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Mark Twain > Life On The Mississippi > Chapter 15

Life On The Mississippi

Chapter 15

                         The Pilots' Monopoly

ONE day, on board the 'Aleck Scott,' my chief, Mr. Bixby,
was crawling carefully through a close place at Cat Island,
both leads going, and everybody holding his breath. The captain,
a nervous, apprehensive man, kept still as long as he could,
but finally broke down and shouted from the hurricane deck--

'For gracious' sake, give her steam, Mr. Bixby! give her steam!
She'll never raise the reef on this headway!'

For all the effect that was produced upon Mr. Bixby, one would have supposed
that no remark had been made. But five minutes later, when the danger
was past and the leads laid in, he burst instantly into a consuming fury,
and gave the captain the most admirable cursing I ever listened to.
No bloodshed ensued; but that was because the captain's cause was weak;
for ordinarily he was not a man to take correction quietly.

Having now set forth in detail the nature of the science of piloting,
and likewise described the rank which the pilot held among the fraternity
of steamboatmen, this seems a fitting place to say a few words about an
organization which the pilots once formed for the protection of their guild.
It was curious and noteworthy in this, that it was perhaps the compactest,
the completest, and the strongest commercial organization ever
formed among men.

For a long time wages had been two hundred and fifty dollars a month;
but curiously enough, as steamboats multiplied and business increased,
the wages began to fall little by little. It was easy to discover
the reason of this. Too many pilots were being 'made.' It was nice
to have a 'cub,' a steersman, to do all the hard work for a couple
of years, gratis, while his master sat on a high bench and smoked;
all pilots and captains had sons or nephews who wanted to be pilots. By and
by it came to pass that nearly every pilot on the river had a steersman.
When a steersman had made an amount of progress that was satisfactory
to any two pilots in the trade, they could get a pilot's license for him
by signing an application directed to the United States Inspector.
Nothing further was needed; usually no questions were asked, no proofs
of capacity required.

Very well, this growing swarm of new pilots presently
began to undermine the wages, in order to get berths.
Too late--apparently--the knights of the tiller perceived
their mistake. Plainly, something had to be done, and quickly;
but what was to be the needful thing. A close organization.
Nothing else would answer. To compass this seemed an impossibility;
so it was talked, and talked, and then dropped.
It was too likely to ruin whoever ventured to move
in the matter. But at last about a dozen of the boldest--
and some of them the best--pilots on the river launched
themselves into the enterprise and took all the chances.
They got a special charter from the legislature, with large powers,
under the name of the Pilots' Benevolent Association;
elected their officers, completed their organization,
contributed capital, put 'association' wages up to two hundred
and fifty dollars at once--and then retired to their homes,
for they were promptly discharged from employment.
But there were two or three unnoticed trifles in their by-laws
which had the seeds of propagation in them. For instance,
all idle members of the association, in good standing,
were entitled to a pension of twenty-five dollars per month.
This began to bring in one straggler after another from the ranks
of the new-fledged pilots, in the dull (summer) season.
Better have twenty-five dollars than starve; the initiation
fee was only twelve dollars, and no dues required
from the unemployed.

Also, the widows of deceased members in good standing could
draw twenty-five dollars per month, and a certain sum for each
of their children. Also, the said deceased would be buried
at the association's expense. These things resurrected all
the superannuated and forgotten pilots in the Mississippi Valley.
They came from farms, they came from interior villages, they came
from everywhere. They came on crutches, on drays, in ambulances,--
any way, so they got there. They paid in their twelve dollars,
and straightway began to draw out twenty-five dollars a month,
and calculate their burial bills.

By and by, all the useless, helpless pilots, and a dozen first-class ones,
were in the association, and nine-tenths of the best pilots out of it
and laughing at it. It was the laughing-stock of the whole river.
Everybody joked about the by-law requiring members to pay ten per cent.
of their wages, every month, into the treasury for the support
of the association, whereas all the members were outcast and tabooed,
and no one would employ them. Everybody was derisively grateful
to the association for taking all the worthless pilots out of the way
and leaving the whole field to the excellent and the deserving;
and everybody was not only jocularly grateful for that, but for a
result which naturally followed, namely, the gradual advance of wages
as the busy season approached. Wages had gone up from the low figure
of one hundred dollars a month to one hundred and twenty-five, and in
some cases to one hundred and fifty; and it was great fun to enlarge
upon the fact that this charming thing had been accomplished by a body
of men not one of whom received a particle of benefit from it.
Some of the jokers used to call at the association rooms and have
a good time chaffing the members and offering them the charity
of taking them as steersmen for a trip, so that they could see what
the forgotten river looked like. However, the association was content;
or at least it gave no sign to the contrary. Now and then it
captured a pilot who was 'out of luck,' and added him to its list;
and these later additions were very valuable, for they were good pilots;
the incompetent ones had all been absorbed before. As business freshened,
wages climbed gradually up to two hundred and fifty dollars--
the association figure--and became firmly fixed there; and still
without benefiting a member of that body, for no member was hired.
The hilarity at the association's expense burst all bounds, now.
There was no end to the fun which that poor martyr had to
put up with.

