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Novel Research Request #3

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    Novel Research Request #3

    I'm back to working on my book after the Holidays and a very busy time at work. I would like to submit for your consideration one paragraph from the novel in which the protagonist describes the engine spaces of a steamboat of 1848. Please let me know if I have made any technical errors in the description:

    "It was my first time on a steamboat and I set out to explore the Monroe from bottom to top. The machinery spaces included dark caverns with gangs of men stoking the furnaces with bolt after bolt of firewood, the open doors affording glimpses of the infernos that heated the enormous boilers. The boilers themselves were enormous cylindrical teakettles entwined with water pipes, steam pipes, vent pipes, flue pipes and more pipes. The engine itself consisted of a massive thirty inch piston driving the pitman shaft which connected it to the thirty foot paddle wheels. Valves, levers, and myriad brass gauges with trembling needles pointing at mysterious markings were tended by the engineer and his assistants, with one man always standing by to respond to engine signals from the pilothouse far above. I watched awhile, marveling, before the overwhelming heat and noise drove me out to the fresh air on deck."

    Does anyone see any glaring (or non-glaring) technical errors in the above?

    One basic question that I have yet to answer to my satisfaction is whether the Monroe had one engine or two. Way's Packet Directory does not give engine data, so all I really have to go on is that earlier Western steamboats had one engine, while later they tended to have two (info per "The Western River Steamboat" by Kane). The novel is set in 1848, so I'm guessing that's during the transition period and, for lack of hard fact, I could describe one engine or two. So far, as written above, I've gone with one.

    Thanks in advance.

    Please don't take my advice as being "smart", but I really suggest that you visit the engineroom of the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE, NATCHEZ, MINNIE HA HA, or CHAUTAUQUA BELLE to get the feel of a real steamboat's engineroom. The BELLE OF LOUISVILLE even has the Western River style of fire tube boilers that probably were in use on a 1848 steamboat, except now the BELLE now burns oil.

    By 1848 a sidewheel boat would have had an engine on each wheel with an engineer tending one and a striker minding the other. Also visiting the engine room on an operating boat you would see how quiet steam machinery generally is and get a better understanding of the physical make up of a horizontal steam engine. Out of the aft end of each engine's cylinders comes the piston rod, which is attached to the crosshead. The crosshead rides to and fro on well oiled guides. The pitman is attached to the crosshead and connects the crosshead to the crank. The pitman is made of wood with metal reinforcements to help absorb the shock of the wheel hitting the water. It's the crank that is attached permanently on the end of the shaft. There is no such thing as a "pitman shaft".

    In 1848 a boat's boiler room would have been on the main deck and open up on the sides. It would not have been a dark cave like area unless there was a good amount of freight aboard piled on the boat's guards. The first reason the boiler room was open was so plenty of air could get to the fires and the second reason was to keep the boat as light as possible. Adding a wooden bulkhead around the boilers would have added weight and that would have the boat drawing more water. When the navigation season was limited already by the weather, a few inches less draft could be the difference between the books being kept in black ink as opposed to red ink.

    I hope these comments help, and I wish you the best of luck.



      First, perfect, thank you, that's why I come here, to try and correct the spots where my imagination has erred in filling in the blanks between research facts.

      Second, a trip to visit any of the boats you mentioned just isn't in the cards, so research via books (recommended here, largely), websites and forums like this one are what I'm using.

      The only steam vessel I've been around is a 25' launch and while it was relatively quiet it was a small engine and screw driven and I imagined that with the size of an 1848 engine it driving a 30' paddle wheel the noise would be correspondingly scaled up.

      Thank you for the correction on 'pitman shaft'; I've been perusing the diagrams in 'The Western River Steamboat' and it wasn't clear to me.

      I understand that the boilers would be on the main deck, but actually avoided pointing that out for fear that the lay reader (and after all, my book is a novel) would simply think that I'd made a mistake, since 'everybody knows' on a big boat or ship the engines are below decks.

      Your pointing out that the main deck and engine spaces would be relatively open and lack bulkheads makes perfect sense.

      Thanks again.


        YouTube videos

        YouTube - Steamboat Natchez Engine Room New Orleans
        Here's a video of the Natchez' engine room. I don't know why the background noise is so loud, but it isn't from the engine room. Check out the Belle of Louisville, the Natchez engine rooms for more videos to get an idea of what today's boats look like.


          The background noise on the Natchez is a diesel generator. The steam engines on the Natchez are extremely quiet. The valve gear on the Belle of Louisville's engines make a clacking noise in addition to the sighs of the steam. Both enginerooms are quiet enough to allow talk in ordinary conversational tones. Both are airy and light.

          Neither of these would be true on your steamboat. The noise would be the direct exhaust of high-pressure steam making a choo-chioo sound like a locomotive only much slower, say, once per second. The closest I can come to it phonetically would be the sounds in Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, in which he used Chow, Chow.


            Just a suggestion in wording..."It was my first time on a steamboat and I set out to explore the Monroe from engine room to pilot house."