Steamboat navigation lights

I’m building a model of a steamboat, the Robert E. Lee, from about 1870, and I have a question perhaps the Dopers can help me with.

Modern ships use red & green navigation lights on the left and right ends of the bridge. When did those come into general use? Would a Mississippi (damn, that’s fun to type–Mississippi Mississippi Mississippi) steamboat of 1870 have had red and green navigation lights?

I’ve done a little poking around, and Wiki suggests that there were very few regulations on steamboats early on. Between 1838 and 1852 there was the beginning of hull inspections.

As the article suggests, there were small steps toward safety (with boiler explosions being the main concern) throughout the 1800’s, but looks like the 1871 Act would be the first “big” step in inspection and safety. No mention of navigation lights, but my guess is that they wouldn’t have been found on very many ships on the Mississippi.
Being from NE Texas, I’ve grown up with the stories of the Mittie Stephens disaster on Caddo Lake in 1869. The Mittie Stephens was a Mississippi sidewheeler, generally traveling from New Orleans to Jefferson (the Mississippi to the Red, the Red to the Cypress Bayou) and I’ve never seen any representation of her that included navigation lights. The disaster was caused by sparks from a torch rack hitting some hay on the deck and setting the whole ship ablaze. I believe 69 people died. The photos of the ship are all in black and white (obviously) but the paintings only show these torch lights; no running lights of any kind.

Not a definitive answer, I know, but it’s the best I could do.

It’s been a long time since I read Life On The Mississippi, but did the boats run at night? The channel was constantly changing and the pilot had to read the river’s signs which would be difficult to do in the dark.

Louis c. Hunter, in Steamboats on the Western Rivers, says that they would run after dark, and that lights on the boat were discouraged, as they interfered with the pilot’s night vision. But he also says that when electric lights became available, spotlights caught on fairly quick.

(SotWR is a fascinating book. Short on anecdotes, but long on data: How steamboats hulls and powerplants evolved, where they were built, what steamboat businesses were like (usually partnerships or single proprietor), what passenger accomodations were like (Cabin passengers: great; deck passengers: primitive in the extreme)–just a wonderful book.)
On the Web, I found a paper that says that red/green nav lights were required in England by an 1858 Act; so BlakeTyner’s 1871 sounds about right to me.

I recall from one of Twaine’s stories that all boats were required to burn a light at night. (Who required such a thing? I do not know.) Flatboats would travel at night and sometimes show a light at the last possible moment to avoid collision with a powered boat.

For some reason I half-remember an episode along these lines in one of MT’s works.

True blue Americans spell it “Twain.” :wink:

To be pedantic about it, it comes from the leadsman’s call “mark twain” meaning that the depth was two fathoms (12 ft) which was ample water for the riverboats.

I am an English teacher. I can be pedantic. I have a union card.

This article from The Journal of Navigation (.pdf) notes the history of navigation lights in Britain. It also makes a passing reference to an international conference on the topic held in Washington in 1889.

Where that leaves U.S. lighting in 1870, I am not yet sure.

This German .pdf (as in, written in German) discusses the history of navigation lights and if I am scraping out bits and pieces of its text (despite an ignorance of the language) it seems to indicate that following the British rules implemented in 1849, several European nations began to follow the same policy and that in 1863, a large number of other countries signed on to revised rules–including the USA.

Interesting topic. i just happened to read “LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI”, and twain doesn’t mention navigation lights. Now, a question: Twain relates that capt. Horace Bixby (who trained the young Twain as a riverboat “cub” pilot) says words to the effect of " son, you have to know evert bar, every bend, every island so’s you can comedown in pitch blackness". Now Twain was surely one to exaggerate-but would steamship owners risk their boats this way?
Second: I believe the US has TWO standards for ligting riverboats-hte “Inland Rivers and waterways” (which apply to the Mississippi, great lakes, and rivers east of the MS-and another one 'the “Western Rivers” standards which apply to all rivers and lakes west of the MS-how did THAT happen?

The various regulations were hammered out according to the physical shapes of the ships to which they applied. I do not know the exact reasons for the different rules by geographicv region, but I would hazard a guess that it is based on the different layouts of the ships along with a reluctance of shipowners to (incur the costs to) modify their ships simply to be in compliance with some distant set of rules. River boats, with stacks forward and no necessary masts, and with a need to be seen in odd configurations when meeting on twisting rivers might have developed specific light systems that made more sense (to them) than the configurations of ocean ships where they had to reconcile the different appearances of steamships and sailing vessels (but where the tradition of a foremast and a mainmast was continued on the steamships even though the masts bore no sails).

Note that in this index of law changes from the 1983 enforcement of the 1981 adoption of the new Inland Rules, there are numerous references to the 1890 acceptance of the 1889 International rules, along with the exceptions to those rules for the Great Lakes along with the further exclusions for the Great lakes with separate divisons from the Western Rivers enacted in 1895.

This article from Ocean Navigator notes (regarding the Inland Rules):

(Bolding mine)

I suspect this was merely Twain’s way of emphasizing just how well a riverboat pilot had to know the river and be able to read it.

Pilots were the 777 pilots of their day along the river and Twain was justifiably proud of having been one. He wanted to stress just how much skill and training went into being one.