The great steamboat race this story depicts may be Mark Twain’s Mississippi steamboat masterpiece. It is very clear that he knew what he was writing about.
The Steamboat Race by Mark Twain
Preface to the story: The author, Mark Twain, was born as Samuel Clemens, but took his pen name from a term used on the river steamboats he learned to pilot in his youth (not a small feat, for a pilot’s responsibilities were considerable, and local river knowledge was crucial). The depth of river water beneath a steamboat was sometimes critically shallow and was measured with ‘lead lines’, which were ropes with a short length of lead-filled pipe on the end. The lead line was tossed over the side and the leadsman would call out the depth after observing how far the graduated line descended into the water. ‘Mark twain’ meant two fathoms, or twelve feet of water, which was considered safe water.
The following tale illustrates many aspects of the fierce competition and pride among the steamboat crews who transported commercial cargo through ever-shifting dangers. They contended with migrating sand bars, shallows, currents, fluctuating water depths and, of course, other crews that hated ‘to be beat’.
The Steamboat Race
Evening neared, and presently the pilot said:
“By George, yonda comes the Amaranth!”
What seemed to be a spark appeared close to the water, several miles astern and down the river. It took the trained eye of a riverman to detect the distant boat.
The pilot took his glass and looked at it steadily for a moment, and said, chiefly to himself: “It cain’t be the Blue Wing; she couldn’t pick us up this way. It’s the Amaranth, sure.”
He bent over a speaking-tube that connected to the engine room, and said:
“Who’s on watch down they-uh?”
A hollow, inhuman voice mumbled up through the tube in answer:
“I am---second engineer.”
“Good! You want to stir your stumps, now, Harry; the Amaranth’s just turned the point behind us, and she’s just a humping herself, too!”
The pilot took hold of a rope that stretched out forward, jerked it twice, and two mellow strokes of the big bell responded.
A voice on deck shouted:
“Stand by, down there, with that larboard lead!”
“No, I don’t want the lead,” said the pilot; I want you. Roust out the old man---tell him the Amaranth’s coming. And go and call Jim---tell him.”
“Aye! Aye! sir.”
The “old man” was the captain. He is always called so on steamboats and ships. “Jim” was the other pilot. Within two minutes both these men were flying up the pilot-house stairway, three steps at a jump. Jim was in his shirt sleeves, with his coat and his vest on his arm. He said:
“I was just turning in. Where’s the glass?”
He took it and looked:
“Don’t appear to be any night hawk on the jack-staff; it’s the Amaranth, dead sure!”
George Davis, the pilot on watch, shouted to the night watchman on deck:
“How’s she loaded?”
“Two inches by the head, sir!”
The captain shouted now:
“Call the mate. Tell him to call all hands and get a lot of the sugar forrard---put her ten inches by the head. Lively now!”
“Aye! aye! sir!”
A riot of shouting and trampling floated up from below, and presently the uneasy steering of the boat showed that she was getting “down by the head.”
The three men in the pilot-house began to talk in short, sharp sentences, low and earnestly. As their excitement rose, their voices went down. As fast as one of them put down the spy glass, another took it up---but always with a studied air of calmness. Each time the verdict was:
The captain spoke through the tube:
“What steam are you carrying?”
“A hundred and forty-two, sir! But she’s getting hotter and hotter all the time.”
The boat was straining, and groaning and quivering, like a monster in pain. Both pilots were at work now, one on each side of the wheel, with their coats and vests off, their bosoms and collars wide open, and the perspiration flowing down their faces. They were holding the boat so close to the shore that the willows swept the guards almost from stem to stern.
“Stand by!” whispered George.
“All ready!” said Jim under his breath. “Let her come!”
The boat sprang away from the bank like a deer, and darted in a long diagonal toward the other shore. She closed in again and thrashed her fierce way along the willows as before. The captain put down the glass:
“Blazes, how she walks up on us! I do hate to be beat!”