However, it is a long lane that has no turning. Winter approached,
business doubled and trebled, and an avalanche of Missouri,
Illinois and Upper Mississippi River boats came pouring down
to take a chance in the New Orleans trade. All of a sudden
pilots were in great demand, and were correspondingly scarce.
The time for revenge was come. It was a bitter pill to have to
accept association pilots at last, yet captains and owners agreed
that there was no other way. But none of these outcasts offered!
So there was a still bitterer pill to be swallowed:
they must be sought out and asked for their services.
Captain ---- was the first man who found it necessary to take
the dose, and he had been the loudest derider of the organization.
He hunted up one of the best of the association pilots and said--

'Well, you boys have rather got the best of us for a
little while, so I'll give in with as good a grace as I can.
I've come to hire you; get your trunk aboard right away.
I want to leave at twelve o'clock.'

'I don't know about that. Who is your other pilot?'

'I've got I. S----. Why?'

'I can't go with him. He don't belong to the association.'


'It's so.'

'Do you mean to tell me that you won't turn a wheel with one of the very best
and oldest pilots on the river because he don't belong to your association?'

'Yes, I do.'

'Well, if this isn't putting on airs! I supposed I was doing you
a benevolence; but I begin to think that I am the party that wants
a favor done. Are you acting under a law of the concern?'


'Show it to me.'

So they stepped into the association rooms, and the secretary
soon satisfied the captain, who said--

'Well, what am I to do? I have hired Mr. S---- for the entire season.'

'I will provide for you,' said the secretary. 'I will detail a pilot
to go with you, and he shall be on board at twelve o'clock.'

'But if I discharge S----, he will come on me for the whole season's wages.'

'Of course that is a matter between you and Mr. S----, captain.
We cannot meddle in your private affairs.'

The captain stormed, but to no purpose. In the end he had to discharge
S----, pay him about a thousand dollars, and take an association pilot
in his place. The laugh was beginning to turn the other way now.
Every day, thenceforward, a new victim fell; every day some outraged
captain discharged a non-association pet, with tears and profanity,
and installed a hated association man in his berth. In a very
little while, idle non-associationists began to be pretty plenty,
brisk as business was, and much as their services were desired.
The laugh was shifting to the other side of their mouths most palpably.
These victims, together with the captains and owners, presently ceased
to laugh altogether, and began to rage about the revenge they would take
when the passing business 'spurt' was over.

Soon all the laughers that were left were the owners
and crews of boats that had two non-association pilots.
But their triumph was not very long-lived. For this reason:
It was a rigid rule of the association that its members should never,
under any circumstances whatever, give information about the channel
to any 'outsider.' By this time about half the boats had none
but association pilots, and the other half had none but outsiders.
At the first glance one would suppose that when it came
to forbidding information about the river these two parties
could play equally at that game; but this was not so.
At every good-sized town from one end of the river to the other,
there was a 'wharf-boat' to land at, instead of a wharf or a pier.
Freight was stored in it for transportation; waiting passengers slept
in its cabins. Upon each of these wharf-boats the association's
officers placed a strong box fastened with a peculiar lock which was
used in no other service but one--the United States mail service.
It was the letter-bag lock, a sacred governmental thing.
By dint of much beseeching the government had been
persuaded to allow the association to use this lock.
Every association man carried a key which would open these boxes.
That key, or rather a peculiar way of holding it in the hand
when its owner was asked for river information by a stranger--
for the success of the St. Louis and New Orleans association
had now bred tolerably thriving branches in a dozen neighboring
steamboat trades--was the association man's sign and diploma
of membership; and if the stranger did not respond by producing
a similar key and holding it in a certain manner duly prescribed,
his question was politely ignored. From the association's secretary
each member received a package of more or less gorgeous blanks,
printed like a billhead, on handsome paper, properly ruled in columns;
a bill-head worded something like this--

                         STEAMER GREAT REPUBLIC.

