The Frenchman's First Steamboat Race.
The steamer Washington was shooting down the Ohio, with her usual motley crowd of passengers on board, when suddenly a rival boat, the Comet, swung out from her wharf and ranged up alongside, with the evident intention of inviting into a race.
The challenge if such was meant to be given, was tacitly accepted, for word was promptly passed to the engineer of the Washington to "rosin up."
Great excitement immediately prevailed among the passengers. Old women screamed, young women fainted, or went into hysterics, and a few timid gentlemen ventured to expostulate with the captain, but on being assured by him that there was "no danger, boilers new and strong, and steam not half up to her proof," they became less fearful, and as the speed of both boats increased, so also did their interest in the race, till nearly every passenger on board felt quite as anxious as the captain himself to get ahead of the Comet.
There was one excepted, however, in the person of a little Frenchman, to whom a steamboat race was "something new under the sun;" though from his question to the officers, it was evident that he had a correct knowledge of steamboats and their machinery.
He was, in fact, a French engineer, but having always been accustomed to the low-pressure, slow going arks of his own country, he was perfectly horrified at the reckless manner in which things were done on board the Washington.
"Non Deiu! capitaine, what for you go to run so faster like von vot you call chain lightning, eh? You will blow up, explode, burst in a tousand pieces!"
"Think so?" asked the captain in a contemptuous tone.
"Yes, sar! and by the tonnere, I shall leave de boat. You stop him, sar, and let me get off!"
But instead of complying with the request of the irate little Gaul, the captain stepped into the pilot-house, and coolly slammed the door in his face.
Disappointed in this quarter, the Frenchman descended to the main deck, and with some trepidation approached the engine room.
On a low stool in the midst of the rapidly revolving machinery, with eccentric rods vibrating, valves lifting, and connections reciprocating all around him, sat the engineer, his shirt unbuttoned and thrown open at the bosom, his sleeves rolled up, his hat tipped back on his head, and puffing a cigar as unconcernedly as if boiler explosions and steamboat accidents were things unheard of.
Monsieur accosted him, and after a few moments conversation, the engineer, perceiving that his questioner fully understood the construction and management of a steam-engine, resolved to make a little sport by playing upon his fears. Politely inviting him into the engine room, he immediately began to expatiate upon the speed of his own boat, and the numerous races in which she had been victorious. — According to his account, many a good boat had blown up alongside of the Washington, in vainly trying to get on steam enough to pass her.
His anecdotes were not calculated to soothe the agitation of a nervous individual, and Frenchy fidgeted about as if his seat had been studded with thorns, or something equally uncomfortable to sit upon.
Up to this time the boats had kept just about "nip and tuck," but now the Comet suddenly ‘scooted’ several feet head.
A general groan of dissatisfaction was given by the Washington's passengers, and her captain's countenance began to grow black. Putting his mouth to the speaking tube which ran down into the engine room, he bellowed —
"Can't you get anything better than this out of her?"
"Yes, sir — !" replied the engineer, "she ha'nt begun to put in big licks yet."
"Well, it's about time to begin," growled the captain; "that darn'd old go-cart is half a length ahead, already."
"Whewe-e-w! is that so?"
"Yes, that's so. Now do your prettiest."
"Aye, aye, sir!" And the engineer in his turn now yelled to the smutty demons down in the bowels of the boat, to know "why in the thunder they didn't keep up steam?"
"Doin' the best we can; the rosum's all gone," was the reply.
"Got any tar barrels down there?"
"Yes, plenty on 'em."
"Well, duff into 'em."
"Aye, aye?" growled the fire kings, and in a few moments the sound of axes, the rattle of furnace doors, and the cracking of the flames gave proof that they were doing their best to keep up the reputation of their vessel.
The engineer dodged round among his machinery, oiling a bearing here, tightening a joint with his wrench there, and anon poking his head down the fire-room scuttle and singing out, "Give it to her, boys!"
