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board, but have relatives or friends whose lives and safety are occasionally intrusted to a Western steamboat ; and few Eastern merchants, but are interested, more or less directly, in the safe transportation of merchandise by the same mode of conveyance.
There are at all times afloat on the Western waters, probably not less than fifteen thousand human beings, and an amount of property, in boats and cargoes, hard to be calculated. An inquiry into the causes that render unsafe the transit of so many people, and so much property, to produce any valuable result, should extend beyond the researches of science, or the experiments of the laboratory, or the institute. We must look to the peculiar characteristics of the Western rivers, and to the construction of the boats that navigate them ; to the composition and character of their crews; to the qualifications and habits of their captains and other officers; and to the temper, wants, and deportment of the class of people who form the majority of their passengers. And the result will show, how far any laws that have been yet enacted are likely to go towards remedying the evils at which they are aimed, or whether those evils are within the reach of legislative remedy at all.
Ingenuity may exhaust itself in the controversy, as to whether any given boiler exploded simply from the gradually increased pressure of the steam, confined by an overloaded safety-valve, from the collapsing of a bare and overheated flue, or from a certain much talked-of and mysterious explosive gas. Yet, as long as the management of so tremendous an agent as steam shall be abandoned to the control of careless, ignorant, or intemperate engineers, no perfection of boiler or engine, no strictness of periodical examination, will insure any exemption from explosion. The statutes of the general and State governments may be filled with enactments for the punishment of carelessness on the part of owners, or captain ; but, so long as boats shall be intrusted to the care of men, unfit, from their youth, inexperience, or want of moral principle, for the responsible station, so long shall we hear of their sinking, burning, and running each other down.
In a community such as ours, it has long been held, that a free competition must inevitably compel those who look in any way to the public for a support, to consult the wants and convenience of their patrons. And there is no question, but the proverbial shrewdness of our countrymen has enabled those of them engaged in the steamboat business, after a thirty years' experience, to settle down upon the description of conveyance, and the style of accommodation, which, by satisfying the greatest portion of the travelling public, assures to them the largest patronage. An extended experience enables us to say, that the qualities which will most effectually fill the cabin of a Western boat are not (generally speaking) the greater stability and experience of the captain, the safer or more substantial construction of the boat, or engine, but rather, a reputation for speed, which promises a progress of a few more miles a day, or the difference of a few dollars less in the price of the passage. It is in vain to hold it out as an inducement to passengers, (we have seen it tried,) that any boat is furnished with the patent safety-valve, or supplied with lifepreservers ; another lying alongside, which has proved the faster in a trial of speed, leaves port crowded, while the empty cabin of the former causes captain and owners mentally to resolve, that the next boat they build, shall at all events be a fast one.
The peculiar character of the rivers themselves forms one of the chiefs obstacles to their safe navigation. The “falling-in” banks of the Mississippi, Missouri, and some others of the streams, covered, as they mostly are, with a heavy growth of forest, are constantly filling the channel with obstructions of the most dangerous description. A huge tree is precipitated into the stream, and the earth adhering to the roots sinks them to the bottom, while the buoyancy of the leaves and branches, causing them to float, gives it of course a direction slanting with the current. The deposit of mud that the river ever makes about any obstruction soon anchors it. The running ice and drift-wood remove all the smaller limbs, and sharpen the main body of the tree, — and we have, in few words, the history of a snag. Some of these snags show themselves above the surface of the water, others are entirely below it, being more or less submerged according to the stage of water. The former can of course in the day time, be easily seen and avoided ; but the latter are at all times dangerous, the break that they cause in the current, especially if far below the surface, not being always distinguishable.
The danger from this source is increased by the style of boat-building now almost universal. It was formerly usual to put a mass of solid timber in the bows of boats, and they consequently often came off from these encounters with impunity. But it was found that this substantial mode of building gave them too much draught, and that boats so constructed hadto lie by, sometimes for several months, in the season of low water. Lightness of draught, therefore, has recently been a quality especially sought after; and it has been attained to such an extent, that, excepting the bark canoe, there hardly floats a craft more buoyant, and more frail, than the lowwater steamboat. The look-out that is kept, while the boat is under way, is by no means in general adequate to safety ; more especially at night. For, though this is understood to be the business of the portion of the crew on watch, yet it is a duty often but carelessly performed, and the whole affair is frequently left to the unaided vigilance of the pilot. Knowing all this, the traveller may well press an anxious pillow, while in the darkness of the night the boat is still rushing by a succession of obstacles, like those whose black and sharpened points he had watched, as they presented themselves by daylight with alarming frequency. The labors of the officer, who for several years past has been engaged, under the authority and at the expense of the United States, in removing these and other obstructions, have been doubtless most beneficial ; but, as they are continually forming, the task of their removal must be reiterated and perpetual. Nothing but the entire removal of the timber, which can only be effected by the cultivation of every acre of the river banks, can effectually arrest the evil. But the reasons are obvious, why, even after the whole of the interior of the countries bordering these rivers shall be settled, years must elapse before the wet and sickly bottom-lands will become the chosen and habitual residence of man.
