II. A “Cub” Pilot’s Experience; or, Learning the River
What with lying on the rocks four days at Louisville, and some other delays, the poor old Paul Jones fooled away about two weeks in making the voyage from Cincinnati to New Orleans. This gave me a chance to get acquainted with one of the pilots, and he taught me how to steer the boat, and thus made the fascination of river life more potent than ever for me.
It also gave me a chance to get acquainted with a youth who had taken deck passage—more’s the pity; for he easily borrowed six dollars of me on a promise to return to the boat and pay it back to me the day after we should arrive. But he probably died or forgot, for he never came. It was doubtless the former, since he had said his parents were wealthy, and he only traveled deck passage because it was cooler.1
I soon discovered two things. One was that a vessel would not be likely to sail for the mouth of the Amazon under ten or twelve years; and the other was that the nine or ten dollars still left in my pocket would not suffice for so imposing an exploration as I had planned, even if I could afford to wait for a ship. Therefore it followed that I must contrive a new career. The Paul Jones was now bound for St. Louis. I planned a siege against my pilot, and at the end of three hard days he surrendered. He agreed to teach me the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis for five hundred dollars, payable out of the first wages I should receive after graduating. I entered upon the small enterprise of “learning” twelve or thirteen hundred miles of the great Mississippi River with the easy confidence of my time of life. If I had really known what I was about to require of my faculties, I should not have had the courage to begin. I supposed that all a pilot had to do was to keep his boat in the river, and I did not consider that that could be much of a trick, since it was so wide.
The boat backed out from New Orleans at four in the afternoon, and it was “our watch” until eight. Mr. B——, my chief, “straightened her up,” plowed her along past the sterns of the other boats that lay at the Levee, and then said, “Here, take her; shave those steamships as close as you’d peel an apple.” I took the wheel, and my heart went down into my boots; for it seemed to me that we were about to scrape the side off every ship in the line, we were so close. I held my breath and began to claw the boat away from the danger; and I had my own opinion of the pilot who had known no better than to get us into such peril, but I was too wise to express it. In half a minute I had a wide margin of safety intervening between the Paul Jones and the ships; and within ten seconds more I was set aside in disgrace, and Mr. B—— was going into danger again and flaying me alive with abuse of my cowardice. I was stung, but I was obliged to admire the easy confidence with which my chief loafed from side to side of his wheel, and trimmed the ships so closely that disaster seemed ceaselessly imminent. When he had cooled a little he told me that the easy water was close ashore and the current outside, and therefore we must hug the bank, up-stream, to get the benefit of the former, and stay well out, downstream, to take advantage of the latter. In my own mind I resolved to be a down-stream pilot and leave the up-streaming to people dead to prudence.
Now and then Mr. B—— called my attention to certain things. Said he, “This is Six-Mile Point.” I assented. It was pleasant enough information, but I could not see the bearing of it. I was not conscious that it was a matter of any interest to me. Another time he said, “This is Nine-Mile Point.” Later he said, “This is Twelve-Mile Point.” They were all about level with the water’s edge; they all looked about alike to me; they were monotonously unpicturesque. I hoped Mr. B—— would change the subject. But no; he would crowd up around a point, hugging the shore with affection, and then say: “The slack water ends here, abreast this bunch of China-trees; now we cross over.” So he crossed over. He gave me the wheel once or twice, but I had no luck. I either came near chipping off the edge of a sugar plantation, or else I yawed too far from shore, and so I dropped back into disgrace again and got abused.
The watch was ended at last, and we took supper and went to bed. At midnight the glare of a lantern shone in my eyes, and the night watchman said: —
“Come! turn out!”
And then he left. I could not understand this extraordinary procedure; so I presently gave up trying to, and dozed off to sleep. Pretty soon the watchman was back again, and this time he was gruff. I was annoyed. I said: —
“What do you want to come bothering around here in the middle of the night for? Now as like as not I’ll not get to sleep again to-night.”
The watchman said: —
“Well, if this an’t good, I’m blest.”
The “off-watch” was just turning in, and I heard some brutal laughter from them, and such remarks as “Hello, watchman! an’t the new cub turned out yet? He’s delicate, likely. Give him some sugar in a rag and send for the chambermaid to sing rock-a-by-baby to him.”
