From Life on the Mississippi 1883:
Mississippi steamboating was born about 1812; at the end of thirty years, it had grown to mighty proportions; and in less than thirty more, it was dead! A strangely short life for so majestic a creature. Of course it is not absolutely dead, neither is a crippled octogenarian who could once jump twenty-two feet on level ground; but as contrasted with what it was in its prime vigor, Mississippi steamboating may be called dead.
Shannon steamboating began (on the non-tidal river) in the late 1820s and was dead, if not absolutely dead, by the 1850s.
Twain’s book is a great read. Here is an extract from the Project Gutenberg ebook. The narrator is a young apprentice to the experienced steamer pilot, Mr Bixby. There are eight or ten other experienced pilots on board for the trip, inspecting the “upper river” between St Louis and Cairo at a time of low water levels.
Mr Bixby at the wheel
We went booming along, taking a good many chances, for we were anxious to ‘get out of the river’ (as getting out to Cairo was called) before night should overtake us. But Mr Bixby’s partner, the other pilot, presently grounded the boat, and we lost so much time in getting her off that it was plain that darkness would overtake us a good long way above the mouth.
This was a great misfortune, especially to certain of our visiting pilots, whose boats would have to wait for their return, no matter how long that might be. It sobered the pilot-house talk a good deal. Coming up-stream, pilots did not mind low water or any kind of darkness; nothing stopped them but fog. But down-stream work was different; a boat was too nearly helpless, with a stiff current pushing behind her; so it was not customary to run down-stream at night in low water.
There seemed to be one small hope, however: if we could get through the intricate and dangerous Hat Island crossing before night, we could venture the rest, for we would have plainer sailing and better water. But it would be insanity to attempt Hat Island at night. So there was a deal of looking at watches all the rest of the day, and a constant ciphering upon the speed we were making; Hat Island was the eternal subject; sometimes hope was high and sometimes we were delayed in a bad crossing, and down it went again.
For hours all hands lay under the burden of this suppressed excitement; it was even communicated to me, and I got to feeling so solicitous about Hat Island, and under such an awful pressure of responsibility, that I wished I might have five minutes on shore to draw a good, full, relieving breath, and start over again. We were standing no regular watches. Each of our pilots ran such portions of the river as he had run when coming up-stream, because of his greater familiarity with it; but both remained in the pilot house constantly.
An hour before sunset, Mr Bixby took the wheel and Mr. W— stepped aside. For the next thirty minutes every man held his watch in his hand and was restless, silent, and uneasy. At last somebody said, with a doomful sigh — ‘Well, yonder’s Hat Island — and we can’t make it.’
All the watches closed with a snap, everybody sighed and muttered something about its being ‘too bad, too bad — ah, if we could only have got here half an hour sooner!’ and the place was thick with the atmosphere of disappointment. Some started to go out, but loitered, hearing no bell-tap to land. The sun dipped behind the horizon, the boat went on. Inquiring looks passed from one guest to another; and one who had his hand on the door-knob and had turned it, waited, then presently took away his hand and let the knob turn back again.
We bore steadily down the bend. More looks were exchanged, and nods of surprised admiration — but no words. Insensibly the men drew together behind Mr Bixby, as the sky darkened and one or two dim stars came out. The dead silence and sense of waiting became oppressive. Mr Bixby pulled the cord, and two deep, mellow notes from the big bell floated off on the night. Then a pause, and one more note was struck. The watchman’s voice followed, from the hurricane deck — ‘Labboard lead, there! Stabboard lead!’
The cries of the leadsmen began to rise out of the distance, and were gruffly repeated by the word-passers on the hurricane deck. ‘M-a-r-k three!… M-a-r-k three!… Quarter-less three!… Half twain!… Quarter twain!… M-a-r-k twain!… Quarter-less—’
Mr Bixby pulled two bell-ropes, and was answered by faint jinglings far below in the engine room, and our speed slackened. The steam began to whistle through the gauge-cocks. The cries of the leadsmen went on — and it is a weird sound, always, in the night. Every pilot in the lot was watching now, with fixed eyes, and talking under his breath. Nobody was calm and easy but Mr Bixby. He would put his wheel down and stand on a spoke, and as the steamer swung into her (to me) utterly invisible marks — for we seemed to be in the midst of a wide and gloomy sea — he would meet and fasten her there. Out of the murmur of half-audible talk, one caught a coherent sentence now and then — such as — ‘There; she’s over the first reef all right!’
After a pause, another subdued voice — ‘Her stern’s coming down just exactly right, by George!’
‘Now she’s in the marks; over she goes!’
Somebody else muttered — ‘Oh, it was done beautiful — beautiful!’
Now the engines were stopped altogether, and we drifted with the current. Not that I could see the boat drift, for I could not, the stars being all gone by this time. This drifting was the dismalest work; it held one’s heart still. Presently I discovered a blacker gloom than that which surrounded us. It was the head of the island. We were closing right down upon it. We entered its deeper shadow, and so imminent seemed the peril that I was likely to suffocate; and I had the strongest impulse to do something, anything, to save the vessel. But still Mr Bixby stood by his wheel, silent, intent as a cat, and all the pilots stood shoulder to shoulder at his back.
‘She’ll not make it!’ somebody whispered.
The water grew shoaler and shoaler, by the leadsman’s cries, till it was down to — ‘Eight-and-a-half!…. E-i-g-h-t feet!…. E-i-g-h-t feet!…. Seven-and —’
Mr Bixby said warningly through his speaking tube to the engineer — ‘Stand by, now!’
‘Seven-and-a-half! Seven feet! Six-and —’
We touched bottom! Instantly Mr Bixby set a lot of bells ringing, shouted through the tube, ‘NOW, let her have it — every ounce you’ve got!’ then to his partner, ‘Put her hard down! snatch her! snatch her!’ The boat rasped and ground her way through the sand, hung upon the apex of disaster a single tremendous instant, and then over she went! And such a shout as went up at Mr Bixby’s back never loosened the roof of a pilot-house before!
There was no more trouble after that. Mr Bixby was a hero that night; and it was some little time, too, before his exploit ceased to be talked about by river men.
Fully to realize the marvelous precision required in laying the great steamer in her marks in that murky waste of water, one should know that not only must she pick her intricate way through snags and blind reefs, and then shave the head of the island so closely as to brush the overhanging foliage with her stern, but at one place she must pass almost within arm’s reach of a sunken and invisible wreck that would snatch the hull timbers from under her if she should strike it, and destroy a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of steam-boat and cargo in five minutes, and maybe a hundred and fifty human lives into the bargain.
The last remark I heard that night was a compliment to Mr Bixby, uttered in soliloquy and with unction by one of our guests. He said — ‘By the Shadow of Death, but he’s a lightning pilot!’