderful science, too, and very
worthy of his attention. If I have seemed to love my subject, it is no
surprising thing, for I loved the profession far better than any I have
followed since, and I took a measureless pride in it. The reason is
plain: a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely
independent human being that lived in the earth. Kings are but the
hampered servants of parliament and people; parliaments sit in chains
forged by their constituency; the editor of a newspaper cannot be
independent, but must work with one hand tied behind him by party and
patrons, and be content to utter only half or two-thirds of his mind; no
clergyman is a free man and may speak the whole truth, regardless of his
parish's opinions; writers of all kinds are manacled servants of the
public. We write frankly and fearlessly, but then we 'modify' before we
print. In truth, every man and woman and child has a master, and
worries and frets in servitude; but in the day I write of, the
Mississippi pilot had none. The captain could stand upon the hurricane
deck, in the pomp of a very brief authority, and give him five or six
orders while the vessel backed into the stream, and then that skipper's
reign was over. The moment that the boat was under way in the river,
she was under the sole and unquestioned control of the pilot. He could
do with her exactly as he pleased, run her when and whither he chose,
and tie her up to the bank whenever his judgment said that that course
was best. His movements were entirely free; he consulted no one, he
received commands from nobody, he promptly resented even the merest
suggestions. Indeed, the law of the United States forbade him to listen
to commands or suggestions, rightly considering that the pilot
necessarily knew better how to handle the boat than anybody could tell
him. So here was the novelty of a king without a keeper, an absolute
monarch who was absolute in sober truth and not by a fiction of words. I
have seen a boy of eighteen taking a great steamer serenely into what
seemed almost certain destruction, and the aged captain standing mutely
by, filled with apprehension but powerless to interfere. His
interference, in that particular instance, might have been an excellent
thing, but to permit it would have been to establish a most pernicious
precedent. It will easily be guessed, considering the pilot's boundless
authority, that he was a great personage in the old steamboating days.
He was treated with marked courtesy by the captain and with marked
deference by all the officers and servants; and this deferential spirit
was quickly communicated to the passengers, too. I think pilots were
about the only people I ever knew who failed to show, in some degree,
embarrassment in the presence of traveling foreign princes. But then,
people in one's own grade of life are not usually embarrassing objects.

By long habit, pilots came to put all their wishes in the form of
commands. It 'gravels' me, to this day, to put my will in the weak shape
of a request, instead of launching it in the crisp language of an order.
In those old days, to load a steamboat at St. Louis, take her to New
Orleans and back, and discharge cargo, consumed about twenty-five days,
on an average. Seven or eight of these days the boat spent at the
wharves of St. Louis and New Orleans, and every soul on board was hard
at work, except the two pilots; they did nothing but play gentleman up
town, and receive the same wages for it as if they had been on duty. The
moment the boat touched the wharf at either city, they were ashore; and
they were not likely to be seen again till the last bell was ringing and
everything in readiness for another voyage.

When a captain got hold of a pilot of particularly high reputation, he
took pains to keep him. When wages were four hundred dollars a month on
the Upper Mississippi, I have known a captain to keep such a pilot in
idleness, under full pay, three months at a time, while the river was
frozen up. And one must remember that in those cheap times four hundred
dollars was a salary of almost inconceivable splendor. Few men on shore
got such pay as that, and when they did they were mightily looked up to.
When pilots from either end of the river wandered into our small
Missouri village, they were sought by the best and the fairest, and
treated with exalted respect. Lying in port under wages was a thing
which many pilots greatly enjoyed and appreciated; especially if they
belonged in the Missouri River in the heyday of that trade (Kansas
times), and got nine hundred dollars a trip, which was equivalent to
about eighteen hundred dollars a month. Here is a conversation of that
day. A chap out of the Illinois River, with a little stern-wheel tub,
accosts a couple of ornate and gilded Missouri River pilots--

'Gentlemen, I've got a pretty good trip for the upcountry, and shall
want you about a month. How much will it be?'

'Eighteen hundred dollars apiece.'

