Monday, September 10, 2012

The Keelboatmen

Marietta Register, Semi-Weekly, May 22, 1888

The rivers were available means for the transportation of products before roads were built.  And they are still largely used, not even giving way to their most serious competitor, the railroad.

There were two forms of boats in common use on the western rivers in early days.  One was the flatboat or "broadhorn" as it was nicknamed; the other, on account of its different construction and to distinguish it from the former, went by the name of the keel boat.  The first was almost exclusively for floating with the stream, for when loaded it was about as unwieldy as a log would be for moving against the current.

To many of our older inhabitants a description of the keel boat may seem superfluous, but they should bear in mind that a large majority of the present generation never saw one, and have but an imperfect idea of what kind of a craft they were.

In outward appearance they bore some resemblance to a canal boat of the present day.  They were from fifty to eighty feet in length and eight to twelve in width, with a shallow hold, and sinking when fully loaded from two to three feet in the water.  They were substantially roofed, the height of which from the bottom of the hold was somewhat higher than a man's head.  Their carrying capacity was from fifty to seventy-five tons. 

The siding sloped inward so as to give room to the men who pushed the boat.  There was an extension on each side from the keel of eighteen inches to two feet.  This was termed the race board, and on it at short distances were heavy cleats nailed across that served as braces to the feet of the men who poled the boat.  The poles used were made of the very best timber that could be procured.  In length they averaged about ten feet, with a heavy iron socket fastened to the lower end, while the upper end had a smoothly turned knob of wood, about two inches in diameter, which was placed against the shoulder of the pusher.  The largest part of the pole was about one-third of the way from the lower end, and tapered to a much smaller diameter at the upper part.  The men were very careful in the selection of their poles, testing them in various ways, so as to be sure that they would be equal to any emergency.  They had good reasons for doing so.  If a man's pole should break while he is pushing he would be fortunate if he escaped with only a ducking in the river.  Sometimes a splinter of the pole would seriously wound him, and occasionally even death was the result.

The pilot of the boat was captain, too, and often also the owner, either of the whole or in part.  He stood on the roof at the stern, holding a properly shaped pole or stick of timber which extended back to the water, where was fastened a narrow plank six or eight feet long.  He had no kine of protection over him, standing out in all sorts of weather.  This was also the case with the early built steamboats.  I can remember of seeing steamboats on the Muskingum where the pilot stood at the wheel without any covering over him.  The pilot house was an after thought.

The pushing crew of a keel boat numbered from six on the small to twelve on the larger ones.  There was also a cook, and perhaps a cabin boy or scullion.  Two men, one on each side, of the strongest and most expert pushers, were termed bowmen.  Where the current was comparatively gradual the method was for the men to push the whole length of the boat.  But, as is the case in the Ohio now and was in the Muskingum before it was dammed, there were numerous shallows where the water ran much swifter.  These places were termed "riffles," and had sometimes a gravel bottom and in other places a rocky one.  Poling through these was slow and usually very laborious work.  In these places the custom was to break hands, as it was termed.  The bowsmen with one or more of the others would push half way on the raceboard, where they would stop and go back, while the rest of the hands went through to the stern.  By this means part of the men were pushing all the time.

The directions of the captain to the bow pushers when they reached the middle of the boat was he-e-ead to, dwelling long on the vowel sound in the first word, and uttering the last one with a strong, explosive sound.  When the balance of the men reached to the farther end of the boat, and the bow-hands had set their poles, then the captain sang out, u-u-up behind.  Some of the captains had very strong voices even if not especially musical.  One in particular, who followed boating for a long time and was well known along the river, could be heard at least two miles.

Where the water was smooth and the boat going along at a good pace, the captain might be in a very good humor and sometimes in a merry mood, whistling a tune or singing a song.  But let the boat get on a hidden rock or snag and their manner changed very quickly.  The whole air would be blue with profanity; every manner of cursing known in the language would be indulged in freely.  If the boat could not be pushed off of the obstruction readily the men were ordered to get out into the river and pry her off with their poles or handspikes, of which there was always carried a supply as they were often needed.

The crew of a keel boat was a "tough set," physically and morally.  There were some exceptions, of course, but they were generally considered the hardest lot of men in the whole country.  There was a saying among them, that a man wasn't fit to be a keelboatman unless he could drink a quart of whisky a day, and sleep at night on a sand or gravel bar without anything under or over him.  And there is not doubt but that most of them could do so.  They would push day after day with the wooden end of the pole often against the naked shoulder, and the skin would finally become so thickened and callous that they would feel no inconvenience from it.  It was very laborious work, and none but the most muscular and enduring men would think of engaging in it.  They did not have any eight or ten hour rule for a day's labor, but worked from morning until night, stopping only for meals, working in the rain or in the hottest sunshine, getting in the water perhaps every hour, and doing it all for fifty cents a day, which was about the average wages.

They were pretty good foragers.  So well was this known to be the case, that the farmers along the river considered it unfortunate to have a keel boat tie up at night near their farm, and if any chickens were missed from the roost or honey from the hive, it was usually thought best not to make any complaint, for more than likely they would get no redress and might fare worse next time.

When there was an unusually swift or bad place to be passed they had to resort to cordelling.  A line was sent ahead and made fast, and the boat warped forward with the capstan.  Also, when there was a rise in the river and the water was too deep for poling, they had resource to what was termed "bush-whacking," or catching to the overhanging limbs of the trees, which then lined the banks, and pulled their craft along in that way.

But, if their trip up the river was toilsome and tedious to the last degree, they made amends to some extent in the return passage.  There was no push then and no rowing except to keep out of the bends.  They lazily floated with the current, and if the weather was fair they spent their time on the top of the boat, either dancing to the fiddle played by one of their number or with a game of cards.  There was always whisky "galore" and they were as merry a set of lads as could have been seen anywhere.

There were many strange legends and stories told of the old boatmen, of their wild carousals and bitter quarrels, of their shooting off tincups placed on another's head in token of reconciliation, but it is difficult now to tell what was true or what was more invention or exaggeration.

The advent of the steamboat drove them from the waters of the Ohio.  They lingered a while longer on the Muskingum, for steamboats could only occasionally go up during rises in the river.  But after that stream was made navigable by the building of the dams and locks their vocation was gone.  They went on farms or drifted into the towns.  A portion of them found occupation as pilots on steamboats, for which they had a thoroughly practical training so far as knowing the channel and the situation of every rock and snag.

I have not as yet been able to find what was the charge for freight from Pittsburgh to Zanesville, but think it must have been about from fifty to seventy-five cents per hundred pounds.

It was considered a quick trip to go from Marietta to Zanesville in a week.  Now our steam packets run through in a little more than from sunrise to sunset, and in a few weeks, on this, the centennial year, the iron horse will traverse the distance in three hours.

J. W.

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