EATING UP THE LIGHTS
Marking the Channel for Safe Passage
Travel by steamboat at night was very limited and rarely
snags, shifting sandbars, and dangerous currents were only a few of the
ever present obstacles to navigation. At night, all hazards were
On occasion, pilots would find themselves only a few miles from the
next landing after sundown. In order to navigate through any menacing
the crew would test and mark the waters using a technique they referred
to as EATING UP THE LIGHTS.
A crew of men would board one of the steamboat's skiffs and spearhead
the attack on the uncharted waters ahead. The pilot would choose a
associate to supervise the activities. He would also need several men
strong backs to provide propulsion, a man to take depth readings, and
individual to manipulate the lighted markers.
After a clear channel with a safe depth was found, one man would light
a candle and affix it to a piece of wood by dripping hot wax on the
and placing the candle in it. To protect the candle from the wind, a
of paper would be placed around the candle and adhered to the wood with
wax as well. A string with a stone attached to the other end for an
would be tied to the wooden float.
After this procedure was repeated a few times, a long procession of
marker lights would highlight the safest path through an otherwise
and unpredictable river. With confidence in his lead crew, the boat's
would gently advance into the darkness toward this path of lights. With
fascinated passengers leaning over the rail of the forward boiler deck,
the graceful steamer would glide over the floating markers, consuming
light under her bow. Thus she was EATING UP THE LIGHTS.