The Amaranth was within three hundred yards of the Boreas, and still gaining. The “old man” spoke through the tube:
“What is she carrying now?”
“A hundred and sixty-five, sir.”
“How’s your wood?”
“Pine all out, cypress half gone---eating up cottonwood like pie!”
“Break into the rosin on the main deck! Pile it in---the boat can pay for it!”
Soon the boat was plunging and quivering and screaming more madly than ever. But the Amaranth’s head was almost abreast the Boreas’ stern.
“How’s your steam now, Harry?”
“Hundred and eighty-two, sir.”
“Break up the casks of bacon in the forrard hold! Pile it in! Levy on that turpentine in the fantail—drench every stick of wood with it!”
The boat was a moving earthquake by this time.
“How is she now?”
“A hundred and ninety-six and still a-swelling!---water below the middle gauge cocks!---carrying every pound she can stand!---fireman roosting on the safety-valve!”
“Good! How’s your draft?”
“Bully! Every time a stoker heaves a stick of wood into the furnace he goes out the chimney with it!”
The Amaranth drew steadily up till her jack staff breasted the Boreas’ wheel house---climbed along inch by inch till her chimneys breasted it.
“Jim,” said George, looking straight ahead, watching the slightest yawning of the boat and promptly meeting it with the wheel, “how’ll it do to try Murderah’s Chute?”
“Well it’s---it’s taking chances. How was the cottonwood stump on the false point below Boardman’s Island this morning?”
“Watuh just touchin’ the roots.”
“Well, it’s pretty close work. That gives six feet scant in the head of Murderer’s Chute. We can just barely rub through if we hit it exactly right. But it’s worth trying. She don’t dare tackle it,” meaning the Amaranth.
In another instant the Boreas plunged into what seemed a crooked creek, and the lights of the Amaranth were lost to view in a moment. Not a whisper was uttered, now, but the three men stared ahead into the shadows, and two of them spun the wheel back and forth with anxious watchfulness, while the steamer tore along. The Chute seemed to come to an end every fifty yards, but always opened out in time. Now the head of it was at hand. George tapped the big bell three times; two leadsmen sprang to their posts, and in a moment their weird cries rose on the night air and were caught up and repeated by two men on the upper deck:
“Mark under water three!”
Davis pulled a couple of ropes, there was a jingling of small bells far below, the boat’s speed s-l-a-c-k-e-n-e-d, and the pent steam began to whistle and the gauge cocks to scream.
“By the mark twain!”
“Quarter her---er---less twain!”
“Eight and a half!”
Another jingling of little bells and the great wheels ceased turning altogether. The frantic w-h-i-s-t-l-i-n-g of the steam was something frightful now; it almost drowned all other noises.
They drifted toward the last, hard curve of the chute.
“Stand by to meet her!”
This was an exacting moment. They needed to start the boat swinging sideways and then counter the rotating momentum in time to orient her precisely for running straight out of the chute and back into the main channel of the river. This maneuver would prove the gamble worthwhile or foolhardy.
George had the wheel hard down and was standing on a spoke as the sideways rudder far below strained to tear the wheel in the opposite direction.
The boat hesitated, seemed to hold her breath---as did the captain and pilots---and then she began to fall away to starboard, and every eye lighted.
“Now then! meet her! meet her! snatch her!” The wheel flew to port so fast that the spokes blended into a spider web, the swing of the boat subsided; she steadied herself and began drifting directly toward the shallow exit of the chute. She was about to slip over or be foundered.
“Sev---six and a half!”
“Six feet! Six f---“
Bang! She hit the bottom! George shouted through the tube:
“Spread her wide open! Whale it at her!”
The escape pipes belched snowy pillars of steam upwards, the wheels dug and thrashed, the boat groaned and surged and trembled and…..slid over into---
“Quarter her helm.”
There was a tap! tap! tap! on the bell, signaling to lay in the leads.
And away she went, flying up the willow shore with the whole moon-silvered sea of the Mississippi stretching abroad on every hand, and, no Amaranth in sight.