'Heavens and earth! You take my boat, let me have your wages, and I'll

I will remark, in passing, that Mississippi steamboatmen were important
in landsmen's eyes (and in their own, too, in a degree) according to the
dignity of the boat they were on. For instance, it was a proud thing to
be of the crew of such stately craft as the 'Aleck Scott' or the 'Grand
Turk.' Negro firemen, deck hands, and barbers belonging to those boats
were distinguished personages in their grade of life, and they were well
aware of that fact too. A stalwart darkey once gave offense at a negro
ball in New Orleans by putting on a good many airs. Finally one of the
managers bustled up to him and said--

'Who IS you, any way? Who is you? dat's what I wants to know!'

The offender was not disconcerted in the least, but swelled himself up
and threw that into his voice which showed that he knew he was not
putting on all those airs on a stinted capital.

'Who IS I? Who IS I? I let you know mighty quick who I is! I want you
niggers to understan' dat I fires de middle do'{footnote [Door]} on de
"Aleck Scott!"'

That was sufficient.

The barber of the 'Grand Turk' was a spruce young negro, who aired his
importance with balmy complacency, and was greatly courted by the circle
in which he moved. The young colored population of New Orleans were much
given to flirting, at twilight, on the banquettes of the back streets.
Somebody saw and heard something like the following, one evening, in one
of those localities. A middle-aged negro woman projected her head
through a broken pane and shouted (very willing that the neighbors
should hear and envy), 'You Mary Ann, come in de house dis minute!
Stannin' out dah foolin' 'long wid dat low trash, an' heah's de barber
offn de "Gran' Turk" wants to conwerse wid you!'

My reference, a moment ago, to the fact that a pilot's peculiar official
position placed him out of the reach of criticism or command, brings
Stephen W---- naturally to my mind. He was a gifted pilot, a good
fellow, a tireless talker, and had both wit and humor in him. He had a
most irreverent independence, too, and was deliciously easy-going and
comfortable in the presence of age, official dignity, and even the most
august wealth. He always had work, he never saved a penny, he was a
most persuasive borrower, he was in debt to every pilot on the river,
and to the majority of the captains. He could throw a sort of splendor
around a bit of harum-scarum, devil-may-care piloting, that made it
almost fascinating--but not to everybody. He made a trip with good old
Captain Y----once, and was 'relieved' from duty when the boat got to New
Orleans. Somebody expressed surprise at the discharge. Captain Y----
shuddered at the mere mention of Stephen. Then his poor, thin old voice
piped out something like this:--

'Why, bless me! I wouldn't have such a wild creature on my boat for the
world--not for the whole world! He swears, he sings, he whistles, he
yells--I never saw such an Injun to yell. All times of the night--it
never made any difference to him. He would just yell that way, not for
anything in particular, but merely on account of a kind of devilish
comfort he got out of it. I never could get into a sound sleep but he
would fetch me out of bed, all in a cold sweat, with one of those
dreadful war-whoops. A queer being--very queer being; no respect for
anything or anybody. Sometimes he called me "Johnny." And he kept a
fiddle, and a cat. He played execrably. This seemed to distress the
cat, and so the cat would howl. Nobody could sleep where that man--and
his family--was. And reckless. There never was anything like it. Now
you may believe it or not, but as sure as I am sitting here, he brought
my boat a-tilting down through those awful snags at Chicot under a
rattling head of steam, and the wind a-blowing like the very nation, at
that! My officers will tell you so. They saw it. And, sir, while he
was a-tearing right down through those snags, and I a-shaking in my
shoes and praying, I wish I may never speak again if he didn't pucker up
his mouth and go to WHISTLING! Yes, sir; whistling "Buffalo gals, can't
you come out tonight, can't you come out to-night, can't you come out
to-night;" and doing it as calmly as if we were attending a funeral and
weren't related to the corpse. And when I remonstrated with him about
it, he smiled down on me as if I was his child, and told me to run in
the house and try to be good, and not be meddling with my superiors!'

