Steamboat Regulatory Documents

American Maritime Documents 1776-1860

Stein, Douglas L. 1992

In 1838, amidst increasing steamboat accidents and passenger fatalities, the Federal government got involved by passing “An Act to provide for the better security of passengers on board vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam.” The Act called for some loosely worded regulations, including the creation of inspectors for steam vessels—particularly the hulls, boilers, and related machinery. An inspector or inspectors were to be appointed for each port by the local Federal district court judge. The inspectors were in charge of inspecting and, in turn, certifying steam vessels that operated out of their port.

Accidents still occurred and safety standards continued to lag. Consequently, in August, 1852, Congress passed an amendment to the 1838 Act which included tougher legislation, and created an elaborate structure for its implementation. Nine supervising inspectors were appointed by the President of the United States to oversee all districts listed in the amendment. Hull and boiler inspectors were then appointed within each district, and it became their responsibility to examine and certify all aspects of steam vessels as well as to license steam engineers and steam pilots.

This amendment not only established certifying requirements for vessels, pilots, and engineers, but is also created the specific wording of the documents themselves. By 1858 the Steamboat Regulatory Certificates had become fairly uniform in style and content.

Inspector’s Certificate/Hull & Boiler Certificate: Large printed documents, approximately 10″ x 16″ being a common size. Title in printed prominently near the top and many examples feature decorative engraving. Certificates often begin with the phrase, “Application having been made in writing to the subscribers; Inspectors for said district, to inspect the Steamer….” At bottom places are provided for the signatures of the inspectors (hull and boiler), the collector, and a Justice of the Peace or other notary. Various stamps or seals may also appear.

This document, often called a Hull & Boiler Certificate, was a product of Federal legislation begun in 1838 to better regulate the safely of steam vessels and their machinery, and was issued after a thorough examination of the ship, including the hull, passenger accommodations, boilers, safety equipment, and life boats had been successfully completed. It defined the geographical limits within which that particular steamboat may operate, i.e. “From New York and Hartford, Connecticut, touching at intermediate places and back.” The original was filed with the collector, and copies given to the owner/operators of the vessel. Copies of this certificate were to be prominently displayed aboard the vessel, which was reinspected periodically upon the conditions of service.

Steamboat Pilot’s Certificate: A one-page printed document, prior to 1860 a common size was 6 ½” x 10 ½”. “Steamboat Pilots’ Certificate” is often printed boldly across the top. Most documents have printed or engraved borders, and some exhibit a detailed engraving of a three-masted side-wheel steamship, centered in the upper portion of the certificate. Similar in form to the Engineer’s Certificate, the Steamboat Pilots’ Certificate also carries the name and rating of the pilot, along with an oath, swearing that he will comply with the Congressional Act of 1852 regarding the supervision of steamboats and their machinery. Issued through local customs districts, the license usually contained the signatures of the inspectors and the collector.

The Steamboat Pilot’s Certificate became a requirement after the amendment to existing steamboat legislation was passed in 1852. Steam pilots were thus federally regulated, while those aboard sailing vessels could remain, for a while at least, under the supervision of individual states. The pilot candidate was examined by the inspectors for his knowledge and qualifications regarding the specific waterway he intended to work. License was valid for one year.

Engineer’s certificate: A one-page document, often with decorative engraved border and “Engineer’s Certificate” printed bodly across the top. Spaces provided for the engineers’s name and rating i.e. 1st class, 3rd class, etc., Signatures of the district’s hull and boiler inspectors, along with the date of execution, appear near the bottom of the license, which is valid for a period of one year. Common dimensions for this period were approximately 6 1/2 ” x 10 1/2 “. Customs or notary seals were evidently not required.

In 1852, an amendment to the existing Federal steamboat legislation required that engineers be certified as specified in the amendment. It was the duty of an engineer to maintain and operate, or in the case of a first engineer, supervise the mainenance and operation, of the steamboat’s machinery. Once licensed into a certain class, the engineer could then hire himself out of work on a steam vessel