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Chapter 3 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The “Belle of the West”

I was on board at the advertised time; but punctuality on a Mississippi steamboat must not be expected; and I found myself too early, by a couple of hours at least.

The time was not thrown away. I spent it to some profit in examining the peculiar craft in which I had embarked. I say, peculiar; for the steamers employed upon the Mississippi and its tributary waters are unlike those of any other country—even unlike those in use in the Atlantic or Eastern States.

They are strictly “river-boats,” and could not live in anything like a rough sea; though the reckless owners of some of them have occasionally risked them along the coast from Mobile to Galveston, Texas!

The hull is built like that of a sea boat, but differs materially from the latter in depth of hold. So shallow is it, that there is but little stowage-room allowed; and the surface of the main deck is but a few inches above the water-line. Indeed, when the boat is heavily laden, the waves lip over the gunwales. Upon the deck is placed the machinery; and there rest the huge cast-iron boilers, and the grates or “furnaces,” necessarily large, because the propelling power is produced from logs of wood. There, also, most of the freight is stowed, on account of the light capacity of the hold; and on every part, not occupied by the machinery and boilers, may be seen piles of cotton-bales, hogsheads of tobacco, or bags of corn, rising to the height of many feet. This is the freight of a down-river-boat. On the return trip, of course, the commodities are of a different character, and consist of boxes of Yankee furniture, farming implements, and “notions,” brought round by ship from Boston; coffee in bags from the West Indies, rice, sugar, oranges, and other products of the tropical South.

On the after-part of this deck is a space allotted to the humbler class of travellers known as “deck passengers.” These are never Americans. Some are labouring Irish—some poor German emigrants on their way to the far North-West; the rest are negroes—free, or more generally slaves.

I dismiss the hull by observing that there is a good reason why it is built with so little depth of hold. It is to allow the boats to pass the shoal water in many parts of the river, and particularly during the season of drought. For such purpose the lighter the draught, the greater the advantage; and a Mississippi captain, boasting of the capacity of his boat in this respect, declared, that all he wanted was a heavy dew upon, the grass, to enable him to propel her across the prairies!

If there is but little of a Mississippi steamboat under the water, the reverse is true of what may be seen above its surface. Fancy a two-story house some two hundred feet in length, built of plank, and painted to the whiteness of snow; fancy along the upper story a row of green-latticed windows, or rather doors, thickly set, and opening out upon a narrow balcony; fancy a flattish or slightly rounded roof covered with tarred canvas, and in the centre a range of sky-lights like glass forcing-pits; fancy, towering above all, two enormous black cylinders of sheet-iron, each ten feet in diameter, and nearly ten times as high, the “funnels” of the boat; a smaller cylinder to one side, the “’scape-pipe;” a tall flag-staff standing up from the extreme end of the bow, with the “star-spangled banner” flying from its peak;—fancy all these, and you may form some idea of the characteristic features of a steamboat on the Mississippi.

Enter the cabin, and for the first time you will be struck with the novelty of the scene. You will there observe a splendid saloon, perhaps a hundred feet in length, richly carpeted and adorned throughout. You will note the elegance of the furniture,—costly chairs, sofas, tables, and lounges; you will note the walls, richly gilded and adorned with appropriate designs; the crystal chandeliers suspended from the ceiling; the hundred doors that lead to the “state-rooms” on each side, and the immense folding-door of stained or ornamental glass, which shuts in the sacred precinct of the “ladies’ saloon.” In short, you will note all around you a style and luxuriance to which you, as a European traveller, have not been accustomed. You have only read of such a scene in some Oriental tale—in Mary Montagu, or the “Arabian Nights.”

And yet all this magnificence is sometimes sadly at variance with the style of the company that occupies it—for this splendid saloon is as much the property of the coarse “rowdy” as of the refined gentleman. You are startled by the apparition of a rough horse-skin boot elevated along the edge of the shining mahogany; and a dash of brown nicotian juice may have somewhat altered the pattern of the carpet! But these things are exceptional—more exceptional now than in the times of which I write.

Having satisfied myself with examining the interior structure of the “Belle of the West,” I sauntered out in front of the cabin. Here a large open space, usually known as the “awning,” forms an excellent lounging-place for the male passengers. It is simply the continuation of the “cabin-deck,” projected forward and supported by pillars that rest upon the main deck below. The roof, or “hurricane-deck,” also carried forward to the same point, and resting on slight wooden props, screens this part from sun or rain, and a low guard-rail running around it renders it safe. Being open in front and at both sides, it affords the best view; and having the advantage of a cool breeze, brought about by the motion of the boat, is usually a favourite resort. A number of chairs are here placed to accommodate the passengers, and smoking is permitted.

He must take very little interest in the movements of human life, who cannot kill an hour by observing it upon the “Levee” of New Orleans; and having seated myself and lighted my cigar, I proceeded to spend an hour in that interesting occupation.

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