The speed of the engine perceptibly increased, and the bewildered Frenchman could scarcely distinguish between the piston rod and cross head, as they bobbed up and down.
"Le Diable!" he cried, "she will tear herself in pieces! Where is your vot you call him, de clock to tell how high is de steam?"
The engineer pointed to the steamguage.
"By tonnere," ejaculated Frenchy, "von hundred and forty pound! I never see such a thing in my life!"
"Sho!" snickered Tom, the engineer. — "You don't call that high steam, do you? Look here!"
The guage was marked up to three hundred pounds, but it only showed one hundred and forty at this time. The steam in the boilers, however, was of much greater pressure than this, for Tom had shut off the guage when it reached that height to deceive any prying passenger who might chance to get a squint at it. He now suddenly opened the cock and let on the steam. As he did so, the index flew round the dial like a flash, and brought up against a pin at the 300-pound mark with a click!
"O gar!" yelled Frenchy, starting for the door, with his hair standing straight on end.
"Oh, hold on, Monsieur Parley Voo; you hain't see the cutter yet," said the engineer, "I want to show you round, and let you see how we Americans put things through."
With considerable reluctance, the little frogeater consented, asking first to be allowed a look at the safety-valve.
Tom led him round under the walking beam, and with a grin showed him the safety-valve, and the twelve "fifty-sixes" with which it was loaded.
"What diables you Yankees be!" was all the poor fellow could say, but his eyes protruded so far that you might have hung a hat upon them.
As they entered the engine room again, Tom pointed to the joints of the main steam pipe, from which the steam puffed out at every beat of the engine, and cylinder head, which seemed to bend outward every time the piston commenced a downward stroke. He then proposed that they should go down and see the "bilers."
The Frenchman would have been quite as well pleased at an invitation from Pluto to take a look into the infernal regions, as he was at this proposal, but he was ashamed to retreat, and slowly followed Tom down the ladder.
The fire-room was truly a frightful place. The furnace doors were red hot, and the steam hissed angrily from every seam in the boilers, while the pounding and jarring of the ponderous machinery overhead, shook the floor on which they stood, like a small earthquake. The speed of the engine was now so tremendous, and she labored so under the enormous pressure of steam, that every time she turned the centers, the boilers seemed to be lifted bodily from their masonry.
The greasy, blacked firemen looked more like imps than human beings as they savagely cut into the tar barrels, and when they swung open the furnace doors and disclosed the raging fire that roared under the boilers, and the illusion was complete, and the Frenchman almost expected to hear the shrieks of the lost.
The firemen would cut off the hoops from a full barrel, and take off the staves one by one and sweep them round in the soft sticky tar, taking up a huge mass of it with each stave, and then thrust them into the glowing furnace.
After a while Frenchy ventured to look fairly into the furnace, holding his hat before his face to protect it from the intense heat; but he saw they was only fresh cause for alarm.
The under side of the boiler was blistered and scaled off in many places, and a stream of water ran down into the fire from around every rivet.
He called the engineer's attention to it, and was astonished at the sang froid which he displayed.
"Yaas," said Tom, "them bilers is 'bout done for, but I reckon they'll stand a spell longer."
"But what for you don't take dese out before and have new ones? Dese are very onsafe zur."
"New ones? Why, what on earth do you want o' new bilers while the old ones last?"
"Why, how long do you use a steam boiler in this country?"
"Till it busts, of course!" was the cool reply.
"Mon Dieu! Sacre, mille diables!" shrieked the horror-struck Gaul, and before Tom could stop him he had sprung up the ladder, leaped out of engine-room, and in another moment was on the upper deck, and as far aft as he could get.
The Washington was now far ahead of her rival and shortly after the hoarse roar of her escape pipe, as she rounded up to her landing, proclaimed that the safety-valve had been relieved of its fifty-sixes, but the Frenchmathen had seen enough of the boat, and the moment she touched the wharf, he sprang ashore with his traveling bag, sputtering sacres and broken English and heartily cursing all American steamboats.