Almost 20 years ago while at a family dinner, my sister-in-law (who worked on a cruise ship at the time) said she had “jumped ship” at the last moment to attend the family function. That chance comment spawned images that have haunted me ever since. I knew what she meant, yet my imagination took over. For the remainder of the evening, the writer in me watched a movie play over and over in my mind. A panicked man running along the deck of a Mississippi riverboat as someone chased him. To escape, the pursued man jumped overboard into the murky waters below. Story questions ensued. Who was this man? Who was chasing him, and for what reason? Little did I know at the time, but it would take nearly two decades to finally settle into writing his story and learning the answers to my questions.
Now that I am working on the story, I find myself researching Western riverboats. Laurie Alice Eakes has already filled us in on their origins here, so I thought I would pick up where she left off. This month, I’ll tell you a bit about the riverboats architecture, and as I delve deeper into my research, I’ll probably fill you in on other aspects of riverboat life and lore.
|City of Cairo, Artist A. McLean|
|Main cabin (or Saloon) of the City of Arkansas|
|Ladies Cabin on the J. M. White|
By the 1840’s, riverboat architecture progressed to the point of providing actual staterooms. The staterooms were situated along the perimeter of the main cabin, and each room had two doors. One led into the main cabin, and the other out onto the wide promenade deck, where passengers could sit or stroll. The staterooms also were elaborately decorated, just as the main cabin. They included beds, washstands, mirrors, and other amenities to make their trip comfortable. Most riverboats could accommodate 125 passengers, but paying customers would not be turned away if there was a lack of staterooms. In such cases, the rooms were given to the women and children first, and any men who lacked a room would be bedded down on the floor of the main cabin each night.
|Boiler deck Promenade on the J. M. White|
(Notice the spittoons spaced every few feet).
Most steamboats were painted completely white, although some had blue roofs, or sometimes blue, green, or red hulls. They added color to the stark white through the use of bright flags and pennants, stained glass windows, as well as elaborate murals depicting the names of the boats.
And speaking of the names of the boats, Hollywood has it wrong. So often in movies where a riverboat plays a part, the name of the vessel is the generic River Queen. In reality, the names were far more interesting. A few examples are Arabia, Gold Dust, or Lady Madison.
It’s your turn. Have you had an opportunity to travel on a riverboat? If so, please share you experience.
Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and made the top 10 and top 3 in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and five fur children.