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
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
"HE WAVED THE STARS AND STRIPES HIGH IN THE AIR."
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.