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Date Posted:02/17/2009 12:08 AMCopy HTML



We are sure the many students of the famous Mark Twain's life are much better able to tell the hundreds of amusing and interesting anecdotes about his experiences. So we are moving from the past to the present to comment upon the changes resulting in the convenience and comforts of present-day river travel.  Probably, to the riverboat passenger, the most important advances have been in the fuels used. It is interesting to wonder what characteristically colorful remark Mark Twain would make if he were to come down on a levee and see the modern oil-burning boat with none of the black smoke belching from her stacks and with the decks free from the soot and dirt so common on coal or wood-burning boats of his time. In those days when Mark Twain traveled the river, passenger and freight traffic was at its height and wood was the common fuel.  For an hour or two before a steamboat's departure, it would be burning rosin and pitch-pine, thus furnishing the spectacle of thick, black columns supporting a roof of smoke over the city. Frequent stops had to be made along the route for fuel and, consequently, travel in those days, when compared with the speeds of present-day riverboats, was slow moving.  When boats were racing, however, they stopped only for a second or two at large towns to hitch on 30-cord wood boats.  Mark Twain says that when a steamer took a couple of those wood boats in tow and turned a swarm of men into each "you couldn't have wiped your glasses and put them on before the wood was put in the stoke-hold." It was late in the last century that coal became the commonly used fuel. The supply had become adequate, for the development of mines in many of the states along the Mississippi and its tributaries had made possible the use of this fuel which gave much more heat than wood and took up much less space. The development of railroads made it possible to haul the coal economically to the riverbank, whence it was floated down stream or towed up stream on huge rafts or barges.
The principal disadvantages to burning coal were the ever-present belching of smoke from the stacks and the consequent dirt and disorder. Thus, while coal did have certain advantages in storing and in greater heating ability, these were offset by the disadvantages of the smoke and dirt.


Recognizing these disadvantages,  Shell engineers have pioneered with extensive research to perfect a fuel oil to correct the faults found in coal as a steamboat or home fuel.  And rivermen, quick to realize the benefits of these improvements are turning away from coal, and today the use of oil as fuel in river steamboats is steadily becoming more general. For example, the palatial "President" burns Shell fuel oil exclusively. Fuel oil has many advantages not present in any other type of fuel.  Of greater importance to the steamboat operator are its higher heat content and its compactness, which permits taking on a proportionately greater load of fuel in much less space.  Of especial interest to steamboat passengers is the fact that fuel oil is infinitely cleaner than any other fuel.  Other advantages are the almost complete elimination of heat from the funnels and the lack of vibration.  The heat from the fuel oil is confined to the boilers and very little escapes up the stacks.  This even heat makes steam for engines which operate so smoothly that passengers are hardly conscious of any vibration.Not only in fuels are these changes in modern river travel noticeable, for in design, too, many improvements are apparent. The total lack of unnecessary ornamentation in present-day boats is a distinct departure from the practice followed in the early days.  It is conceivable, too, that with the constantly growing use of Diesels and consequently increased speeds, river steamboats will one days be stream-lined. Although much of the romance of  river steamboating has gone since those early days of the wood-burners and the advent of coal and the railroads, the advantages of present-day river travel more than offset its  loss.  The early days were romantic, yes, and uncomfortable, too, but there is no doubt that if Mark Twain did return to the river today he could write ever more interestingly of life on the river as it is now.

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