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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

15 November 2014

❖ Puget Sound Steamboat Bell & Jingle Engine Orders ❖



L-R: Keith Sternberg and
Chief Engineer Don Gray.
Keith fired for 8 or 9 engineers on the VIRGINIA V.
Gray was engineering on the USS ENTERPRISE
during WW II.
Photo shared by author Keith Sternberg, Lopez Island, WA.

"Aboard the steamers of the 'mosquito fleet,' engine orders were signaled to the engineer with a trip gong and a jingle bell. In the pilot house, brass slide pulls with loop or hook-shaped handles were mounted on the wheel stand or the tongue and groove staving. These bell pulls varied in size and shape, but one was always larger than the other. The larger pull sounded the gong, and the smaller pull sounded the jingle bell. The gong produced one loud "CLANG" with a yank on its bell-pull. The jingle bell produced a higher-pitched 'DING-A-LING' sound. These bells and bell pulls were standard  features of tugboats, cannery tenders, and fishing vessels, no matter if they were steam powered or with a diesel or gasoline engine. Tug boats were sometimes fitted with a set of bell pulls aft on the boat deck. Even twin-screw vessels used these bells, with two sets of bells of different tones.
   
Steamer VIRGINIA V
Photo by James A. Turner, Seattle.

Original from the archives of S.P.H.S.

      Trip gongs and jingle bells were widely used on vessels on both coasts of the USA and in riverboats, with a fascinating variation of signals, according to local custom. A Puget Sound steamboat man did not dare take a job on a New York harbor tug without first learning the bells used on those boats, which were quite different from the Puget Sound bells. When I hired on the VIRGINIA V as a fireman in 1966, her master, mate, and engineer were all veteran steamboat men with experience reaching back to the early 1900s. With this in mind, the bell code that these men used on the VIRGINIA V can probably be taken as the standard bell code used on Puget Sound for many years. I don't think they considered the bell-&-jingle method to be quaint, out of date, or antiquated, they were just steamboat men running a steamboat in the way it had always been done.

      In my description here, 'one bell' means one stroke of the gong, 'two bells' means two strokes of the gong, and 'jingle' means a good rattle of the jingle bell. This was done by yanking up on the jingle-pull, holding it up for about a half-second, and dropping it.
      The gong is used to signal half-ahead, stop, and half astern. If the engine is stopped, one bell signals half ahead, or two bells signals half astern. One bell means stop, in either direction. Maneuvering bells, when making landings or getting underway, were mostly half-speed bells, and half speed was a lively turn of the engine so that she would have rudder power, about 130 RPM.
      The jingle bell is used to increase speed from half to full. If she's turning half-ahead, the jingle is sounded to increase to full astern.
      The jingle bell is also used to signal slow-ahead or slow-astern. There was no bell command for reducing from half to slow; you rang a stop bell first. Then for slow-ahead, a jingle followed by one bell. Stop to slow-astern is signaled by a jingle followed by two bells. 'Slow' called for very slow turns, and was seldom used except for working ahead against the spring line.
      Note the logic in the use of the jingle bell: a jingle BEFORE a bell means slow; a jingle AFTER a bell means full. The jingle bell serves as a sort of accent to the gong. If the jingle comes first it subtracts from the half-speed of the gong.
      The jingle bell also serves as a 'standby' bell, when running at full ahead. Also it is used to signal 'finished with engines' when stopped. A good long rattle of the bell was used for that.
      One last detail is how to reduce speed from full ahead to half ahead: one bell. This is the only instance when one bell does not command 'stop.' When turning full astern, one bell means stop. One bell always means stop EXCEPT when turning full ahead, when it calls for half ahead. Forgive my repetitious writing style, but this is an important point.
      When getting underway, the first bell to be struck is always a stop bell. This is because the engineer needs to warm up the engine, working ahead against the spring line, and the skipper knows this. Just as importantly, the chief knows that the skipper knows this. What I'm getting at here is that when the skipper rings one bell, the chief does not assume that the skipper thinks he is stopped, and therefore this one bell means to go ahead half. No sir, one bell means stop because the engine is working ahead and everyone knows that. This was always understood and I never saw any confusion about it. Cont'd with a click on "read more" below.


