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Pilothouse to engineroom communication

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    Pilothouse to engineroom communication

    Perhaps this has been discussed before.

    Was there a precursor to the bell system on steamboats?

    I have visions of a line of men stretched from the pilothouse stairs to the engineroom, relaying orders.

    When did the telegraph come into common use on the river.

    How many other inventions like the wheel outside the SPRAGUE's pilothouse came about to avoid miscommunication?

    How do the modern methods compare for today's river captains?

    Just curious!


    I alway thought a fireman's pole to the main deck would be a great idea if we didn't have the bells, telegraph, or speaking tube.


      Retitle your Post?

      In the matter of your post. To Communicate requires not only someone speaking, or using another manner of transmitting an idea, to another. It also requires the act of listening, or being open to acceptance of the idea, being transmitted.
      As I have seldom come across anyone employed in the Wheelhouse even remotely capable or intrested in hearing what another person has to say. I feel the title of your post is in error.


        Hey Mat and Fred thanks for your thoughts on this. I would imagine one of the first things a green deckhand, clerk, cabin boy, learned was the quickest way from pilothouse to engineroom in the interest of relaying messages in emergency situations. I like the fire pole idea Mat, why didn't the old timers think of that.

        Fred I just knew someone would mention the unique nature of those in the knowledge box. For some perhaps it was best that there was not a direct means of conversation between there and the engineroom. Just imagine how the personalities would and I'm sure did fly. I guess the engineer would know it if the bell was flying off it's hinges if the fella upstairs wasn't happy with something. Regardless of intent you have to answer the bells, telegraph, speaking tube, the interest of the passengers, cargo, and your own existence to boot.

        I'm sure there's interesting stories out there to be told about this subject.

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts guys!



          *The 'Chadburn' goes clang, clang*
          Steamboating colleagues:
          Alan Bates some time back did a definitive explanation of the bell system on steamboats along with a squib in a past S&D REFLECTOR. I've heard it used but, dumb as mud, it fell on my deaf ears. Sure, the brass speaking tube with the funnel mouth seen by many of us.

          The telegraph from above in the pilothouse or ship bridge down to engineroom had it's beginnings in mid 19th century or slightly earlier with the building of steam vessels. When first employed on our rivers a good question. Often called the 'chadurn' as a common noun, had its roots in the famed Chaburn Telegraph system from Great Britain. Many vessels so equipped as standard down to the mid 1950s plus or minus before advent of other signal systems, direct control of throttles, telephones etc. from the bridge to engines. Other companies made the telegraph with the Chadburn model now a highly sought after [$$$] antique item for collectors in gleaming brass. The Chief Engineer on ships could receive a direct message from the bridge so indicating by sending a return confirmation on his telegraph. It was neat to see in action hearing the to and fro clang or clinking; then the engineers [Saw it on big ocean ships] grabbed the multiple throttles--one for each prop--to increase/decrease steam as so needed ahead or astern. I've a small brass one here as a decorative item.

          Another innovation the British adopted long before we did here was the use of metal rods, chains or wires from the wheel to the rudders. As early as the late 1830s they were horrified seeing steamboats here equipped with just rope that could break or burn in a fire. Well, what do I know?

          R. Dale Flick
          Coal Haven Landing, Ohio River, Cincinnati.


            Fireman's Pole

            Matt, Doesn't Will Rogers use a firemans pole in the movie "Steamboat Round the Bend?" Seems like I remember him sliding down the thing from the Pilot House to who knows where. I will have to take another look at the movie sometime.


              Many Stories ...

              Or as Mrs. Greene said when a TV host tried to pin her down on national television:

              Host: "I'm sure you have many stories about the DELTA QUEEN."

              Expectant Pause ...

              Mrs. G: "Oh, there are many, many stories about the DELTA QUEEN."

              And that was all she'd say.


                The story I liked was the one where a circus elephant was being shipped deck freight on a stamer and he got to playing with the bell pulls in the overhead with his trunk! I'm sure that more than one engineer thought that's what was happening when before they got a new pilot squared away! Cap'n Walnut


                  The pilotwheel on the original New Orleans was on the deck above the throttle near the hole where the pitman oscillated. The pilot yelled orders down the hole to the engineer.


                    Dad maintained that there were some pilots whom couldn't make any more noise ringing bells than if they had a bucket full of marbles to rattle. And, yes, an engineer can tell who is on watch by the way they handle a boat. One helpless pilot will always be "Double Gong" in my mind.


                      Off thread?

                      I am not aware of what devices or systems were used for Engine Commands prior to the Bell and Whistle systems.
                      To add to the above comments, each pilot had their own style on the E.O.T. and each engineer had their own style of both answering the order and responding on the throttle.
                      After a while you were able to tell who was "on the sticks" and the pilot could tell who was "on the throttle".
                      Often the pilot would call to the E/R to let them know of plans to change engine speed. The better engineers also developed a knowledge of the river and knew when there was to be changes. Landings, locks, downbound river locations, being the main times this would be used.
                      Steam E/R's are much quieter than Diesel E/R's. This allows for the used of on board telephones to also be used.
                      On diesel boats communications, even today, can present a problem. Due to the noise in the E/R, it can still be very difficult to have a phone conversation. Modern diesel boats have Wheel House throttle control but there is often still a need for the two parties to talk to each other while at their "Duty Station".
                      More to follow.


                        Originally posted by Ted Guillaum View Post
                        Matt, Doesn't Will Rogers use a firemans pole in the movie "Steamboat Round the Bend?" Seems like I remember him sliding down the thing from the Pilot House to who knows where. I will have to take another look at the movie sometime.
                        Ted, your right there is! I knew I had seen/heard of the idea before, I just couldn't remember where or what, from what I remember in the movie all the orders were sent down by someone sliding down that fire mans pole!


                          During my stint on the Belle of Louisville we had four engineers and three strikers.
                          If Kenny Howe or Chet Foster was at the throttle a pilot could expect quick responses with plenty of power. If Charley Dietz was on watch with Chester LaHue the pilot had to ring about ten seconds ahead of when he wanted something, for Charley hated to crowd those old engines. Dave Crecelius was somewhere between trhese two extremes.

                          Arthur Rees had been trained on the Great Lakes where a response meant "I understand and will obey." The rest were trained where a response meant "I have done it." There is a world of difference between these two responses! All of them were good engineers.

                          Pilots usually came aboard through the engineroom at that time, so they knew what to expect, but everybody knew by the answers who was at the throttle.

                          One time Chet Foster told me, "This boat will never hit the wharfboat at the landing when I'm handling. I've got marks all up and down the levee and I'll back whether they ring or not if I see them pass the last one."


                            There's an old, old joke about bells. It seems the boat made a difficult landing and the bells came thick and fast. After all was fast the pilot passed the engineroom and the engineer was furiously opening and closing the throttle and shipping up in both directions. The pilot asked, "What are you doing?"
                            The engineer replied, "You rang so danged many bells, I am still catching up!"


                              Aaron, you wrote:
                              > When did the telegraph come into common use on the river?

                              I read somewhere that telegraphs didn't come into use on Western Rivers until about 1910 and thereafter. I don't know where I read this, or what riverboat might be noted for being the first to borrow the telegraph system from blue water vessels. I'm just passing this info along in case it's helpful..