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Whistling in the Dark: Steamboat Pilots and Navigational Labor in the Pacific Northwest, 1870–1920

Sat, March 28, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Delta Ottawa City Centre, Floor: Conference, Richelieu


This paper examines the environmental labor performed by steamboat pilots in order to navigate Pacific Northwest inland waterways between 1870 and 1920. In contrast to scholarship focused on environmental labor in extractive industries, like logging or mining, I use Puget Sound’s intricate maritime geography and unpredictable weather to demonstrate that navigation was a type of labor dependent on environmental awareness and interpretation—labor that produced a voyage, instead of a commodity. As pilots negotiated Puget Sound’s complex matrix of islands, peninsulas, inlets, and passages, they watched the shoreline for distinctive features and recorded key details about each voyage (such as prevailing wind, tidal currents, and running time between points) in personal logbooks. When visibility was poor, they used these records of past trips to predict their course, while verifying their position and speed by listening for whistle echos and feeling for physical changes in how the vessel responded. For the traveling public, though, the illustrated route maps published by steamboat companies depicted water transportation as simple and consistent—something for passengers to consume—while simultaneously hiding the labor necessary to produce it. By theorizing navigational labor and historicizing coastal steamboat travel, this paper demonstrates how sensory, intellectual, and technological tools enabled maritime movement.