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Steamboat Arabia 1856 by Cathead - FINISHED - Scale 1:64 - sidewheel riverboat from the Missouri River, USA


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On 4/13/2020 at 8:35 PM, mbp521 said:

I am one of those who love rigging. Something about it to me feels that it really starts to bring the model together. This is one of the only drawbacks of the steamboat era is that there is just not that much rigging. 

Forgot to say, I totally agree. Granted, I've never rigged a big three-master, but I really like the visual appeal and logical puzzle of rigging. I certainly think the extras I added to Arabia add visual interest to the otherwise somewhat spare topside, and grasshopper spars are great for adding complicated eye candy!

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Beatiful work as always Eric. Nice solution for the post tops. if you wouldn't have said anything I would have thought they actually do extend through the deck.

 

So here is a questions that I though about while reading through your update. I'm really going to show my limited knowledge of steamboats here. 

 

Arabia has a jckstaff that her pilots used for navigation, and she has grasshopper arms for negotiating sand bars, I am going to go under the assumption that on boats like Chaperon that didn't have a jackstaff that the pilots used the landing stage boom as a navigation tool instead. Also, since Chaperon didn't have grasshopper arms I guessing that on the rivers she travelled, sandbars were not as much of a concern so they were not needed.

 

Now here is where I am going with this:

 

In looking at your painting of Arabia that you have at the first of this build, I noticed that with the jackstaff and the grasshopper arms, there is no landing stage or boom. So were the grasshopper arms used as a dual function, to hop sand bars as well as load freight and set the landing stage? or did they use some other method? My first thought was work boats (tinders) or landing barges, but it seems to me that these methods would not be very effecient.

 

Forgive me for the long winded question, I'm just trying to expand on my learning.

 

By the way, I know your heart lies in the steam era and Western Rivers, but you ought to take a trip back in time one day and build a fully rigged ship. They are lots of fun and challenging. Very time consuming (not that your Arabia hasnt been) but very fun.  :) 

 

-Brian

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Brian, great and insightful question(s). It's going to take an essay to answer them, which I want to get right, so I'll get back to you. Really short answer is that the Missouri had a unique combination of shallow water, variable flow, and a sediment-based channel that meant steamboats couldn't avoid or go around sandbars but had to go right over them, unlike the Ohio or Mississippi Rivers for reasons I want to take the time to explain properly but relate to the unique geology and climate of the Great Plains. I believe such spars would have been necessary on other rivers draining the arid West, like the Arkansas or the Red, but am not 100% certain whether they were used.

 

As for the landing stages, because the Missouri was shallow and sediment-based, boats usually just ran themselves up onto the shoreline and unloaded from a plank ramp set down (think a gangplank on sailing ships) because you couldn't get close enough to dry land to use a stage effectively. Stages were used in the more eastern bedrock rivers where you didn't want to run up onto the shore, or on the lower Mississippi where the water was deep enough that you could just pull up to a bank and offload by a stage. It was also more civilized down there, unlike the much rougher Missouri basin, where a plank would do nicely. Grasshopper spars could not be used as loading booms under normal circumstances, their sole purpose was to drag the boat bodily over a channel-spanning sandbar, often many times a day.  Another factor in loading booms was the kind of freight being carried. Big bales of cotton or other ag products might need a loading boom of some kind, but those crops were restricted to the middle-lower Mississippi and portions of the lower Missouri. Normal everyday cargo like barrels, crates, lumber, etc. were moved by sheer muscle power (sometimes slave, pre-ACW).

 

Arabia was originally built as an Ohio River boat, so may have had a stage at first, but if so that would have been removed once she was shifted by a new owner to Missouri River service and grasshopper spars would have been installed at that time instead. Chaperon didn't have grasshopper spars (a) because she remained in the Ohio basin and (b) because she came along late enough that channel modifications were already happening (like dredging) that ensured boats could navigate freely. Back in 1856, you were entirely at the mercy of the channel, especially far up the Missouri where the water was often only a few feet deep and snags were everywhere. Boats like Arabia quite literally slithered over channel-spanning bars like an otter, their hulls capable of flexing rather dramatically for those used to sailing vessels (one reason for all those hog chains was to allow for a flexible hull; a maritime hull would break its back in no time on the Missouri).

 

This is all simplified and was really more complex. For example, the lower Missouri takes on many characteristics of the middle-lower Mississippi (I don't doubt that boats with stages worked the lower Missouri).

 

Finally, Arabia is particularly unusual because few sidewheelers went up the Missouri beyond roughly modern-day Omaha, because they struggled with the shallow, snag-filled conditions of the upper Missouri. Sternwheelers were far better suited to these conditions. It's amazing to me that Arabia went all the way to Montana, even partway up the Yellowstone, as a sidewheeler.