                            JOHN SMITH MASTER





These blanks were filled up, day by day, as the voyage
progressed, and deposited in the several wharf-boat boxes.
For instance, as soon as the first crossing, out from St. Louis,
was completed, the items would be entered upon the blank,
under the appropriate headings, thus--

'St. Louis. Nine and a half (feet). Stern on court-house, head
on dead cottonwood above wood-yard, until you raise the first reef,
then pull up square.' Then under head of Remarks: 'Go just outside
the wrecks; this is important. New snag just where you straighten down;
go above it.'

The pilot who deposited that blank in the Cairo box (after adding
to it the details of every crossing all the way down from St. Louis)
took out and read half a dozen fresh reports (from upward-bound steamers)
concerning the river between Cairo and Memphis, posted himself thoroughly,
returned them to the box, and went back aboard his boat again so armed
against accident that he could not possibly get his boat into trouble
without bringing the most ingenious carelessness to his aid.

Imagine the benefits of so admirable a system in a piece of river twelve
or thirteen hundred miles long, whose channel was shifting every day!
The pilot who had formerly been obliged to put up with seeing a shoal
place once or possibly twice a month, had a hundred sharp eyes to watch it
for him, now, and bushels of intelligent brains to tell him how to run it.
His information about it was seldom twenty-four hours old. If the reports
in the last box chanced to leave any misgivings on his mind concerning
a treacherous crossing, he had his remedy; he blew his steam-whistle
in a peculiar way as soon as he saw a boat approaching; the signal was
answered in a peculiar way if that boat's pilots were association men;
and then the two steamers ranged alongside and all uncertainties were swept
away by fresh information furnished to the inquirer by word of mouth and
in minute detail.

The first thing a pilot did when he reached New Orleans or St. Louis
was to take his final and elaborate report to the association parlors
and hang it up there,--after which he was free to visit his family.
In these parlors a crowd was always gathered together, discussing
changes in the channel, and the moment there was a fresh arrival,
everybody stopped talking till this witness had told the newest news
and settled the latest uncertainty. Other craftsmen can 'sink the shop,'
sometimes, and interest themselves in other matters. Not so with a pilot;
he must devote himself wholly to his profession and talk of nothing else;
for it would be small gain to be perfect one day and imperfect the next.
He has no time or words to waste if he would keep 'posted.'

But the outsiders had a hard time of it. No particular place
to meet and exchange information, no wharf-boat reports,
none but chance and unsatisfactory ways of getting news.
The consequence was that a man sometimes had to run five hundred
miles of river on information that was a week or ten days old.
At a fair stage of the river that might have answered; but when the
dead low water came it was destructive.

Now came another perfectly logical result. The outsiders began
to ground steamboats, sink them, and get into all sorts of trouble,
whereas accidents seemed to keep entirely away from the association men.
Wherefore even the owners and captains of boats furnished
exclusively with outsiders, and previously considered to be wholly
independent of the association and free to comfort themselves
with brag and laughter, began to feel pretty uncomfortable.
Still, they made a show of keeping up the brag, until one black day
when every captain of the lot was formally ordered to immediately
discharge his outsiders and take association pilots in their stead.
And who was it that had the dashing presumption to do that? Alas, it came
from a power behind the throne that was greater than the throne itself.
It was the underwriters!

It was no time to 'swap knives.' Every outsider had to take his trunk
ashore at once. Of course it was supposed that there was collusion
between the association and the underwriters, but this was not so.
The latter had come to comprehend the excellence of the 'report' system
of the association and the safety it secured, and so they had made their
decision among themselves and upon plain business principles.

There was weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in
the camp of the outsiders now. But no matter, there was
but one course for them to pursue, and they pursued it.
They came forward in couples and groups, and proffered their
twelve dollars and asked for membership. They were surprised
to learn that several new by-laws had been long ago added.
For instance, the initiation fee had been raised to fifty dollars;
that sum must be tendered, and also ten per cent.
of the wages which the applicant had received each and every
month since the founding of the association. In many cases this
amounted to three or four hundred dollars. Still, the association
would not entertain the application until the money was present.
Even then a single adverse vote killed the application.
Every member had to vote 'Yes' or 'No' in person and before witnesses;
so it took weeks to decide a candidacy, because many pilots
were so long absent on voyages. However, the repentant
sinners scraped their savings together, and one by one,
by our tedious voting process, they were added to the fold.
A time came, at last, when only about ten remained outside.
They said they would starve before they would apply.
They remained idle a long while, because of course nobody could venture
to employ them.