Once a pretty mean captain caught Stephen in New Orleans out of work and
as usual out of money. He laid steady siege to Stephen, who was in a
very 'close place,' and finally persuaded him to hire with him at one
hundred and twenty-five dollars per month, just half wages, the captain
agreeing not to divulge the secret and so bring down the contempt of all
the guild upon the poor fellow. But the boat was not more than a day
out of New Orleans before Stephen discovered that the captain was
boasting of his exploit, and that all the officers had been told.
Stephen winced, but said nothing. About the middle of the afternoon the
captain stepped out on the hurricane deck, cast his eye around, and
looked a good deal surprised. He glanced inquiringly aloft at Stephen,
but Stephen was whistling placidly, and attending to business. The
captain stood around a while in evident discomfort, and once or twice
seemed about to make a suggestion; but the etiquette of the river taught
him to avoid that sort of rashness, and so he managed to hold his peace.
He chafed and puzzled a few minutes longer, then retired to his
apartments. But soon he was out again, and apparently more perplexed
than ever. Presently he ventured to remark, with deference--

'Pretty good stage of the river now, ain't it, sir?'

'Well, I should say so! Bank-full IS a pretty liberal stage.'

'Seems to be a good deal of current here.'

'Good deal don't describe it! It's worse than a mill-race.'

'Isn't it easier in toward shore than it is out here in the middle?'

'Yes, I reckon it is; but a body can't be too careful with a steamboat.
It's pretty safe out here; can't strike any bottom here, you can depend
on that.'

The captain departed, looking rueful enough. At this rate, he would
probably die of old age before his boat got to St. Louis. Next day he
appeared on deck and again found Stephen faithfully standing up the
middle of the river, fighting the whole vast force of the Mississippi,
and whistling the same placid tune. This thing was becoming serious. In
by the shore was a slower boat clipping along in the easy water and
gaining steadily; she began to make for an island chute; Stephen stuck
to the middle of the river. Speech was WRUNG from the captain.
He said--

'Mr. W----, don't that chute cut off a good deal of distance?'

'I think it does, but I don't know.'

'Don't know! Well, isn't there water enough in it now to go through?'

'I expect there is, but I am not certain.'

'Upon my word this is odd! Why, those pilots on that boat yonder are
going to try it. Do you mean to say that you don't know as much as they

'THEY! Why, THEY are two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar pilots! But don't you
be uneasy; I know as much as any man can afford to know for a hundred
and twenty-five!'

The captain surrendered.

Five minutes later Stephen was bowling through the chute and showing the
rival boat a two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar pair of heels.

Chapter 15 The Pilots' Monopoly

ONE day, on board the 'Aleck Scott,' my chief, Mr. Bixby, was crawling
carefully through a close place at Cat Island, both leads going, and
everybody holding his breath. The captain, a nervous, apprehensive man,
kept still as long as he could, but finally broke down and shouted from
the hurricane deck--

'For gracious' sake, give her steam, Mr. Bixby! give her steam! She'll
never raise the reef on this headway!'

For all the effect that was produced upon Mr. Bixby, one would have
supposed that no remark had been made. But five minutes later, when the
danger was past and the leads laid in, he burst instantly into a
consuming fury, and gave the captain the most admirable cursing I ever
listened to. No bloodshed ensued; but that was because the captain's
cause was weak; for ordinarily he was not a man to take correction

Having now set forth in detail the nature of the science of piloting,
and likewise described the rank which the pilot held among the
fraternity of steamboatmen, this seems a fitting place to say a few
words about an organization which the pilots once formed for the
protection of their guild. It was curious and noteworthy in this, that
it was perhaps the compactest, the completest, and the strongest
commercial organization ever formed among men.

For a long time wages had been two hundred and fifty dollars a month;
but curiously enough, as steamboats multiplied and business increased,
the wages began to fall little by little. It was easy to discover the
reason of this. Too many pilots were being 'made.' It was nice to have
a 'cub,' a steersman, to do all the hard work for a couple of years,
gratis, while his master sat on a high bench and smoked; all pilots and
captains had sons or nephews who wanted to be pilots. By and by it came
to pass that nearly every pilot on the river had a steersman. When a
steersman had made an amount of progress that was satisfactory to any
two pilots in the trade, they could get a pilot's license for him by
signing an application directed to the United States Inspector. Nothing
further was needed; usually no questions were asked, no proofs of
capacity required.