 

Okay, that wasn't short at all, but there's so much more to say. Hope Kurt, Roger, or anyone else will correct me if I said something mistaken in my enthusiasm. Will try to write a more cogent explanation later.

 

As for fully rigged ships, the closest I've come was my revenue cutter (see link in signature), which was quite interesting. Maybe someday, but I have limited display space and sailing vessels just have so little relevance in the Ozarks. Believe me, I'd love to. I grew up near Lake Ontario and sailed quite a bit as a youngster, but ended up here as an adult so have adopted the maritime tradition of my new home. I do have a someday dream of scratchbuilding the brig Ontario, which sank in Lake Ontario and has had a very nice book (with full drawings) written about it.

Edited by Cathead
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There's a short video on the Arabia museum's site that I hadn't seen before, introducing their search for the Malta (a Missouri River boat that sank way back in 1841). It's interesting in its own right, but it also has a number of still paintings and photographs showing how "gangplanks" were used on the shallow Missouri rather than stages to access the shoreline, with boats just run up against the sand.

 

I also did a bit of reading and found multiple references to sparring being used on the upper Ohio as well. Makes sense, once the water gets shallow enough, that sediment bars would form there too and force a similar need. But I still think it's accurate to say that grasshopper spars were a really diagnostic feature of Missouri River boats.

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Eric,

 

The Upper Ohio River experienced huge variations in depth prior to the building of locks and dams (the first wicket type dams) so I would imagine that Arabia used spars to navigate the Ohio.  When I lived in Marietta, old timers used to claim that you could wade across it in dry summer months.  It’s late tonight but tomorrow I’ll look up when these dams were built.  I would imagine that by the time that Chaperone was built, the Army Corps of Engineers had made improvements to maintain a minimum depth on the waters that she sailed on.

 

Roger

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It certainly makes sense that low-water conditions would occur in various places, especially by late summer. Given that, it's still the case that the Missouri River was unique from the others in being especially shallow and sediment-dominated with multiple narrow channels braiding together (rather than one main channel defined primarily by bedrock, as in the Ohio basin), and especially prone to low-flow conditions given its arid drainage basin. There's a noticeable shift in annual rainfall across roughly the Mississippi River. For example, at a chestnut-growing conference I attended a few years ago, it became very clear that growers east of that line (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana) saw no need to use irrigation in their orchards and everyone west of that line (Kansas, Missouri) was shocked that they didn't.

 

It's also worth noting that Arabia was built before the true "Missouri River" style of steamboat was developed. By the 1870s, when the Ohio and Mississippi were well on their way to being tamed, the Missouri (especially the upper river) was still in its native form and very hard to navigate. So a style of boat developed with a "spoon" bow that was especially good at sliding over sandbars and pulling up onto (and off of) banks, a low superstructure to deal with high winds, and little to no guards extending beyond the hull to make narrow channel navigation easier. Arabia is basically an Ohio River boat taken into a very different and much rougher river. Look at something like the Far West to see what a proper Missouri River boat looked like.

 

As with any such discussion, we're trying to simplify really complex natural and human systems into a few paragraphs. A whole book could be written about the geologic and geomorphic differences between the very diverse basins in the Mississippi system and how that influenced steamboat navigation and design; most steamboat books I've read only touch on the scientific backdrop to all this.

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Rereading Alan Bates' Steamboat Cyclopedium in preparation for setting up the grasshopper spars, I noticed a detail that may explain some of the uncertainty about the use of spars on the Missouri vs. other rivers like the upper Ohio. Bates gives a drawing of "the manner of using a spar to lift a steamboat off a shallow place". He assumes that the steamboat has a central derrick (like that used for stages or cargo, as on Chaperon) that is used to drop a loose spar in place along the side of the bow. This is then rigged to the capstan, which hauls on the spar uses it to lift the boat over the bar. He shows a very short spar that would presumably only be set up when needed. This couldn't have been a permanent setup as the derrick had other uses, so must only have been done occasionally.

 

This is very different from what I think of as the Missouri River design, in which boats have two permanently rigged spars (one on each side), with their own dedicated infrastucture, that are ready to use at a moment's notice and often. Here are proper grasshopper spars on the Far West (image from a model in the Smithsonian). Note the dedicated boom and permanent rigging for each spar, but no central derrick for cargo or a stage:

 

2009-5341.jpg

This doesn't mean such a system couldn't have been used on the Ohio or other rivers, but I've always seen this described as a Missouri River feature. It makes sense to me that when bars were not a permanent and constant feature of the system, boats might have used Bates' temporary system instead. In other words, "sparring" over bars happened anywhere shallow water occurred, but a permanent infrastucture dedicated to routinely hauling boats over bars may have been relatively specific to the Missouri (and possibly similar rivers like the Red and Arkansas). Just a theory, as I can't seem to confirm this, but it makes sense to me.