About this time Mr. B—— appeared on the scene. Something like a minute later I was climbing the pilot-house steps with some of my clothes on and the rest in my arms. Mr. B—— was close behind, commenting. Here was something fresh—this thing of getting up in the middle of the night to go to work. It was a detail in piloting that had never occurred to me at all. I knew that boats ran all night, but somehow I had never happened to reflect that somebody had to get up out of a warm bed to run them. I began to fear that piloting was not quite so romantic as I had imagined it was; there was something very real and work-like about this new phase of it.
It was a rather dingy night, although a fair number of stars were out. The big mate was at the wheel, and he had the old tub pointed at a star and was holding her straight up the middle of the river. The shores on either hand were not much more than a mile apart, but they seemed wonderfully far away and ever so vague and indistinct. The mate said: —
“We’ve got to land at Jones’s plantation, sir.”
The vengeful spirit in me exulted. I said to myself, I wish you joy of your job, Mr. B——; you’ll have a good time finding Mr. Jones’s plantation such a night as this; and I hope you never will find it as long as you live.
Mr. B—— said to the mate: —
“Upper end of the plantation, or the lower?”
“I can’t do it. The stumps there are out of water at this stage. It’s no great distance to the lower, and you’ll have to get along with that.”
“All right, sir. If Jones don’t like it hell have to lump it, I reckon.”
And then the mate left. My exultation began to cool and my wonder to come up. Here was a man who not only proposed to find this plantation on such a night, but to find either end of it you preferred. I dreadfully wanted to ask a question, but I was carrying about as many short answers as my cargo-room would admit of, so I held my peace. All I desired to ask Mr. B—— was the simple question whether he was ass enough to really imagine he was going to find that plantation on a night when all plantations were exactly alike and all the same color. But I held in. I used to have fine inspirations of prudence in those days.
Mr. B—— made for the shore and soon was scraping it, just the same as if it had been daylight. And not only that, but singing—
“Father in heaven the day is declining,” etc.
It seemed to me that I had put my life in the keeping of a peculiarly reckless outcast. Presently he turned on me and said: —
“What’s the name of the first point above New Orleans?”
I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.
This manner jolted me. I was down at the foot again, in a moment. But I had to say just what I had said before.
“Well, you’re a smart one,” said Mr. B——. “What’s the name of the next point?”
Once more I didn’t know.
“Well this beats anything. Tell me the name of any point or place I told you.”
I studied a while and decided that I couldn’t.
“Look-a-here! What do you start out from, above Twelve-Mile Point, to cross over?”
“You—you—don’t know?” mimicking my drawling manner of speech. “What do you know?”
“I—I—nothing, for certain.”
“By the great Cæsar’s ghost I believe you! You’re the stupidest dunderhead I ever saw or ever heard of, so help me Moses! The idea of you being a pilot—you! Why, you don’t know enough to pilot a cow down a lane.”
Oh, but his wrath was up! He was a nervous man, and he shuffled from one side of his wheel to the other as if the floor was hot. He would boil a while to himself, and then overflow and scald me again.
“Look-a-here! What do you suppose I told you the names of those points for?”
I tremblingly considered a moment, and then the devil of temptation provoked me to say: —
“Well—to—to—be entertaining, I thought.”
This was a red rag to the bull. He raged and stormed so (he was crossing the river at the time) that I judge it made him blind, because he ran over the steering-oar of a trading-scow. Of course the traders sent up a volley of red-hot profanity. Never was a man so grateful as Mr. B—— was: because he was brim full, and here were subjects who would talk back. He threw open a window, thrust his head out, and such an irruption followed as I never had heard before. The fainter and farther away the scowmen’s curses drifted, the higher Mr. B—— lifted his voice and the weightier his adjectives grew. When he closed the window he was empty. You could have drawn a seine through his system and not caught curses enough to disturb your mother with. Presently he said to me in the gentlest way: —
“My boy, you must get a little memorandum-book, and every time I tell you a thing, put it down right away. There’s only one way to be a pilot, and that is to get this entire river by heart. You have to know it just like A B C.”
That was a dismal revelation to me; for my memory was never loaded with anything but blank cartridges. However, I did not feel discouraged long. I judged that it was best to make some allowances, for doubtless Mr. B—— was “stretching.” Presently he pulled a rope and struck a few strokes on the big bell. The stars were all gone, now, and the night was as black as ink. I could hear the wheels churn alone, the bank, but I was not entirely certain that I could see the shore. The voice of the invisible watchman called up from the hurricane deck: —
“What’s this, sir?”
