Harry G. Dyer

The Log of Harry G. Dyer: Steamboatman, Upper Mississippi, 1881-1902
Excerpts from Upper Mississippi River Rafting Steamboats Edward G. Mueller, Ohio University Press, 1995.

Bell and Whistle Signals of Mississippi River Rafting Steamboats

October 1941


For sternwheel steamboats, the stopping and starting bell was on the starboard side of the engine room, the right side facing the bow. The backing bell was on the left, or port, side. We will suppose that the boat is under way and it becomes necessary to stop and back. The pilot rings the stopping bell, the engineer then closes the throttle valve and stops the engines. The backng bell is rung and the reverses the engines. This is done by merely pulling a lever. At the next ring of the backing bell he opens the throttle valve wide open. The boat is then backing strong. If the backing bell rings again, he closes the throttle valve part way and she is backing slow. If the bell rings again or the fourth time, she is again backing strong.

At the ring of the stopping bell, the engines are stopped. Then, if the stopping bell rings again, the engines are reversed and she comes ahead full speed. Then, if the backing bell rings while she is coming ahead, she is slowed down to half speed. Another ring of the backing bell and she is again put at full head. The starting and stopping of the engines is governed by the stopping bell, the shipping up and rate of speed by the backing bell.

On sidewheel boats, the bells and signals are the same, but there are two bells for each engine, as the engines are separate. On a sidewheeler, one engine may be coming ahead and the other backing at the same time if necessary, as in turning the boat around or getting out from a landing. The sidewheel boat was easier to handle as the rudder was behind the wheels. The sidewheel boat had one rudder, the sternwheel boat always two and sometimes three or four according to the size of the boat.


The whistle was used in landing, and when two boats were meeting. In meeting the descending, i.e., the boat going downstream has the choice of the river, but the ascending boat whistles first. Why, I do not know. In meeting, one blast of the steam whistle means keep to the right and two blasts means keep to the left. So two boats are meeting, the ascending boat blows one whistle and, if agreeable to the pilot of the descending boat, he answered with one whistle; but in case he does not agree, he must blow five short whistles, then after a short interval, blow two whistles which the pilot of the ascending boat must answer with two whistles, then both boats bear a little to the right.

The blowing of five short whistles is also a "call to quarters" in case of fire or a serious accident when each man on the boat has his place and duty. The landing whistle of a company owning two or more boats is the same. For instance, the landing whistles of the Diamond Jo line boats were two long and two short whistles; the Bronson and Folsom Company, three long and one short; the C. Lamb and Son Company, two long, a short, and a long, etc. Five long whistles meant the boat was in trouble or in distress.

Other Bells and Whistles

The big bell on the hurricane roof of the boat was used to let the leadsmen know when to sound water. One tap of the bell meant sound on the right, two taps, sound on the left, one tap, stop sounding. When the boat was at a landing, three taps of the bell meant the boat was nearly ready to leave.

A small whistle was located on top of the boilers. It was called the ready whistle. At the three taps of the bell at a landing, if the engineer was ready to leave, he would answer the three blasts of the ready whistle. Also, in a close place or an emergency, one blast of the ready whistle meant, "give her the gun" or all the engine power. Steamboat inspection law says that all engine bells must have wire bell pulls and the two engine bells may be rung on either side of the pilot house. For instance, the pull from the stopping bell comes into the pilot house on the starboard side, goes through a small pulley in the roof of the pilot house, goes across the pilot house through another pulley and ends in a ring six or eight inches in diameter. The backing bell pull is arranged just the opposite.

If the pilot is on the right side of the pilot house he rings the stopping bell by taking hold of the bell pull. If he is on the left side, he takes hold of the ring in the end of the pull. The whistle was always blown using the pilot's foot, as sometimes he could not let go of the pilot wheel with either hand. A treadle on the floor of the pilot house took care of this.

There were some beautifully-toned roof bells on the Mississippi boats, the one of the steamer OCEAN WAVE, which burned at Frontenac in Lake Pepin on June 11, 1868, was known from St. Paul to St. Louis. When she burned, the bell went down into the water. Sometime afterward, Captain George Knapp fished it out and found it to be cracked; he had it brazed but the tone was never the same. It is now on a church in some small town in Minnesota.