Often folks ask the question as to why the old lakeboats had their pilot houses located on the bow? I’ve seen speculation bantered about on social media.

“Fog, it had to be fog.”

“They wanted to keep the deck officers away from the engine room crew.”

Nice tries, but not even close. The actual reason for the configuration had nothing to do with those two things. In order to understand why the lakeboats evolved in this manner you must first take your perspective out of this modern age of electronic navigation, lighted aids to navigate by, Coast Guard rules of navigation, clean burning engines, radio communications and all modern considerations for safety. NONE of that existed in the era to which I’m about to transport your brain… but starting there we will see the correct answer.

The correct answer isn’t one of meteorology or sociology, but rather it is one of necessity caused by design evolution. Here’s how it goes…

In the early 1830s the steamboat concept began to catch on in the Great Lakes region. That trend was almost totally supported by the passenger trade. Keep in mind that the “frontier” of America began at Buffalo, NY in that era and the way that you went west was by water. The opening of the Erie Canal allowed folks from the east to easily travel to the shores of Lake Erie and then catch a steamer “west.” Those first steamers were built upon the common design used for any large floating vessel at the time- which was that of the sailing ship. The steam propulsion equipment was placed into a sailing type hull and away you went. In fact, all of those early steamers also carried sail rigging to augment their steam power plants, which often broke down. Likewise, the steering equipment was exactly the same as that used on sailing vessels. The rudder was controlled by a series of ropes and pulleys that went directly up to the fantail where the ships steering wheel was located. That’s why the old sailing ships had such huge steering wheels- because the wheelsman needed the leverage to move the wheel and the huge rudder. It was all done by hand. Thus, the early steamers also had a wheelsman standing on the fantail with a huge wheel.

Look at this poor wheelsman (arrow) and the crowd he has to navigate while trying to see through his own ship's  equipment.

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That wheelsman and captain had to not only watch their compass and barometer, but they also had to watch for traffic in the crowded waterways- and in the 1830s those waterways were packed with everything small rowboats to schooners that were big enough to sink a steamer of the day in a collision. There were essentially no rules for navigation- it was the wild west of fresh water history. To make matters worse, not only did the wheelsman and captain or mate have to look through their steamer’s rigging, but their view was also obstructed by the steamer’s walking beam and smoke stakes. Additionally, there was the smoke itself that came from the wood fuel burned buy their own vessel (yes- in those days they burned wood and not coal. Wood was more easily had and cheaper.) All of that smoke seemed to always drift aft and right into the faces of the fellows who were guiding the vessel.

Pilothouse forward- problem solved

Very soon it was determined that most of those issues could easily be negated by simply placing the ship’s wheel forward and atop the passenger cabins. Also, it was far more comfortable to have that wheel housed in a small structure with windows that opened and closed. That, however, did not go over well with the old timers. Sometimes, you had the pilothouse with a wheel inside, and a second wheel on top. Now you get to ask how that came about?

The “open air” pilothouse evolved with the clear cargo deck configuration. Prior to 1869 the transportation of bulk cargoes, such as coal and iron ore, was primarily by way of that lake schooners and sailing vessels. The reason was that they were able to load and unload the product more easily and transport it more cheaply. In that era the demand for coal was beginning to climb and ore was showing hints of being eventually in greater demand. Sailing vessels had no passenger accommodations and other than their masts and their required rigging, their decks were clear and hatches easily accessed by shore side equipment, (chutes for coal loading and buckets filled by hand shovel and hoisted by horses to unload.) Steamers used side ports and had bulk materials wheeled aboard in barrels and unloaded in the same manner.
FOREST CITY- the second of the the lakeboats to have the traditional  cabin configuration- 1870. (Note: there are no photos of the HACKETT)

 In Cleveland, OH, in 1869 Eli Peck built a 211 foot vessel that was the first steamer to have the soon to be traditional lines of a Great Lakes oreboat. She was the R.J. HACKETT and what he had done was eliminate her central cabins to allow her to load and unload bulk cargoes like a schooner. This left her engine working aft along with her galley and engine crew and her pilothouse and crew cabins forward where they were located anyway. The HACKETT did so well that the following year he launched her twin the FOREST CITY. As this class of vessels began working the booming lumber trade as well as the towering ore and coal loading docks, the captains wanted better all-around visibility. Often the lumber was stacked on deck higher than the pilothouse and prevented the captain and wheelsman from seeing aft. Thus the open-air bridge was evolved where the poor wheelsman again found himself on top of the pilothouse, out in the weather where he had been 30 years earlier! The open air bridge was a common site on oreboats until the 1920s.

Today there are fewer and fewer traditional pilothouse forward lakers in service. Most are all cabins aft, or “stemwinders” as they were called way back in the lumbering days. Some of the old timers will tell you that they like not having to walk all the way back to the galley. 

But they’re also now “…stuck with all that damned noise…” as the late great Wally Watkins told me.

If you liked this information check out my books on the subject... I've written 17 on Great Lakes history.