I said to myself, I wish I might venture to offer a small bet that it isn’t. But I did not chirp. I only waited to see. Mr. B—— handled the engine bells, and in due time the boat’s nose came to the land, a torch glowed from the forecastle, a man skipped ashore, a darky’s voice on the bank said, “Gimme de carpet-bag, Mars’ Jones,” and the next moment we were standing up the river again, all serene. I reflected deeply a while, and then said, — but not aloud, — Well, the finding of that plantation was the luckiest accident that ever happened; but it couldn’t happen again in a hundred years. And I fully believed it was an accident, too.
By the time we had gone seven or eight hundred miles up the river, I had learned to be a tolerably plucky up-stream steersman, in daylight, and before we reached St. Louis I had made a trifle of progress in night-work, but only a trifle. I had a note-book that fairly bristled with the names of towns, “points,” bars, islands, bends, reaches, etc.; but the information was to be found only in the note-book—none of it was in my head. It made my heart ache to think I had only got half of the river set down; for as our watch was four hours off and four hours on, day and night, there was a long four-hour gap in my book for every time I had slept since the voyage began.
My chief was presently hired to go on a big New Orleans boat, and I packed my satchel and went with him. She was a grand affair. When I stood in her pilot-house I was so far above the water that I seemed perched on a mountain; and her decks stretched so far away, fore and aft, below me, that I wondered how I could ever have considered the little Paul Jones a large craft. There were other differences, too. The Paul Jones’s pilot-house was a cheap, dingy, battered rattle-trap, cramped for room: but here was a sumptuous glass temple; room enough to have a dance in; showy red and gold window-curtains; an imposing sofa; leather cushions and a back to the high bench where visiting pilots sit, to spin yarns and “look at the river;” bright, fanciful “cuspadores” instead of a broad wooden box filled with sawdust; nice new oil-cloth on the floor; a hospitable big stove for winter; a wheel as high as my head, costly with inlaid work; a wire tiller-rope; bright brass knobs for the bells; and a tidy, white-aproned, black “texas-tender,” to bring up tarts and ices and coffee during mid-watch, day and night. Now this was “something like;” and so I began to take heart once more to believe that piloting was a romantic sort of occupation after all. The moment we were under way I began to prowl about the great steamer and fill myself with joy. She was as clean and as dainty as a drawing-room; when I looked down her long, gilded saloon, it was like gazing through a splendid tunnel; she had an oil-picture, by some gifted sign-painter, on every state-room door; she glittered with no end of prism-fringed chandeliers; the clerk’s office was elegant, the bar was marvelous, and the bar-keeper had been barbered and upholstered at incredible cost. The boiler deck (i.e., the second story of the boat, so to speak) was as spacious as a church, it seemed to me; so with the forecastle; and there was no pitiful handful of deck-hands, firemen, and roust-abouts down there, but a whole battalion of men. The fires were fiercely glaring from a long row of furnaces, and over them were eight huge boilers! This was unutterable pomp. The mighty engines—but enough of this. I had never felt so fine before. And when I found that the regiment of natty servants respectfully “sir’d” me, my satisfaction was complete.
When I returned to the pilot-house St. Louis was gone and I was lost. Here was a piece of river which was all down in my book, but I could make neither head nor tail of it: you understand, it was turned around. I had seen it, when coming up-stream, but I had never faced about to see how it looked when it was behind me. My heart broke again, for it was plain that I had got to learn this troublesome river both ways.
The pilot-house was full of pilots, going down to “look at the river.” What is called the “upper river” (the two hundred miles between St. Louis and Cairo, where the Ohio comes in) was low; and the Mississippi changes its channel so constantly that the pilots used to always find it necessary to run down to Cairo to take a fresh look, when their boats were to lie in port a week, that is, when the water was at a low stage. A deal of this “looking at the river” was done by poor fellows who seldom had a berth, and whose only hope of getting one lay in their being always freshly posted and therefore ready to drop into the shoes of some reputable pilot, for a single trip, on account of such pilot’s sudden illness, or some other necessity. And a good many of them constantly ran up and down inspecting the river, not because they ever really hoped to get a berth, but because (they being guests of the boat) it was cheaper to “look at the river” than stay ashore and pay board. In time these fellows grew dainty in their tastes, and only infested boats that had an established reputation for setting good tables. All visiting pilots were useful, for they were always ready and willing, winter or summer, night or day, to go out in the yawl and help buoy the channel or assist the boat’s pilots in any way they could. They were likewise welcome because all pilots are tireless talkers, when gathered together, and as they talk only about the river they are always understood and are always interesting. Your true pilot cares nothing about anything on earth but the river, and his pride in his occupation surpasses the pride of kings.
