Steamboat Glossary

Steam navigation on the Western Rivers (q.v.) developed, through trial-and-error, its own, distinctive technology and methods of operation. As time went on, these practices diverged farther and farther from traditional, seagoing maritime practice, and the terminology used on the rivers became distinctive in its own right.

Everyone’s familiar with Sam Clemens’ pen name, Mark Twain, and most probably know it’s based on the call of the steamboat’s leadsman, reporting the depth of the water. That, in turn, was an adaptation from blue-water practice, where “by the mark, twain” indicated a depth of two fathoms, or twelve feet.

Other adaptations in language are not quite so direct. In The Galveston-Houston Packet: Steamboats on Buffalo Bayou, I’ve tried to strike a balance between using the language that the steamboatmen used — words that often had a very specific, precise meaning — and a vocabulary more suited to a general readership.

So as an aid to my readers, as well as anyone else interested in the subject, here is a glossary or steamboatin’ terms one is likely to come across when exploring the subject. Many of these are adapted from the glossary in Captain Alan L. Bates’ The Western Rivers Steamboat Cyclop√¶dium, a book ostensibly written for modelers but in fact a wonderful introduction to steamboat technology generally.

Come across a term that’s not listed? Drop it in the comments below and we’ll see what we can do!

Arm. One of the timbers used as a spoke on a paddlewheel. The arms are all affixed to the flange at one end, and have buckets attached to the other.


A three-boiler battery from the wreck of the sidewheeler Arabia, wrecked on the Missouri River in 1856. Original image via the Steamboat Arabia Museum.


Battery. A set of two or more cylindrical boilers, arranged side-by-side in a single boiler casing.

Bilge turn. The area on the inside of the hull where the side of the hull meets the bottom, sometimes in the form of a chine.

Bitts. Heavy, upright posts, strongly fastened to the hull, used for securing lines connecting the boat to the shore, to tows, or other heavy-duty loads.

Block. A large pulley. A block may have two or more rollers, called sheeves, which increase its efficiency in moving heavy weights.

Boiler Deck. The deck above the boilers and the main deck, where most passenger accommodations were located — cabins, saloons, etc.

Boom. A long spar, or pole, used with block-and-tackle to move heavy weights around the boat and between boat and shore. Also can be used to help move the boat off an obstacle or the shore.

Brace. A heavy, wooden post, set upright or at an angle, over which the chains are run. This system, like the parts of a truss bridge, help spread stress over a wide area and allow the boat’s hull to maintain its rigidity.

Breeching. Lightweight, sheet metal connection between the boilers and the chimneys, used to carry away hot gases from the furnaces.

Bucket. One of the blade on the paddlewheel that came in contact with the water, propelling the boat. Often called a “float” in other maritime contexts.

Cabin. A space set aside for passengers or officers to sleep or change clothes. Passenger cabins were extremely small, as meals and most other activities on board took place in the public areas of the boat, inducing the saloon and on deck. Most passenger cabins were located on the boiler deck, and opened onto both the outside deck and the interior saloon. Charlotte M. Houstoun, recounting her time on Buffalo Bayou on the steamer Dayton in the 1840s, described the bunk in her cabin as a “narrow shelf.”

Capstan. A heavy, vertical cylinder, usually turned by muscle but sometimes by steam, used to pull heavy lines. A capstan could be used, in conjunction with booms and block-and-tackle, to move heavy cargoes, to help pull one boat alongside another or to the bank, or when an anchor is laid out away from the vessel, to pull the boat off an obstruction like a sandbar.

Chimney. A steamboat’s smokestack or funnel.

Chine. A hard angle, often found on smaller boats, where the side of the hull meets the bottom of the hull.

Chock. A fitting on the edge of the hull through which lines or ropes are lead. The chick may be fitted with rollers turning on a horizontal axis, which allow the rope to move in and out while reducing friction on both the rope and the chock itself.

Coaming. A raised edge around a hatch or opening in the deck.

Casing. Light sheet metal enclosure placed around the boiler and firebrick furnaces of the boat.