Very well, this growing swarm of new pilots presently began to undermine
the wages, in order to get berths. Too late--apparently--the knights of
the tiller perceived their mistake. Plainly, something had to be done,
and quickly; but what was to be the needful thing. A close
organization. Nothing else would answer. To compass this seemed an
impossibility; so it was talked, and talked, and then dropped. It was
too likely to ruin whoever ventured to move in the matter. But at last
about a dozen of the boldest--and some of them the best--pilots on the
river launched themselves into the enterprise and took all the chances.
They got a special charter from the legislature, with large powers,
under the name of the Pilots' Benevolent Association; elected their
officers, completed their organization, contributed capital, put
'association' wages up to two hundred and fifty dollars at once--and
then retired to their homes, for they were promptly discharged from
employment. But there were two or three unnoticed trifles in their by-
laws which had the seeds of propagation in them. For instance, all idle
members of the association, in good standing, were entitled to a pension
of twenty-five dollars per month. This began to bring in one straggler
after another from the ranks of the new-fledged pilots, in the dull
(summer) season. Better have twenty-five dollars than starve; the
initiation fee was only twelve dollars, and no dues required from the

Also, the widows of deceased members in good standing could draw twenty-
five dollars per month, and a certain sum for each of their children.
Also, the said deceased would be buried at the association's expense.
These things resurrected all the superannuated and forgotten pilots in
the Mississippi Valley. They came from farms, they came from interior
villages, they came from everywhere. They came on crutches, on drays,
in ambulances,--any way, so they got there. They paid in their twelve
dollars, and straightway began to draw out twenty-five dollars a month,
and calculate their burial bills.

By and by, all the useless, helpless pilots, and a dozen first-class
ones, were in the association, and nine-tenths of the best pilots out of
it and laughing at it. It was the laughing-stock of the whole river.
Everybody joked about the by-law requiring members to pay ten per cent.
of their wages, every month, into the treasury for the support of the
association, whereas all the members were outcast and tabooed, and no
one would employ them. Everybody was derisively grateful to the
association for taking all the worthless pilots out of the way and
leaving the whole field to the excellent and the deserving; and
everybody was not only jocularly grateful for that, but for a result
which naturally followed, namely, the gradual advance of wages as the
busy season approached. Wages had gone up from the low figure of one
hundred dollars a month to one hundred and twenty-five, and in some
cases to one hundred and fifty; and it was great fun to enlarge upon the
fact that this charming thing had been accomplished by a body of men not
one of whom received a particle of benefit from it. Some of the jokers
used to call at the association rooms and have a good time chaffing the
members and offering them the charity of taking them as steersmen for a
trip, so that they could see what the forgotten river looked like.
However, the association was content; or at least it gave no sign to the
contrary. Now and then it captured a pilot who was 'out of luck,' and
added him to its list; and these later additions were very valuable, for
they were good pilots; the incompetent ones had all been absorbed
before. As business freshened, wages climbed gradually up to two
hundred and fifty dollars--the association figure--and became firmly
fixed there; and still without benefiting a member of that body, for no
member was hired. The hilarity at the association's expense burst all
bounds, now. There was no end to the fun which that poor martyr had to
put up with.

However, it is a long lane that has no turning. Winter approached,
business doubled and trebled, and an avalanche of Missouri, Illinois and
Upper Mississippi River boats came pouring down to take a chance in the
New Orleans trade. All of a sudden pilots were in great demand, and
were correspondingly scarce. The time for revenge was come. It was a
bitter pill to have to accept association pilots at last, yet captains
and owners agreed that there was no other way. But none of these
outcasts offered! So there was a still bitterer pill to be swallowed:
they must be sought out and asked for their services. Captain ---- was
the first man who found it necessary to take the dose, and he had been
the loudest derider of the organization. He hunted up one of the best of
the association pilots and said--

'Well, you boys have rather got the best of us for a little while, so
I'll give in with as good a grace as I can. I've come to hire you; get
your trunk aboard right away. I want to leave at twelve o'clock.'

'I don't know about that. Who is your other pilot?'

'I've got I. S----. Why?'