We had a fine company of these river-inspectors along, this trip. There were eight or ten; and there was abundance of room for them in our great pilot-house. Two or three of them wore polished silk hats, elaborate shirt-fronts, diamond breastpins, kid gloves, and patent-leather boots. They were choice in their English, and bore themselves with a dignity proper to men of solid means and prodi0ious reputation as pilots. The others were more or less loosely clad, and wore upon their heads tall felt cones that were suggestive of the days of the Commonwealth.
I was a cipher in this august company, and felt subdued, not to say torpid. I was not even of sufficient consequence to assist at the wheel when it was necessary to put the tiller hard down in a hurry; the guest that stood nearest did that when occasion required—and this was pretty much all the time, because of the crookedness of the channel and the scant water. I stood in a corner; and the talk I listened to took the hope all out of me. One visitor said to another: —
“Jim, how did you run Plum Point, coming up?”
“It was in the night, there, and I ran it the way one of the boys on the Diana told me; started out about fifty yards above the wood pile on the false point, and held on the cabin under Plum Point till I raised the reef—quarter less twain—then straightened up for the middle bar till I got well abreast the old one-limbed cotton-wood in the bend, then got my stern on the cottonwood and head on the low place above the point, and came through a-booming—nine and a half.”
“Pretty square crossing, an’t it?”
“Yes, but the upper bar’s working down fast.”
Another pilot spoke up and said: —
“I had better water than that, and ran it lower down; started out from the false point—mark twain—raised the second reef abreast the big snag in the bend, and had quarter less twain.”
One of the gorgeous ones remarked: “I don’t want to find fault with your leadsmen, but that’s a good deal of water for Plum Point, it seems to me.”
There was an approving nod all around as this quiet snub dropped on the boaster and “settled” him. And so they went on talk-talk-talking. Meantime, the thing that was running in my mind was, “Now if my ears hear aright, I have not only to get the names of all the towns and islands and bends, and so on, by heart, but I must even get up a warm personal acquaintanceship with every old snag and one-limbed cotton-wood and obscure wood pile that ornaments the banks of this river for twelve hundred miles; and more than that, I must actually know where these things are in the dark, unless these guests are gifted with eyes that can pierce through two miles of solid blackness; I wish the piloting business was in Jericho and I had never thought of it.”
At dusk Mr. B—— tapped the big bell three times (the signal to land), and the captain emerged from his drawing-room in the forward end of the texas, and looked up inquiringly. Mr. B—— said: —
“We will lay up here all night, captain.”
“Very well, sir.”
That was all. The boat came to shore and was tied up for the night. It seemed to me a fine thing that the pilot could do as he pleased without asking so grand a captain’s permission. I took my supper and went immediately to bed, discouraged by my day’s observations and experiences. My late voyage’s note-booking was but a confusion of meaningless names. It had tangled me all up in a knot every time I had looked at it in the daytime. I now hoped for respite in sleep; but no, it reveled all through my head till sunrise again, a frantic and tireless nightmare.
Next morning I felt pretty rusty and low-spirited. We went booming along, taking a good many chances, for we were anxious to “get out of the river” (as getting out to Cairo was called) before night should overtake us. But Mr. B——’s partner, the other pilot, presently grounded the boat, and we lost so much time getting her off that it was plain the darkness would over-take us a good long way above the mouth. This was a great misfortune, especially to certain of our visiting pilots, whose boats would have to wait for their return, no matter how long that might be. It sobered the pilot-house talk a good deal. Coming up-stream, pilots did not mind low water or any kind of darkness; nothing stopped them but fog. But down-stream work was different; a boat was too nearly helpless, with a stiff current pushing behind her; so it was not customary to run down-stream at night in low water.
There seemed to be one small hope, however: if we could get through the intricate and dangerous Hat Island crossing before night, we could venture the rest, for we would have plainer sailing and better water. But it would be insanity to attempt Hat Island at night. So there was a deal of looking at watches all the rest of the day, and a constant ciphering upon the speed we were making; Hat Island was the eternal subject; sometimes hope was high and sometimes we were delayed in a bad crossing, and down it went again. For hours all hands lay under the burden of this suppressed excitement; it was even communicated to me, and I got to feeling so solicitous about Hat Island, and under such an awful pressure of responsibility, that I wished I might have five minutes on shore to draw a good, full, relieving breath, and start over again. We were standing no regular watches. Each of our pilots ran such portions of the river as he had run when coming up-stream, because of his greater familiarity with it; but both remained in the pilot-house constantly.