Chain. A heavy, wrought-iron bar, extending from one point of the boat’s structure to another over posts called braces. This system, like the parts of a truss bridge, help spread stress over a wide area and allow the boat’s hull to maintain its rigidity.

Cross chain. A chain that runs athwartships, from one side of the boat to the other, across the centerline. Cross chains were common on sidewheelers, in which the main deck extended far out from the side of the hull, and heavy weights like the sidewheels and wheelhouses needed additional structural support.

Cylinder timber. A heavy timber to which one of a steamboat’s engines is affixed. The cylinder timber also usually bears the weight of the paddlewheel bearing, the fitting in which the wheel shaft rotates.

Doctor. A steam-powered feed pump, introduced in the 1840s, that helped maintain a safe level of water in a boat’s boilers, greatly reducing the threat of a boiler explosion. The doctor got its name because it was said to cure all the ills of a steamboat — which is not really true, of course, but the doctor did greatly improve the overall safety of steamboat operations.

Dredge. As a verb, to excavate under water. i.e., to make a waterway deeper. As a noun, a vessel outfitted with pumps, winches and other heavy machinery to do such work. Intensive dredging operations on Buffalo Bayou began in the 1870s and, for those areas of the bayou that are now part of the Houston Ship Channel, have continued right down to the present.

Flame bed. The brick-lined bottom of the casing, under the boilers, which carried the hot gasses from the furnaces under the bottom of the boilers

Flange. A cast metal component of the boat’s paddlewheel, that connected the wheel’s arms to the turning shaft.


A five-flue boiler from the Buffalo Bayou steamboat Mary Conley (built 1866), recovered from the wreck and now located near Liberty, Texas. Author’s photo.


Flue. An opening running the length of a cylindrical steamboat boiler, which in the mid-19th century might typically have two- to five flues. These were early examples of what came to be known as “fire-tube” boilers, in which hot gases from the furnaces and flame bed were directed through the flues on their way to the chimney, transferring heat to the surrounding water. The tendency over time was to use many more tubes, of a much smaller diameter, which were both stronger and (in aggregate) encompassed more surface area for heat transfer.

Gangplank. A narrow board or platform allowing passengers and cargo to move from one boat to another, or from the boat to the shore. A larger gangplank, suspended from above and maneuvered at the bow of the boat, was known as a stage.

Hogging. The tendency for a ship’s hull to sag at the ends where it is smaller in cross-section and therefore less bouyant. This tends to affect all wooden-hulled vessels over time, but the very lightweight construction of Western Rivers boats made it particularly a problem for them. This problem was countered by the introduction of hog chains in the 1830s.

Hog chain. Heavy, wrought-iron bars, extending fore-and-aft from one end of the boat’s hull to the other, arranged over posts called braces. This system, like the parts of a truss bridge, help spread stress over a wide area and allow the boat’s hull to prevent it from hogging.

Hurricane deck. The deck above the boiler deck, usually the uppermost full deck on the boat. On smaller boats the pilothouse might be situated on the hurricane deck, or there might be a small set of cabins (usually for the boat’s officers) placed there.

Jacket. A lightweight metal cylinder placed around, and a few inches apart from, the boat’s chimneys. Air being a poor conductor of heat, the jacket helped protect the boat’s woodwork and passengers from the mot metal of the chimneys.

Jackstaff. A lightweight mast at the very point of the bow, which served both to display a flag or banner, and to provide the pilot with a point of reference in navigating the boat. The jackstaff was often fitted with a nighthawk, a mark placed at the level of the pilot’s eye, that allowed him to judge distances along the river or stream.

Keelson. A longitudinal timber resting along the bottom of the hull. The keelson (pronounced “kelson”) helped give the hull strength and was often an anchor point for hog chains. From the 1840s on, most Western Rivers boats did not have external keels, but larger boats might have a main keelson running along the centerline of the boat, and several smaller keelsons running parallel to it.

Kevel. River term for a two-horned fitting to which lines are secure — in other words, a big cleat.