 

I'm not sure when the proper "grasshopper" system was first developed, but this image dated to 1853 clearly shows grasshopper-equipped steamers at the St. Louis landing (image from the Missouri History Museum):

5351ba328a358.image.jpg

Thus it's easy to assume Arabia (built in 1853) had grasshopper spars by 1856, especially once she was transferred to Missouri River service. Here are two more views of the typical system from the Mary McDonald, one of my references for this build (from the University of Wisconsin collection), which was built in St. Louis in 1866 for the Missouri River trade.

 

h1380-3a847.jpg

h1380-68d0c.jpg

 

Edited by Cathead
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Eric,  

 

Very interesting information. I’m looking at the photos of your last post, they almost confirm my initial thoughts that the grasshopper rigs served a dual purpose.

 

I look at the riggings on the Far West and see that there are one set of blocks and tackle attached to the sparring poles for hopping sandbars and possibly assisting with pushing away from shore. Just down from that there is a second block and tackle rig that looks like it could be used to manipulate cargo as well as set the landing stage stretched across her bow. The Mary McDonald has a similar rig set up on her as well. Again, this is just my limited knowledge speaking. I love to delve into things that fascinate me but I know little about. 

 

What would really be interesting is to actually see these rigs in action. I’d love to take a short trip back in time to take a ride up/down river on one of these boats and see how they actually operated (hopping sandbars and all). I’ve ridden on several modern day steamboats (Natchez, Samuel Clemens and Delta Queen), but they are not much different than taking a River cruise in a regular boat with the exception of the thumping of the paddle wheel. Just the smell of the burning coal (or wood depending on the time and location) and the ruggedness of the expanding western frontier. Ahh to be born a hundred years earlier. 

 

-Brian

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Funny you say that, as I was studying photos and such yesterday I was looking at that as well and wondering what it was for, given that it seems to serve no functional purpose controlling the pole itself. All the accounts of grasshoppering I've read mention of only the bar-hopping purpose of the setup, but that omissions doesn't mean the poles weren't also used for something else. One question I can't answer, though, is what happened to the actual spars if you did that. They seem rather large, heavy, and awkward to leave hanging from the pole while you were swinging cargo or some kind of landing platform around, yet taking them off would be a major task. I've always seem them presented as left rigged and ready (hanging at the sides of the bow for immediate use), so it would seem really awkward to derig them every time you made a landing somewhere. See the St. Louis photo, where all the spars are hanging in place.

 

Note that in the second Mary McDonald photo, she has a stage/platform out to the bank on the port side but the grasshopper poles are still rigged, and there's no sign of the port pole being rigged to the platform or otherwise in action (it's in the same position as the starboard one). I'm also not convinced that I can see the secondary rigging on the poles that's so clear on the Far West, just the main rigging for the spars.

 

The real answer is I just don't know. Anyone else have info or perspective? There's so much to know, and there are so few details as most contemporary people took stuff like this for granted, weren't interested in documenting it, or weren't capable of doing so. I'd love to have another life as a historian to just dig up and read every contemporary account of steamboat travel to try and find nuggets like this, but they're really hard to search for from an amateur setting.

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Eric,

This is just steamboat lore.  No bearing on the wonderful model that you are building.  It does apply to our understanding of steamboat head rigging.

 

I did some research and learned that the lock and dam system required to control water levels and navigation depths on the Ohio River was not functional until the late 1920’s.  These improvements were the responsibility of the Federal Government, and subject to uncertain Congressional appropriations.

 

On the other hand, work on the Ohio River tributaries was done much earlier, particularly on the Kentucky side as these were funded by the state or by private river improvement companies that either charged tolls or gained a monopoly on a particular trade route.

 

Of particular interest is the Green River that flows from Bowling Green Ky and emptied into the Ohio near Evansville Indiana.  This was improved by various investors from the mid 1800’s with some at different times squeezing all other competitors from the River.  In the late 1800’s the state of Kentucky took over and built a series of publicly funded locks and dams.  This work was completed in 1906 and the first boat traveling up the river was the Chaperone.  This route from Evansville up the Green River to Mammoth Cave was popular with tourists.

 

Now the head rigging-  I have a picture of the Chaperone on the Green River.  She does not have grasshopper spars, or the two masts aside the cabin, and her gangway is suspended from a single mast on the centerline in classic steamboat fashion.  Since most of trip was on an improved river she had no need of shallow water gear.

 

On May 12, 2019 I posted an old photo of the steamboat Car of Commerce, at the Cincinnati landing in the 1850’s.  There are actually two other sidewheel steamers in this same photo.  All are rigged with shallow water gear- grasshopper spars suspended from masts on either side of the cabin, needed for the unimproved Ohio River.

