Leadsman sounding the river

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With graphics from the collection of
Dave Thomson

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I am so indolent, & all forms of study are so hateful to me, that although I was several years constantly on steamboats, I never learned all the parts of the steamboat. Names of parts were in my ear daily whose office & locality I was ignorant of, & I never inquired the meaning of those names. For instance, I think I never saw the day that I could describe the marks on a lead line. I never knew what "in the run" meant--I couldn't find the run in a boat to-day, & be sure I was right.
- Notebook #20, reprinted in Mark Twains Notebooks & Journals, Vol. II (1877-1883)



Steamboat Anatomy

Next, instead of calling out a score of hands to man the stage, a couple of men and a hatful of steam lowered it from the derrick where it was suspended, launched it, deposited it in just the right spot, and the whole thing was over and done-with before a mate in the olden time could have got his profanity-mill adjusted to begin the preparatory services. Why this new and simple method of handling the stages was not thought of when the first steamboat was built, is a mystery which helps one to realize what a dull-witted slug the average human being is.
- Life on the Mississippi

When a pilot "calls for the lead" he gives the command with a signal from the whistle or bell. Soundings are taken from either side of the boat, and when necessary from both sides. One signal from the pilot house sends a leadsman to the starboard (right) side, two signals to the larboard (left or "port" side). The same signals from the pilothouse recall the leadsman from his post. Soundings are taken at the discretion of the pilot, when making a crossing, going through seldom used chutes, or at any time when there is doubt regarding the depth of the water. When a leadsman is at work the pilot expects to be informed of the depth of the channel about ever hundred feet. Throughout the leadsman's chanting, pilots listen hopefully for "No Bottom." To them this is the leadsman's sweetest song. When a boat can be kept in deep water the danger of going aground is avoided.
- Steamboatin' Days - Folks Songs of the River Packet Era, Mary Wheeler. Louisiana State University Press, 1944.

Mark Twain musical notes

Quarter Less Twain - ten and one-half feet

Mark Twain - twelve feet (two fathoms)

Quarter Twain - thirteen and one-half feet

Half Twain - fifteen feet

Quarter Less Three - sixteen and one-half feet

Mark Three - eighteen feet (three fathoms)

Quarter Three - nineteen and one-half feet

Half Three - twenty-one feet

Quarter Less Four - -twenty-two and one-half feet

Mark Four (or Deep Four) - twenty-four feet (four fathoms)

No Bottom - over twenty-four feet

So far forward in the bow as to crowd the unguarded edge of the deck, a scant two feet above the water, the "leadman" took watch with his weight. In monotones he shouted the depths to the watch on the hurricane deck. Louder but equally monotoned the deck repeated them.

"Ma-a-a-a-rk three!"
"Half twain--quarter less twain--m-a-r-k twain!"

So they shouted, minute upon minute. I cannot translate their Mississippi-River English. Mark Twain's name in the mouth of the flat-nosed Ethiopian down there? Whatever did the name of the American humorist have to do with the muddy bottom of the Mississippi? Timidly I ventured the question to the captain.

"Two fathoms," said he.

Wasn't it modest of Mr. Clemens to sign his books with so shallow so superficial a nom de plume!
- From Travels on the Lower Mississippi 1879-1880; A Memoir by Ernst von Hesse-Wartegg. Edited and Translated by Frederic Trautmann - University of MO Press 1990

For quotes on the Mississippi and life as a pilot on the river see the following quotations at this site:

Mississippi River
Mississippi River Water
Steamboat Pilot
Steamboat Pilot House
Steamboat Racing
Steamboat Saloon

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