By and by the association published the fact that upon a certain
date the wages would be raised to five hundred dollars per month.
All the branch associations had grown strong, now, and the Red
River one had advanced wages to seven hundred dollars a month.
Reluctantly the ten outsiders yielded, in view of these things,
and made application. There was another new by-law, by this time,
which required them to pay dues not only on all the wages they
had received since the association was born, but also on what they
would have received if they had continued at work up to the time
of their application, instead of going off to pout in idleness.
It turned out to be a difficult matter to elect them, but it
was accomplished at last. The most virulent sinner of this
batch had stayed out and allowed 'dues' to accumulate against
him so long that he had to send in six hundred and twenty-five
dollars with his application.

The association had a good bank account now, and was very strong.
There was no longer an outsider. A by-law was added forbidding
the reception of any more cubs or apprentices for five years;
after which time a limited number would be taken, not by individuals,
but by the association, upon these terms: the applicant must
not be less than eighteen years old, and of respectable family
and good character; he must pass an examination as to education,
pay a thousand dollars in advance for the privilege of becoming
an apprentice, and must remain under the commands of the association
until a great part of the membership (more than half, I think)
should be willing to sign his application for a pilot's license.

All previously-articled apprentices were now taken away from their
masters and adopted by the association. The president and secretary
detailed them for service on one boat or another, as they chose,
and changed them from boat to boat according to certain rules.
If a pilot could show that he was in infirm health and needed assistance,
one of the cubs would be ordered to go with him.

The widow and orphan list grew, but so did the association's
financial resources. The association attended its own
funerals in state, and paid for them. When occasion demanded,
it sent members down the river upon searches for the bodies
of brethren lost by steamboat accidents; a search of this kind
sometimes cost a thousand dollars.

The association procured a charter and went into the insurance
business, also. It not only insured the lives of its members,
but took risks on steamboats.

The organization seemed indestructible. It was the tightest monopoly
in the world. By the United States law, no man could become
a pilot unless two duly licensed pilots signed his application;
and now there was nobody outside of the association competent
to sign. Consequently the making of pilots was at an end.
Every year some would die and others become incapacitated by age
and infirmity; there would be no new ones to take their places.
In time, the association could put wages up to any figure it chose;
and as long as it should be wise enough not to carry the thing
too far and provoke the national government into amending
the licensing system, steamboat owners would have to submit,
since there would be no help for it.

The owners and captains were the only obstruction that lay between
the association and absolute power; and at last this one was removed.
Incredible as it may seem, the owners and captains deliberately
did it themselves. When the pilots' association announced,
months beforehand, that on the first day of September, 1861,
wages would be advanced to five hundred dollars per month, the owners
and captains instantly put freights up a few cents, and explained
to the farmers along the river the necessity of it, by calling their
attention to the burdensome rate of wages about to be established.
It was a rather slender argument, but the farmers did not seem to detect it.
It looked reasonable to them that to add five cents freight on a bushel
of corn was justifiable under the circumstances, overlooking the fact
that this advance on a cargo of forty thousand sacks was a good deal
more than necessary to cover the new wages.

So, straightway the captains and owners got up an association
of their own, and proposed to put captains' wages up to five
hundred dollars, too, and move for another advance in freights.
It was a novel idea, but of course an effect which had been
produced once could be produced again. The new association decreed
(for this was before all the outsiders had been taken
into the pilots' association) that if any captain employed
a non-association pilot, he should be forced to discharge him,
and also pay a fine of five hundred dollars. Several of these
heavy fines were paid before the captains' organization grew
strong enough to exercise full authority over its membership;
but that all ceased, presently. The captains tried to get the pilots
to decree that no member of their corporation should serve under
a non-association captain; but this proposition was declined.
The pilots saw that they would be backed up by the captains and
the underwriters anyhow, and so they wisely refrained from entering
into entangling alliances.

As I have remarked, the pilots' association was now the compactest
monopoly in the world, perhaps, and seemed simply indestructible.
And yet the days of its glory were numbered. First, the new
railroad stretching up through Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky,
to Northern railway centers, began to divert the passenger travel
from the steamers; next the war came and almost entirely annihilated
the steamboating industry during several years, leaving most of
the pilots idle, and the cost of living advancing all the time;
then the treasurer of the St. Louis association put his hand
into the till and walked off with every dollar of the ample fund;
and finally, the railroads intruding everywhere, there was little
for steamers to do, when the war was over, but carry freights;
so straightway some genius from the Atlantic coast introduced the plan
of towing a dozen steamer cargoes down to New Orleans at the tail
of a vulgar little tug-boat; and behold, in the twinkling of an eye,
as it were, the association and the noble science of piloting were
things of the dead and pathetic past!

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