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Fireman...a Lost Art???

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Old 07-14-2006, 01:39 PM
Join Date: Apr 2006
Posts: 775
Default Fireman...a Lost Art???

A couple of weeks ago there was some decussion on this board about slaves working on steamboats. Robt. Gudmestad noted that there are many historical references to slaves working as fireman and stewards on the boats. This got me to thinking...the two biggest variable costs in operating a boat had to be fuel and food. After all the "dollar hole" did not get its name as a joke. Therefore, I believe, that positions as cooks and firemen had to be a skilled occupations with a lot of responsibility for the profitability of a steamboat and they weren't positions to be filled with unskilled labor.
I have never read much about steamboat firemen but I'm sure there was a lot of skill involved in firing a boiler. I know many men made their lifes occupation as firmen on boats much like firemen on the railroad. Jim Herron correct me if I'm wrong, but I've heard of railroad engineers who carefully guarded a good fireman. Look at Ed. Smith of DQ and AVALON fame. Brucie the DQ watchman we discussed a while back was a fireman on the Carnagie Steel boats most of his life.
Archie Johnson said his favorite job was firing derrick boats and steam cranes; he said there was alot of staisfaction to the job. In fact that is the way he started on the river in 1924. They were building lock 46 at Owensboro and the contractor was having trouble doing the job with his steam crane. Archie who was 17 at the time told him the crane wasn't the problem, the fireman was. The contractor told him if he could make the crane perform he could have a job, so Archie started firing the boiler and from then on the crane did what the contractor asked of it.
My questions are....on a multi-boilered boat, such as the Robt E. Lee, that required many firemen, was there a "chief" fireman who oversaw the fireman gang?
Did engineers have favorite firemen who they took from one boat to another with them whenever the engineer changed jobs?
Is there anyone today who could fire a set of steamboat boilers with coal or wood? or is it truly a lost art?
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