Jump to content

Purpose of tall mast on bow of riverboat

Recommended Posts



I recently completed building the old re-issued Lindberg kit of the Robert E. Lee riverboat and got to wondering about what that tall mast on the bow

was used for other than a flag pole...perhaps a height gauge to prevent the stacks from hitting a bridge or other object crossing the river? It doesn't

seem to be engineered for load lifting. Just curious 425326550_R.E_Lee8.thumb.jpg.8a4f010b57861e4b149b0e0a5ea71839.jpgand hoping for any enlightenment on the subject. Wasn't able to find anything about it through a web search.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I read a book about the US Army's campaign against the Sioux/Cheyenne in 1876. They were able to operate so far from their forts because they had the riverboat Far West at their disposal for supplies and communication. The Far West was a 'Missouri River Boat" which had a shallower draft than the Mississippi river type. In the book it explains the procedure if it ran aground or came upon a sandbar. The crew would erect strong timber pylons in the river ahead of the bow,they would then use a large bow spar and a steam driven capstan to lift the bow and dip the stern deeper. At this point they gave the engines full steam and the stern wheel would push the boat up and over the obstruction. I don't know if this procedure was used on boats like the L E Lee

Edited by JohnB40
double word
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Wow!  I get to answer 2 questions in 1 post.  :cheers:


Speaking of FAR WEST




#1.  The forward mast was indeed used as a gauge to help the pilot maneuver the boat.  As you see from the pic, the mast IS the same height as the stacks.  I doubt there were many bridges on the Missouri River in 1876, but I am sure there were some nearer to the Mississippi.  The mast acted as a centerline and horizon to provide the pilot a point of reference.  The black doohicky on the mast (arrow) was the "horizon".  Missouri boats were very similar in design to Mississippi boats


#2.  Mississippi boats like the ROBERT E. LEE did NOT have the "grasshopper" feature.  Running into or over obstacles was frowned upon.  However, on the Missouri there were obstacles aplenty.  The grasshopper feature was important.  You can see he antenna looking booms sticking out of the front of the model above.  The starboard (unpainted) spar is rigged.  Each boom had its own capstan.  In addition to grasshopping, these could be used for loading/unloading cargo and gangplank deployment.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chuck is correct, it's a navigational aid. The forward mast isn't for gauging obstacle height; by the time that encountered a bridge the boat wouldn't have time to stop or turn before knocking the stacks off. Once bridges became common, steamboats started being built with hinged stacks that could be lowered while passing underneath. In the meantime, the legal battles between railroad and steamboat interests over bridges were epic and bitter.


The R.E.Lee was a Mississippi River boat that would have had no need for grasshopper spars as that river was deep enough to avoid the need; grasshoppers were a unique feature of the Missouri and other shallow Western (i.e., Plains) rivers. There were some differences in design between Mississippi and Missouri River boats, in that upper Missouri (i.e beyond Omaha) boats tended to be sternwheelers (better for shallow water and more protection for the wheel from copious river debris), have much narrower or non-existent guards (extensions of the deck beyond the hull), and/or have stripped-down superstructures to reduce their draft and exposure to high winds.


Good initial question, and nice looking model!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thank you, Eric. I knew about the hinged stacks because I've seen them in operation on a modern stern wheeler in Red Wing, MN. Sure didn't

think that mast would be a navigational aid, tho'. And thanks for the compliments! That kit required a considerable amount of tweaking and

artistic license to build.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Standing in the pilot house, the pilot could sight across the pole to determine where the boe of the boat was pointing relative to the channel.


Great Lakes vessels built before the current “1000 footers” had their Pilot house in the bow. They also had no frame of reference to determine which the ship was pointing.  This problem was solved by adding a light weight bowsprit called a steering pole to the bow of the ship.  Same idea.



Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 6 months later...

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Create New...