Main deck.  The lowest full deck of a Western Rivers steamboat, the one closest to the water. The main deck was where the boilers, engines and most machinery were located, along with stacks of cordwood for fuel, livestock, cargo, and so on.

Manhole. A small opening in a boiler, just large enough to allow a man (or more likely, a boy) to crawl inside for cleaning and maintenance.

Mud drum. A cylinder arranged under a battery of boilers, connected to each, into which sediment suspended in the water could settle. Mud drums had to be cleaned out frequently, but helped to keep the water in the boilers (relatively) clean.

Packet. A vessel (sail or steam) that ran between specified points on a regular schedule with passengers and cargo.

Pilothouse. The small, glassed-in structure atop the boat from which the captain or pilot steered the vessel. The pilot transmitted engine orders to the engineers on duty on the main deck below by a series bell rings or by a speaking tube.

Pitman. A connecting rod consisting of a wooden timber, strapped and reinforced with an iron band, that transmitted the forward-and-back, reciprocating motion of the engine piston, to a rotary motion that turned the paddlewheel.

Safety valve. Steamboat boilers in the 19th century were fitted with extremely simple safety valves, consisting of a arm, hinged a one end, whose own weight closed a valve that would let steam escape from the boiler. (Western Rivers boats generally used “high pressure” boilers, operating at 120 to 140 pounds per square inch above ambient air pressure.) When the pressure inside the boiler, pushing up against the valve, overcame the weight of the valve arm, the valve would open and the excess pressure would be blown off into the chimney. It was often alleged that engineers would attach extra weights to the valve arms, or even tie them down, to increase the pressure in the boilers during a race.

Sampson post. A tall post or mast, footed on the keelson, to which chains supporting the guards and wheelhouses were attached. This structural element fell out of favor in the 1850s because it put undue stress on the keelson, and was prone to punch a hole in the bottom of the boat. A contemporary drawing of the Battle of Galveston suggests that Bayou City, launched in 1859, may have been fitted with a sampson post.

Scape pipe. Short for “escape pipe,” a vertical pipe, open at the top, to vent spent steam from the boat’s engines into the atmosphere. In an effort to save weight and reduce complexity, boats on the Western Rivers never adopted the condensers and other machinery used by seagoing steamships to return spent steam to liquid form and return it to the boilers. With each stroke of the engine, a slug of spent steam would shoot up through the scape pipe, resulting in a distinctive huff-huff-huff sound as the boat moved along.

Snag. A tree trunk or heavy limb, embedded in the river bottom and presenting a serious hazard to steamboats.


Snags on the Trinity River near Liberty, Texas. Author’s photo.


Snagboat. A particular type of steamboat, fitted with heavy-duty derricks and winches, used to clear snags and other obstructions from the riverbed.

Stage. A large, heavy gangway, usually swung out from the bow of the boat, to allow the transfer of passengers and cargo between the boat and the shore.

Steam drum. A horizontal cylinder, placed above and spanning a battery of boilers, which collects the live steam from those boilers before it is transferred to run the engines or other machinery, like the doctor.

Tiller. The horizontal lever that swings the rudder from side to side.

Tow. As a verb, for a powered vessel to move an unpowered one, like a barge. Tow may also be a noun, referring to the craft being moved. In the 19th century on Buffalo Bayou, barges were either towed behind the steamboat on a long line, or lashed firmly alongside. Over time, it was learned that the towing vessel has much better control over its barges if they’re all lashed firmly together and pushed from behind — but they’re still called towboats.

Turnbuckle. A fitting used to adjust the tension on a chain.

Western Rivers. The Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and Red Rivers and their tributaries, which together form an interconnected system of waterways that encompass much of the continental United States. Although Buffalo Bayou and most of the other rivers in Texas are not actually part of the Western Rivers by definition, the steamboats and operating practices are the same.

Wheelhouse. The lightweight wooden structure enclosing the paddlewheel, sometimes called a wheelbox. Not to be confused with pilothouse, the place from which the vessel is commanded and steered.

Yawl. A small rowboat carried aboard most steamboats, used for carrying lines ashore, putting out buoys, or general utility work.



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