      These bell signals may seem somewhat complex to the uninitiated, at first glance, but they quickly become part of one's daily language when they are worked with. Like the old saw about riding a bicycle; the bell code is impossible to forget, once it is well-learned. It is practical too, because the fireman knew instantly by the sounds what the demands for steam would be; a good thing to know when you're firing a fast-steaming water-tube boiler. Also the deckhand tending the spring line knew if he should take another turn or if he would soon be hauling slack, just by listening to the bells. It was no difficulty hearing them; because they were loud, and I would say rather musical. The gong and jingle bell on the VIRGINIA V were good quality bells.
      There was a brass hood over the gong and a 1-inch tube which conducted the sound of the gong all the way to the pilot house. This was so that the gong could be heard in the pilot house. It is important to know that the signals sent to the engine room really arrived there. There was also voice tube, with a whistle in it. From the pilot house end, you pulled out the whistle and blew into the tube, to sound the whistle at the engine room end and get the chief's attention. Likewise, the chief could blow into his end and the whistle in the pilot house made a high-pitched squeak.
      The master of the VIRGINIA V when I joined her was Capt. Albert Smiley, age 78, at the time. His first command was the Skagit River sternwheeler FORRESTER. Afterward he was in steam tugs of American Tugboat Co, Washington Tug and Barge Co, and the Milwaukee Railroad, and ferries of he Puget Sound Navigation Co. He commanded the steamer GLEANER when she was the first auto ferry on the Anacortes Sydney run in 1929, a sternwheeler with a freight elevator. He first went to sea in the four-mast schooner RELIANCE as a cabin boy in 1902, sailing to Honolulu with a lumber cargo.
      Steamboat historian Bill Somers, who was a deckhand on the steamer HYAK, used to say that the only mosquito fleet steamer to have a telegraph was the steamer ATALANTA (not the ATLANTA.) By the mid 1960s only the VIRGINIA V and a couple of old tugs and cannery tenders still rang the old bells and jingles. VIRGINIA V became the last mosquito fleet steamer with the demise of the SIGHTSEER in 1963. New owners bought the VIRGINIA V from Cy Devenny in 1968. These were not old-time mosquito-fleet steamboat men and in July 1969 a telegraph was installed. This was Earl Sugden's idea, encouraged by his engineer Frank Lynch, both from the Seattle fireboats. Capt. Smiley was still on board, but had so say in such decisions. Our old chief Malcolm Currie had retired after a dispute with Earl about access to the fuel oil valves and our very competent mate and relief skipper Walt Gillespie also left the ship after clashes with Earl. Earl had naval fantasies, and acquired a twin-screw naval telegraph from Peter Woeck that had been removed from a navy PC and was marked navy style in thirds and with 'flank.' An old single-screw 'Chadburn' marked slow-half-full would have been more appropriate.
      For those readers who are inclined to think that the bell system I describe here sounds too complex to be practical, I have bad news. It is one of the simpler bell codes. The New York harbor tugs had four speeds ahead and astern, with a cow bell added to call for STOP in case of confusion. Western River steamers used a completely different system with four separate bells of differing tones, named stopping bell, backing bell, gong, and jingle bell. Some of these steamers were side wheelers with separate engines and two sets of bells. Tugboats in the South used a gong and a small whistle, the gong signaled ahead, astern, and stop, and the whistle tooted the signal for slow, half, or So signaled ahead, astern, and stop, and the whistle tooted the signal for slow, half, or full.
      Today, in 2014, the old bells and jingles still ring on one passenger-carrying steamboat, the SABINO, at Mystic, CT. Mystic Seaport is dedicated to historical authenticity, and SABINO is much the same as she was when built in 1908; coal-fired with no electrical system. A few steamboat buffs still ring bells in small launches. The old bells are almost a forgotten language, but hopefully will continue in a small way.
Submitted by Keith Sternberg, Lopez Island, WA.
For Saltwater People Historical Society, 10 November 2014.


   

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