An hour. before sunset, Mr. B—— took the wheel and Mr. W—— stepped aside. For the next thirty minutes every man held his watch in his hand and was restless, silent, and uneasy. At last somebody said, with a doomful sigh.
“Well, yonder’s Hat Island—and we can’t make it.”
All the watches closed with a snap, everybody sighed and muttered something about its being “too bad, too bad—ah, if we could only have got here half an hour sooner!” and the place was thick with the atmosphere of disappointment. Some started to go out, but loitered, hearing no bell-tap to land. The sun dipped behind the horizon, the boat went on. Inquiring looks passed from one guest to another; and one who had his hand on the door-knob, and had turned it, waited, then presently took away his hand and let the knob turn back again. We bore steadily down the bend. More looks were exchanged, and nods of surprised admiration—but no words. Insensibly the men drew together behind Mr. B—— as the sky darkened and one or two dim stars came out. The dead silence and sense of waiting became oppressive. Mr. B—— pulled the cord, and two deep, mellow notes from the big bell floated off on the night. Then a pause, and one more note was struck. The watchman’s voice followed, from the hurricane deck: —
“Labboard lead, there! Stabboard lead!”
The cries of the leadsmen began to rise out of the distance, and were gruffly repeated by the word-passers on the hurricane deck.
“M-a-r-k three! M-a-r-k three! Quarter-less-three! Half twain! Quarter twain! M-a-r-k twain! Quarter-less”—
Mr. B—— pulled two bell-ropes, and was answered by faint jinglings far below in the engine-room, and our speed slackened. The steam began to whistle through the gauge-cocks. The cries of the leadsmen went on—and it is a weird sound, always, in the night. Every pilot in the lot was watching, now, with fixed eyes, and talking under his breath. Nobody was calm and easy but Mr. B——. He would put his wheel down and stand on a spoke, and as the steamer swung into her (to me) utterly invisible marks—for we seemed to be in the midst of a wide and gloomy sea—he would meet and fasten her there. Talk was going on, now, in low voices: —
“There; she’s over the first reef all right!”
After a pause, another subdued voice: —
“Her stern’s coming down just exactly right, by George! Now she’s in the marks; over she goes!”
Somebody else muttered: —
“Oh, it was done beautiful—beautiful!”
Now the engines were stopped altogether, and we drifted with the current. Not that I could see the boat drift, for I could not, the stars being all gone by this time. This drifting was the dismalest work; it held one’s heart still. Presently I discovered a blacker gloom than that which surrounded us. It was the head of the island. We were closing right down upon it. We entered its deeper shadow, and so imminent seemed the peril that I was likely to suffocate; and I bad the strongest impulse to do something, anything, to save the vessel. But still Mr. B—— stood by his wheel, silent, intent as a cat, and all the pilots stood shoulder to shoulder at his back.
“She’ll not make it!” somebody whispered.
The water grew shoaler and shoaler by the leadsmen’s cries, till it was down to—
“Eight-and-a-half! E-i-g-h-t feet! E-i-g-h-t feet! Seven-and”—
Mr. B—— said warningly through his speaking tube to the engineer: —
“Stand by, now!”
“Seven-and-a-half! Seven feet! Six-and”—
We touched bottom! Instantly Mr. B—— set a lot of bells ringing, shouted through the tube, “Now let her have it every ounce you’ve got!” then to his partner, “Put her hard down! snatch her! snatch her!” The boat rasped and ground her way through the sand, hung upon the apex of disaster a single tremendous instant, and then over she went! And such a shout as went up at Mr. B——’s back never loosened the roof of a pilot-house before!
There was no more trouble after that. Mr. B—— was a hero that night; and it was some little time, too, before his exploit ceased to be talked about by river men.
Fully to realize the marvelous precision required in laying the great steamer in her marks in that murky waste of water, one should know that not only must she pick her intricate way through snags and blind reefs, and then shave the head of the island so closely as to brush the overhanging foliage with her stern, but at one place she must pass almost within arm’s reach of a sunken and invisible wreck that would snatch the hull timbers from under her if she should strike it, and destroy a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of steamboat and cargo in five minutes, and maybe a hundred and fifty human lives into the bargain.
The last remark I heard that night was a compliment to Mr. B——, uttered in soliloquy and with unction by one of our guests. He said: —
“By the Shadow of Death, but he’s a lightning pilot!”
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- “Deck” passage—i. e., steerage passage. ↩