'I can't go with him. He don't belong to the association.'


'It's so.'

'Do you mean to tell me that you won't turn a wheel with one of the very
best and oldest pilots on the river because he don't belong to your

'Yes, I do.'

'Well, if this isn't putting on airs! I supposed I was doing you a
benevolence; but I begin to think that I am the party that wants a favor
done. Are you acting under a law of the concern?'


'Show it to me.'

So they stepped into the association rooms, and the secretary soon
satisfied the captain, who said--

'Well, what am I to do? I have hired Mr. S---- for the entire season.'

'I will provide for you,' said the secretary. 'I will detail a pilot to
go with you, and he shall be on board at twelve o'clock.'

'But if I discharge S----, he will come on me for the whole season's

'Of course that is a matter between you and Mr. S----, captain. We
cannot meddle in your private affairs.'

The captain stormed, but to no purpose. In the end he had to discharge
S----, pay him about a thousand dollars, and take an association pilot
in his place. The laugh was beginning to turn the other way now. Every
day, thenceforward, a new victim fell; every day some outraged captain
discharged a non-association pet, with tears and profanity, and
installed a hated association man in his berth. In a very little while,
idle non-associationists began to be pretty plenty, brisk as business
was, and much as their services were desired. The laugh was shifting to
the other side of their mouths most palpably. These victims, together
with the captains and owners, presently ceased to laugh altogether, and
began to rage about the revenge they would take when the passing
business 'spurt' was over.

Soon all the laughers that were left were the owners and crews of boats
that had two non-association pilots. But their triumph was not very
long-lived. For this reason: It was a rigid rule of the association that
its members should never, under any circumstances whatever, give
information about the channel to any 'outsider.' By this time about
half the boats had none but association pilots, and the other half had
none but outsiders. At the first glance one would suppose that when it
came to forbidding information about the river these two parties could
play equally at that game; but this was not so. At every good-sized town
from one end of the river to the other, there was a 'wharf-boat' to land
at, instead of a wharf or a pier. Freight was stored in it for
transportation; waiting passengers slept in its cabins. Upon each of
these wharf-boats the association's officers placed a strong box
fastened with a peculiar lock which was used in no other service but
one--the United States mail service. It was the letter-bag lock, a
sacred governmental thing. By dint of much beseeching the government had
been persuaded to allow the association to use this lock. Every
association man carried a key which would open these boxes. That key, or
rather a peculiar way of holding it in the hand when its owner was asked
for river information by a stranger--for the success of the St. Louis
and New Orleans association had now bred tolerably thriving branches in
a dozen neighboring steamboat trades--was the association man's sign and
diploma of membership; and if the stranger did not respond by producing
a similar key and holding it in a certain manner duly prescribed, his
question was politely ignored. From the association's secretary each
member received a package of more or less gorgeous blanks, printed like
a billhead, on handsome paper, properly ruled in columns; a bill-head
worded something like this--




+ ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- -+


+ ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- -+

These blanks were filled up, day by day, as the voyage progressed, and
deposited in the several wharf-boat boxes. For instance, as soon as the
first crossing, out from St. Louis, was completed, the items would be
entered upon the blank, under the appropriate headings, thus--

'St. Louis. Nine and a half (feet). Stern on court-house, head on dead
cottonwood above wood-yard, until you raise the first reef, then pull up
square.' Then under head of Remarks: 'Go just outside the wrecks; this
is important. New snag just where you straighten down; go above it.'

The pilot who deposited that blank in the Cairo box (after adding to it
the details of every crossing all the way down from St. Louis) took out
and read half a dozen fresh reports (from upward-bound steamers)
concerning the river between Cairo and Memphis, posted himself
thoroughly, returned them to the box, and went back aboard his boat
again so armed against accident that he could not possibly get his boat
into trouble without bringing the most ingenious carelessness to his

Imagine the benefits of so admirable a system in a piece of river twelve
or thirteen hundred miles long, whose channel was shifting every day!
The pilot who had formerly been obliged to put up with seeing a shoal
place once or possibly twice a month, had a hundred sharp eyes to watch
it for him, now, and bushels of intelligent brains to tell him how to
run it. His information about it was seldom twenty-four hours old. If
the reports in the last box chanced to leave any misgivings on his mind
concerning a treacherous crossing, he had his remedy; he blew his steam-
whistle in a peculiar way as soon as he saw a boat approaching; the
signal was answered in a peculiar way if that boat's pilots were
association men; and then the two steamers ranged alongside and all
uncertainties were swept away by fresh information furnished to the
inquirer by word of mouth and in minute detail.

