lead line

A weighted rope with marked increments that was used to measure the river's depth, mostly used on the Mississippi River. A sounding pole is generally used on the Ohio River. The cord is marked off into fathoms and fractions thereof: one fathom (six feet) is termed mark one; two fathoms is mark twain; three fathoms is mark three and four fathoms is mark four. Above mark four is no bottom. The person who takes the soundings with a lead line and calls them to the pilot is called the leadsman. The leadsman sang out the depth in a voice loud enough to be heard in the pilothouse.

In detail, the lead line was described on the steambats.org message board by Don Sanders this way:

We still call the lead on the Ohio River near Rabbit Hash and Risin Shine. There are two kinds of leads- a "Standing Lead" and a "Laying Lead". This is determined by the weight made from a piece o' iron pipe filled with lead. A Standing Lead connects to the leadline at the end of the lead so she's standing upright when she touched the bottom of the river. A Laying Lead is constructed, as above, but is horizontal and connects to the line at the center of balance of the lead. We prefer a Standing Lead on this side of the river, while they use a Laying Lead acrost on the Injun side of the water.

The calls we use are:

Anything below 10 1/2 feet is called as feet, or a fraction of a foot, such as "six feet", or "eight and a half", and so on to the first leadline call of:

Quarter-less Twain- 10 1/2 feet
Mark Twain – 12 feet
Quarter Twain – 13 1/2 feet
Half Twain- 15 feet
Quarter-less Three – 16 1/2 feet
Mark Three – 18 feet
Quarter Three- 19 1/2
Half Three – 21 feet
Quarter-less four – 22 1/2 feet
Mark Four – 24 feet
Deep Four – 25 feet
Over 25 feet – No Bottom- ain't got no bottom.

Everyone constructs their leadlines differently, but this is the way it was passed down to me from Great-grandpa Shipman…

Traditionally, he used good hemp line, but some of today's synthethics are okay, but don't never use a float line or nylon for yur leadline, for obvious reasons. The nylon will stretch-out and won't give a true call. A decent leadline must be pre-stretched. We like to take about fifty feet to make a good thirty-foot, or so, line, and grandpa taught us how to take all the stretch out of the line. The bottom end of the Standing Line we made concave-like. This hallow is used to put a dab o' tallow, wax, or even thick grease in to pick up on what's on the bottom of the river like sand, mud, gravel, or even rock fragments. This, pappy called "loading the lead".

Marks less than Quarter-less Twain (10 1/2") are usually called in feet or fractions of a foot, but sometimes Pawee would call marks down to a low as as 6 feet, that he called "Mark One". Now afore you have a fit, that the God's awful truth how we done it around here when the river was so shaller in these parts. Next was "Quarter One", "Half-One"… THEN.. "Quarter Less Twain", and you're back on track with the traditional leadline calls that I described in my last posting.

Now, as I hope you'll understand, everyone's leadline was made with the materials at hand, and if the general store was out of the right colored feed sacks or swatches of cloth, Grandpa often cut up strips of burlap gunny sacks and wove the strips into a leadline he was in a hurry to make. But, there were, and still are, certain rules that we like to play by when making such a handy boatman's tool as a dippin' line. So here goes:

For: Use this Material:
Mark One (6') One strip of leather woven in.
Quarter One (7 1/2') Piece white cloth woven in.
Half One (9') Red piece of cloth woven in.
Q-L-T (10 1/2') Black piece of cloth.
M-T (12') Two Strips of Leather.
Q-T (13 1/2') White piece of cloth.
H-T (15') Red piece of cloth.
Q-L-3 (16 1/2') Black swatch of cloth.
M-3 ((18') Three strips of leather.
Q-3 (19 1/2') White cloth.
H-3 (21') Red cloth woven in.
Q-L-4 (22 1/2') Black piece of cloth.
M-4 (24') 1 piece of leather with a hole.
Deep Four Nothing special-estimated.

The kind of cloth was usually not of the same type, for at night, colors are meaningless, so the leadsman relied strictly on the feel of the materials sliding through his trained hand. An experienced leadsman could tell the difference in the feel of the leather and the cloth. Grandpappy nearly got kilt by grandma when he sliced up her red flannel nightgown for strips to use in the leadline. He often used wool, felt, and cotton depending what was laying around. But after that incident with Grannie, Pawee asked before he started slicing, as most of them rags were pre-destined for the Rabbit Hash Quilting Society meetings up at the General Store.

Now, all this ain't wrote in stone, but it's usually the way we've been doing it for over 131 years here along what is about the middle of the Ohio River. By the way, we hear-tell that gamlin boat been using a weighted surveyor's tape marked off in 1/10 of a foot. It got a brass valve tied onto the line for a weight. It's in poor form, but it works for them.