in his wheelhouse

James A. Landau JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Wed Jun 13 01:24:15 UTC 2001

"wheelhouse" has two nautical meanings:
1) the place where the pilot/helmsman/steersman steered the boat with the
2) a covering over the paddlewheels which propelled the boat

The OED2 gives examples of both meanings, plus several citations which are

To the best of my knowledge, with steamboats in the Mississippi River the
boat was always steered from the "pilothouse" and "wheelhouse" generally had
meaning 2).

In a message dated 06/12/2001 3:13:37 PM Eastern Daylight Time,
gscole at ARK.SHIP.EDU writes:

>  The Jackson, Lieutenant Commanding Woodworth,
>  was struck badly with rifle shell, one of which exploded in her
>  wheelhouse, disabling the man at the wheel...."

I think the "Jackson" is the _USS John P. Jackson_, a side-wheel ferryboat
purchased by the US Navy.  ("side wheel" means that it had two paddle wheels,
one on each side.  This is a common arrangement for ferry-boats, many of
which are designed to travel either forwards or backwards so that they don't
have to turn around)
There may easily have been wheelhouses over the paddle wheels, but since the
text specifies "the man at the wheel", it is more likely that "wheelhouse"
here means pilothouse.

>  "...the [Harriet] Lane got a shot in her wheelhouse, but not much
>  damage."

The _Harriet Lane_ was a sidewheeler, and it is not clear whether this was
the pilothouse or the housing over one of the side wheels.  (Does anyone know
if the _Harriet Lane_ was named after President Buchanan's niece/First Lady?)

>  "...the Choctaw having received several shots in her wheelhouse and
>  upper works."

The Choctaw was one of the Eads ironclads, and its paddlewheels were inside
the iron armor in what was definitely called the "wheelhouse".  I would say
it is more likely that the shots where in the paddlewheel housing than in the

>  "The Queen struck a little in advance of amidships, but, as she was
>  turning, the force of the blow glanced along his side and past his
>  wheelhouse without inflicting any very serious damage."

"Queen" was the Ellet ram _Queen of the West_, which carried no guns and
whose offensive power lay only in its ram.  It is interesting that the writer
of the above used "she" for the _Queen of the West_ and "he" for the
Confederate boat.  Here there is no question that "wheelhouse" meant the
housing over the paddlewheel(s) and not the pilothouse, since the
paddlewheels would be vulnerable to the ram and the pilothouse, high above
the waterline, would not be.

[Source: Fletcher Pratt  _The Navy: A History_ Garden City NY: Garden City
Publishing co., Inc., 1941, appendix entitled "Ships of the Navy" starting on
page 413.  Pratt is a notoriously erratic historian but I believe the
tabulation of Navy ships to be accurate.]

In a message dated 06/11/2001 10:45:09 PM Eastern Daylight Time,
laurence.horn at YALE.EDU writes:

> As I mentioned earlier today, Rigs was from California (Alameda, near
>  Oakland and Berkeley, to be exact), and there are no steamboats in
>  the East Bay.

Not true.  In the late 1920's two steamboats were built in Scotland and
assembled at San Francisco for service in the SF-Sacramento area.  Their
names were "Delta King" and "Delta Queen".  After World War II the _Delta
Queen_ was towed through the Panama Canal and up the Mississippi and Ohio to
Cincinnati (the "Queen City") where it is still based and still in excursion
service.  (Every year, the week before the Kentucky Derby, it holds a race
with the _Belle of Louisville_, which is an authentic Mississippi Valley
steamboat.)  I do not know what became of the _Delta King_.

>  He spent his entire major league playing career (eight
>  years) at the Polo Grounds (Manhattan), on the banks of the Harlem
>  River.  No steamboats tooling up and down the Harlem (or Hudson, or
>  East) Rivers that I can recall

Steamboats were in service on the Hudson, starting with the Clermont in 1807,
and a few might have still been active well into the 20th Century.

>  <snip> I think it's more likely that
>  someone else came up with the term "in [someone's] wheelhouse", or
>  alternatively that it doesn't derive from steamboats.

Repeating my claim above, "wheelhouse" does not generally refer to the
pilothouse (control center) of a river steamboat.  It is of course possible
that the term was invented by someone with an imperfect knowledge of
steamboat terminology who was mistaken about what a "wheelhouse" was.

        - Jim Landau

PS.  Two sidebars:

1.  The _Queen of the West_ had a sister boat named the _USS Switzerland_!

2.  All Israelis are convinced that the famous blockade runner _Exodus 1947_
was a Mississippi River steamboat.  Well, it was steam-powered, but it was
built as the _President Warfield_ (and christened by Warfield's niece Wallis
Warfield Simpson) for service on Chesapeake Bay, made three crossings of the
Atlantic, served in the Royal Navy, and made a final trip the length of the
Mediterranean without ever having seen the Mississippi valley.

            "There's a hole in my bit bucket"

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