The "Walking-Beam Boy"

by L. E. Stofiel

In 1836 the steam-whistle had not yet been introduced on the boats of the western rivers. Upon approaching towns and cities in those days, vessels resorted to all manner of schemes and contrivances to attract attention. They were compelled to do so in order to secure their share of freight and passengers, so spirited was the competition between steamboats from 1836 to 1840. There were no railroads in the West (indeed there were but one or two in the East), and all traffic was by water. Consequently steamboat-men had all they could do to handle the crowds of passengers and the tons of merchandise offered them.

Shippers and passengers had their favorite packets. The former had their huge piles of freight stacked upon the wharves, and needed the earliest possible intelligence of the approach of the packet so that they might promptly summon clerks and carriers to the shore. The passengers, loitering in neighboring hotels, demanded some system of warning of a favorite steamer's coming, that they might avoid the disagreeable alternative of pacing the muddy levees for hours at a time, or running the risk of being left behind.

Without a whistle, how was a boat to let the people know it was coming, especially if some of those sharp bends for which the Ohio River is famous intervened to deaden the splashing stroke of its huge paddle-wheels, or the regular puff, puff, puff, puff, of its steam exhaust-pipes?

The necessity originated several crude signs, chief among which was the noise created by a sudden escapement of steam either from the rarely used boiler waste-pipes close to the surface of the river, or through the safety-valve above. By letting the steam thus rush out at different pressures, each boat acquired a sound peculiarly its own, which could be heard a considerable distance, though it was as the tone of a mouth-organ against a brass-band, when compared with the ear-splitting roar of our modern steamboat-whistle. Townspeople of Cincinnati and elsewhere became so proficient in distinguishing these sounds of steam escapement that they could foretell the name of any craft on the river at night or before it appeared in sight.

It was reserved for the steamboat Champion to carry this idea a little further. It purposed to catch the eye of the patron as well as his ear. The Champion was one of the best known vessels plying on the Mississippi in 1836. It was propelled by a walking-beam engine. This style of steam-engine is still common on tide-water boats of the East, but has long since disappeared from the inland navigation of the West. To successfully steam a vessel up those streams against the remarkably swift currents, high-pressure engines had to be adopted generally. In that year, however, there were still a number of boats on the Mississippi and Ohio which, like the Champion, had low-pressure engines and the grotesque walking-beams.

One day it was discovered that the Champion's escapement-tubes were broken, and no signal could be given to a landing-place not far ahead. A rival steamboat was just a little in advance, and bade fair to capture the large amount of freight known to be at the landing.

"I'll make them see us, sir!" cried a bright boy, who seemed to be about fourteen years old. He stood on the deck close to where the captain was bewailing his misfortune.

Without another word, the lad climbed up over the roof of the forecastle, and, fearlessly catching hold of the end of the walking-beam when it inclined toward him with the next oscillation of the engine, swung himself lithely on top of the machinery. It was with some difficulty that he maintained his balance, but he succeeded in sticking there for fifteen minutes. He had taken off his coat, and he was swinging it to and fro.

The plan succeeded. Although the other boat beat the Champion into port, the crowd there had seen the odd spectacle of a person mounted on the walking-beam of the second vessel, and, wondering over the cause, paid no attention to the landing of the first boat, but awaited the arrival of the other.

The incident gave the master of the Champion an idea. He took the boy as a permanent member of the crew, and assigned him to the post of "walking-beam boy," buying for him a large and beautiful flag. Ever afterward, when within a mile of any town, the daring lad was to be seen climbing up to his difficult perch, pausing on the roof of the forecastle to get his flag from a box that had been built there for it. By and by he made his lofty position easier and more picturesque by straddling the walking-beam, well down toward the end, just as he would have sat upon a horse.

This made a pretty spectacle for those upon shore who awaited the boat's arrival. They saw a boy bounding up and down with the great seesawing beam. For a second he would sink from view, but up he bobbed suddenly, and, like a clear-cut silhouette, he waved the Stars and Stripes high in the air with only the vast expanse of sky for a background. The vision was only for an instant, for both flag and boy would disappear, and—up again they came, before the spectator's eye could change to another direction! This sight was novel—it was thrilling!

"I used to think if I could ever be in that young fellow's place, I would be the biggest man on earth," remarked a veteran river-man. Like thousands of others along the Mississippi and Ohio, he remembered that when a child he could recognize the Champion a mile distant by this unique signal.


After a while, though, other steamboats operating low-pressure engines copied the idea, and there were several "walking-beam boys" employed on the rivers, and their flags were remodeled to have some distinctive feature each. It was a perilous situation to be employed in, but I am unable to find the record of any "walking-beam boy" being killed or injured in the machinery. On the other hand, the very hazard of their duty, and the conspicuous position it gave them, made them popular with passengers and shippers, and so they pocketed many fees from Kentuckians, confections from Cincinnati folks, bonbons from New Orleans Creoles, and tips from Pittsburgers.

But at length, in 1844, the steam-whistle was introduced, and the "walking-beam boys" were left without occupation.