The first thing a pilot did when he reached New Orleans or St. Louis was
to take his final and elaborate report to the association parlors and
hang it up there,--after which he was free to visit his family. In these
parlors a crowd was always gathered together, discussing changes in the
channel, and the moment there was a fresh arrival, everybody stopped
talking till this witness had told the newest news and settled the
latest uncertainty. Other craftsmen can 'sink the shop,' sometimes, and
interest themselves in other matters. Not so with a pilot; he must
devote himself wholly to his profession and talk of nothing else; for it
would be small gain to be perfect one day and imperfect the next. He has
no time or words to waste if he would keep 'posted.'

But the outsiders had a hard time of it. No particular place to meet
and exchange information, no wharf-boat reports, none but chance and
unsatisfactory ways of getting news. The consequence was that a man
sometimes had to run five hundred miles of river on information that was
a week or ten days old. At a fair stage of the river that might have
answered; but when the dead low water came it was destructive.

Now came another perfectly logical result. The outsiders began to
ground steamboats, sink them, and get into all sorts of trouble, whereas
accidents seemed to keep entirely away from the association men.
Wherefore even the owners and captains of boats furnished exclusively
with outsiders, and previously considered to be wholly independent of
the association and free to comfort themselves with brag and laughter,
began to feel pretty uncomfortable. Still, they made a show of keeping
up the brag, until one black day when every captain of the lot was
formally ordered to immediately discharge his outsiders and take
association pilots in their stead. And who was it that had the dashing
presumption to do that? Alas, it came from a power behind the throne
that was greater than the throne itself. It was the underwriters!

It was no time to 'swap knives.' Every outsider had to take his trunk
ashore at once. Of course it was supposed that there was collusion
between the association and the underwriters, but this was not so. The
latter had come to comprehend the excellence of the 'report' system of
the association and the safety it secured, and so they had made their
decision among themselves and upon plain business principles.

There was weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in the camp of the
outsiders now. But no matter, there was but one course for them to
pursue, and they pursued it. They came forward in couples and groups,
and proffered their twelve dollars and asked for membership. They were
surprised to learn that several new by-laws had been long ago added. For
instance, the initiation fee had been raised to fifty dollars; that sum
must be tendered, and also ten per cent. of the wages which the
applicant had received each and every month since the founding of the
association. In many cases this amounted to three or four hundred
dollars. Still, the association would not entertain the application
until the money was present. Even then a single adverse vote killed the
application. Every member had to vote 'Yes' or 'No' in person and before
witnesses; so it took weeks to decide a candidacy, because many pilots
were so long absent on voyages. However, the repentant sinners scraped
their savings together, and one by one, by our tedious voting process,
they were added to the fold. A time came, at last, when only about ten
remained outside. They said they would starve before they would apply.
They remained idle a long while, because of course nobody could venture
to employ them.

By and by the association published the fact that upon a certain date
the wages would be raised to five hundred dollars per month. All the
branch associations had grown strong, now, and the Red River one had
advanced wages to seven hundred dollars a month. Reluctantly the ten
outsiders yielded, in view of these things, and made application. There
was another new by-law, by this time, which required them to pay dues
not only on all the wages they had received since the association was
born, but also on what they would have received if they had continued at
work up to the time of their application, instead of going off to pout
in idleness. It turned out to be a difficult matter to elect them, but
it was accomplished at last. The most virulent sinner of this batch had
stayed out and allowed 'dues' to accumulate against him so long that he
had to send in six hundred and twenty-five dollars with his application.