Another description of accident of frequent occurrence, arises from boats coming in collision. In this case, the weaker boat of the two is very apt to sink, and sometimes almost instantaneously. To the nature of the rivers, again, we must mainly look, for the frequency of this casualty. Nearly all of the Western streams run in a series of curves or
bends; the point of one bend frequently shutting out all sight of the river beyond it. Each of these points throws the strength of the current across, and into the centre of the river, forming under itself something like a slackwater. The ascending boat takes advantage of this, and keeps as close as possible to the shore. A boat in descending, availing itself of the strong current, keeps the middle of the channel. Consequently, so long as the boats are “in the bend,” there is but little danger of collision. It is during the night, in emerging from behind these points, when it becomes necessary for the ascending boat to cross the river to get into the hollow of the next bend, or in coming suddenly from behind some one of the islands, with which the Mississippi and many of its tributaries are dotted, that these accidents mostly happen. As the two boats come instantaneously in sight of each other, their fire doors are flung open, and a prodigious glare of light is thus thrown across the waters ; but this serves only to convince the pilot of either boat of what he was well aware of before, – that is, that his boat is in dangerous proximity to some other, while, as to the precise course the other may be steering, it affords no information whatever. In the tremendous emergency, it is not surprising that the pilots sometimes lose their presence of mind. In fact, the situation of the two boats can be best understood by noticing the perplexity which sometimes attends the meeting of two persons in the street; and the alternate dodging, the indecision, and the final collision that often winds up the encounter, afford no unapt illustration of the case in hand. There is no accident, the consequences of which are generally more frightful than this. The crash of the meeting boats, more terrific than words can express, the screams of the affrighted passengers, the utter confusion, need only the concomitant horrors of darkness, to complete a scene such as those who have once passed through it can never forget. It is impossible, of course, to ascertain at once the extent of damage, or the degree of danger; and, though one boat may go down at once, and the water be covered with her struggling crew, the alarm and confusion on board of the other, even although she may be comparatively uninjured, may well prevent the rendering of any effectual assistance ; and, when the subsiding of the panic, and the return of authority and reason, permit an attention to the dictates of humanity, the few moments so important to many a drowning wretch may have elapsed.
The astonishing depth of the Mississippi adds greatly to the danger to life, when a boat sinks from any cause. On the Ohio or Upper Mississippi, or in fact on almost any other river but this, the great height of their upper works would prevent these boats from being entirely submerged. But there are many places on this mighty stream, where a line of three hundred feet has failed to find bottom; and this depth is retained to the very edge of the perpendicular and crumbling bank. We remember to have seen the place where a large boat sank, after being made fast to the shore, indicated only by remnants of the lines by which she was fastened to the trees.
Next, perhaps, in point of frequency and danger, on the list of casualties, is fire. A consideration, again, of the peculiar character of these rivers, of the construction of boats, and occasionally of the nature of their cargo, will account for the destruction of life attending accidents from this cause, on rivers, where (as the shore is never very distant) an easy means of escape would seem to be always at hand.
It not unfrequently happens, that there are reaches on the rivers, of considerable extent, where it is impossible for boats of the larger class to land on either side. A large boat, many years ago, coming up from New Orleans, having among her freight a considerable quantity of turpentine and gunpowder, took fire at a place, where, on the one side, a falling-in bank had filled the river to a considerable distance with logs and other obstructions, and on the other a bar made out, on which she would have grounded in seven or eight feet of water. By the exertions of the captain and crew the fire was extinguished ; but the horrible situation, during the few moments of sus, pense, of those who knew the true state of things, can hardly be imagined. A more combustible mass than the whole upper works of these boats it is difficult to conceive. And this must necessarily be the case, since lightness of draught must be united with a considerable extent of accommodation. They tower story over story, a huge pile of pine boards, ready, it would seem, to be ignited by any one of the shower of sparks which the chimneys are continually pouring over the whole boat. A spark from this source, communicating with something easily combustible, has been the origin of most of VOL. 1. — No. 106.