 

Roger

 

 

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Roger, I assume you're referring to this post? I can see the spars on the main vessel but the others seem cut off. Is there a wider version of the photo? Certainly good evidence that the practice was used wherever necessary. 

 

As for the lock/dam building, thanks for looking that up. Very interesting and quite different from the situation on the Missouri, where the first dam wasn't completed until 1940 (primarily for flood control) and serious channel modifications commenced from there. However, prior to that, there was an ongoing effort to improve the channel by pulling snags and so on; do you know how early efforts like that happened on the Ohio? I would assume that things like dredging and channel modification started well before actual lock/dam construction, which would reduce the problems with bars to a certain extent. Just theorizing, though. I can easily believe that all upper tributaries along the Ohio remained shallow-water rivers requiring some use of sparring until navigation was either improved or abandoned (which I'd bet happened earlier than along the Missouri given the relative pace of development for competing things like railroads).

 

So much to know, so little time.

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The photo on the post is part of a panaramic view of Cincinnati, Ohio.  The entire photo is published in the privately printed book “Rivers in Time” that commorates the centennial of the American Commercial Barge line.  Although I never worked for them, I am considered a retiree as I retired from a business that was related to one that they acquired.  That’s how I got the book.  The entire photo published in the book shows three steamboats, all with grasshopper spars.

 

Some of the tributaries were dammed up to control water levels with locks bypassing the dams as early as 1830, less than 20 years after the first steamboat traveled down the Ohio.  With early primitive locks and dams steamboats were able to travel up the Wabash and its tributaries as far as Lafayette, Logansport and even Indianapolis well before the mid 1850’s.

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On 4/26/2020 at 6:27 AM, Cathead said:

I've always seem them presented as left rigged and ready (hanging at the sides of the bow for immediate use), so it would seem really awkward to derig them every time you made a landing somewhere.

Eric, In Kurt's post 247 shows the Ben Campbell with the grass hoppers in the stowed position. So not all boats left them hanging. I would also think that they would not be derigged when stowed having enough line on the falls to position horizontally

as seen on the Ben Campbell.

not that I know anything about riverboats

Steve

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If there's one rule about Western River steamboats, it's probably "never say something didn't happen".

 

I also found a drawing in an old Time Life book of the Far West that shows her grasshopper spars being hooked onto the rigging from the poles (rather than actually rigged together), implying easy potential for removal if necessary. That's a detail I haven't seen anywhere else due to photo resolution, etc. I think I'm going to copy that for Arabia as it's a nice touch and also makes the rigging a little easier!

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So I have a new question for you all. I've decided I need to build the permanent stand next and mount the Arabia on it, as doing so will require tilting the model  back and forth rather dramatically and I don't want to do that with delicate loose rigging.

 

Last night I tried a stand design that looked good in my head but I'm not a fan of in reality. I thought it would mimic the lid of a cargo crate and tie into the model nicely, but instead it just looks clunky to me:

IMG_0569.jpg.33156eb300b9974252b590a2db46b849.jpg

So the question is, what sort of stand design would look good? I left mounting holes in the bottom of the hull that correspond to the second and fourth crosspiece on the stand above. They are in two pairs about 4" apart laterally. So I need to design something that will look good, be attachable to the hull while it's stood on end, and be stable enough for this wide model. Thoughts?

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Wefalck, you've got us thinking about a trip down to the river to collect some authentic sediment and laying it out in a wooden tray, fixed in place with diluted glue. Could even embed a snag or two made of twigs. Mrs. Cathead used to do research modelling changes in the Missouri River's channel and would have a lot of (too much?) fun recreating typical river-bottom morphologies. She even suggested using a 3D printer to create an actual river-bottom model based on existing scan data, though I think that's beyond us.

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That's my academic background too (undergraduate in geology, graduate in geology and science education), though I'm not an active researcher (currently a freelance  editor focusing on earth and environmental sciences). Small world. Thanks for the inspiration, I'm giving it serious thought.

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Seems that many of us are working in 'marginal' areas - havn't touched a rock for decades. But then I did my graduate studies in applied geology and a PhD in environmental geochemistry. Spent most of my professional life in waste and mining legacy management. Over the past ten years or I have been advising the EU as an academic and self-employed consultant on raw materials and mining waste management policies.

 

I must admit that I don't know too much about riverboats, but always had a weak spot for them. Most of my knowledge comes out of Mark Twain's 'Life on the Mississippi'.

Edited by wefalck
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I'm taking a side trip into trying to build a couple of Model Shipways' simple lifeboat kits for possible use on the Arabia. I started a separate build log for this, as the kits appear to be quite frustrating and I thought it would be usefu to document my approach to them. Follow at your own risk.

 

I'm also working on another stand, but will report back on that when I like the result.

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