The association had a good bank account now, and was very strong. There
was no longer an outsider. A by-law was added forbidding the reception
of any more cubs or apprentices for five years; after which time a
limited number would be taken, not by individuals, but by the
association, upon these terms: the applicant must not be less than
eighteen years old, and of respectable family and good character; he
must pass an examination as to education, pay a thousand dollars in
advance for the privilege of becoming an apprentice, and must remain
under the commands of the association until a great part of the
membership (more than half, I think) should be willing to sign his
application for a pilot's license.

All previously-articled apprentices were now taken away from their
masters and adopted by the association. The president and secretary
detailed them for service on one boat or another, as they chose, and
changed them from boat to boat according to certain rules. If a pilot
could show that he was in infirm health and needed assistance, one of
the cubs would be ordered to go with him.

The widow and orphan list grew, but so did the association's financial
resources. The association attended its own funerals in state, and paid
for them. When occasion demanded, it sent members down the river upon
searches for the bodies of brethren lost by steamboat accidents; a
search of this kind sometimes cost a thousand dollars.

The association procured a charter and went into the insurance business,
also. It not only insured the lives of its members, but took risks on

The organization seemed indestructible. It was the tightest monopoly in
the world. By the United States law, no man could become a pilot unless
two duly licensed pilots signed his application; and now there was
nobody outside of the association competent to sign. Consequently the
making of pilots was at an end. Every year some would die and others
become incapacitated by age and infirmity; there would be no new ones to
take their places. In time, the association could put wages up to any
figure it chose; and as long as it should be wise enough not to carry
the thing too far and provoke the national government into amending the
licensing system, steamboat owners would have to submit, since there
would be no help for it.

The owners and captains were the only obstruction that lay between the
association and absolute power; and at last this one was removed.
Incredible as it may seem, the owners and captains deliberately did it
themselves. When the pilots' association announced, months beforehand,
that on the first day of September, 1861, wages would be advanced to
five hundred dollars per month, the owners and captains instantly put
freights up a few cents, and explained to the farmers along the river
the necessity of it, by calling their attention to the burdensome rate
of wages about to be established. It was a rather slender argument, but
the farmers did not seem to detect it. It looked reasonable to them that
to add five cents freight on a bushel of corn was justifiable under the
circumstances, overlooking the fact that this advance on a cargo of
forty thousand sacks was a good deal more than necessary to cover the
new wages.

So, straightway the captains and owners got up an association of their
own, and proposed to put captains' wages up to five hundred dollars,
too, and move for another advance in freights. It was a novel idea, but
of course an effect which had been produced once could be produced
again. The new association decreed (for this was before all the
outsiders had been taken into the pilots' association) that if any
captain employed a non-association pilot, he should be forced to
discharge him, and also pay a fine of five hundred dollars. Several of
these heavy fines were paid before the captains' organization grew
strong enough to exercise full authority over its membership; but that
all ceased, presently. The captains tried to get the pilots to decree
that no member of their corporation should serve under a non-association
captain; but this proposition was declined. The pilots saw that they
would be backed up by the captains and the underwriters anyhow, and so
they wisely refrained from entering into entangling alliances.

As I have remarked, the pilots' association was now the compactest
monopoly in the world, perhaps, and seemed simply indestructible. And
yet the days of its glory were numbered. First, the new railroad
stretching up through Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky, to Northern
railway centers, began to divert the passenger travel from the steamers;
next the war came and almost entirely annihilated the steamboating
industry during several years, leaving most of the pilots idle, and the
cost of living advancing all the time; then the treasurer of the St.
Louis association put his hand into the till and walked off with every
dollar of the ample fund; and finally, the railroads intruding
everywhere, there was little for steamers to do, when the war was over,
but carry freights; so straightway some genius from the Atlantic coast
introduced the plan of towing a dozen steamer cargoes down to New
Orleans at the tail of a vulgar little tug-boat; and behold, in the
twinkling of an eye, as it were, the association and the noble science
of piloting were things of the dead and pathetic past!

Chapter 16 Racing Days

IT was always the custom for the boats to leave New Orleans between four
and five o'clock in the afternoon. From three o'clock onward they would
be burning rosin and pitch pine (the sign of preparation), and so one
had the picturesque spectacle of a rank, some two or three miles long,

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