In John Dewey's How We Think, there is an example of someone reflecting on the purpose of a particular part of a boat:

Projecting nearly horizontally from the upper deck of the ferryboat on which I daily cross the river, is a long white pole, bearing a gilded ball at its tip. It suggested a flagpole when I first saw it; its color shape, and gilded ball agreed with this idea, and these reasons seemed to justify me in this belief. But soon difficulties presented themselves. The pole was nearly horizontal, an unusual position for a flagpole; in the next place, there was no pulley, ring, or cord by which to attach a flag; finally, there were elsewhere two vertical staffs from which flags were occasionally flown.

After a bit of reasoning (which you can see in #2 here), the person decides what he thinks the 'pole' is for.

I formed the conclusion that the pole was set up for the purpose of showing the pilot the direction in which the boat pointed, to enable him to steer correctly.

However, Dewey never provides the name of the actual part. I've been looking around for a word to describe this so that I can find a picture of it! I found this list of words and thought it might be a 'bowsprit' or a 'jibboom'. Both are excellent words but may be inaccurate.

Looking up 'ferryboat' does not help; I think ferries have changed so much since 1910 that finding a matching word, description, or picture using this search term alone is not going to be possible!

Any ideas?


In both these pictures, you might just about see the part I'm talking about as a dark line angling up and out from the upper deck, in front of the bridge. Assuming that I've read Dewey's description correctly, that is.

You can just about see the part I'm talking about in this image as a dark line angling up and out from the upper deck, in front of the bridge.

You can just about see the part I'm talking about in this image as a dark line angling up and out from the upper deck, in front of the bridge.


I think I have found a clearer picture of what I'm looking for (or is this just a standard flagstaff?) -- see the Eureka, an 1890 ferryboat. But is the end shown below the stern or the bow? [Source.]

A clear picture of the one end of the Eureka

  • A bowsprit is kind of forward-pointing mast on certain kinds of sailboat, and is meant to serve as an attachment for sail-rigging. It might have a secondary purpose of helping the pilot keep the boat pointed in the right direction, however, which suggests that the conclusion of the unnamed person in your passage might be correct. I hesitate to name the part in question a "bowsprit", however, since it is not on the bow. Aug 16, 2013 at 15:55
  • Thanks, yes it doesn't sound like the right word now you describe it. Partly because I suspect when Dewey refers to a 'ferryboat' that excludes sail boats, and partly because the pole itself has 'no pulley, ring, or cord', suggesting that not even a sail could be attached to it. Also as you say the pole is not described as being on the bow. Thanks for clarifying.
    – guypursey
    Aug 16, 2013 at 16:40
  • Many ferryboats look the same on both ends. But that should be the bow in the third picture, because you can see the pilothouse with the wheel. Aug 20, 2013 at 19:09
  • Thanks. I suspected it was the bow, but I read that most (all?) ferryboats are double-ended so they don't have to turn around, thus saving time. The main concern for me is that the pole is coming up from the pilothouse as that would fit the description in the text.
    – guypursey
    Aug 20, 2013 at 19:21
  • I have ridden on a number of modern ferryboats, and none of them were double-ended; they all turned around if they docked facing forward. They do dock with both their bows and sterns, so that if you drive a car onto one end of the ferry at one port, you drive it off the other end at your destination without turning the car around. I don't know whether ferries in 1890 were double-ended, but the quote from John Dewey's book seems to indicate they weren't. Aug 20, 2013 at 21:14

3 Answers 3


A 'steering pole'.

[From Wikipedia.]


Also known as a 'steering spar'. [Source.] (Thanks to Peter Shor in the comments below.)


I have discovered, much later, that Dewey himself refers to the pole as an 'index-pole'.

  • 1
    I think that's it. It might also be called a "steering spar". Here is a quote from 1979 Google books using this term. I can find numerous uses of "steering pole" in Google books; most of them seem to refer to other things, but some seem to be describing this. Aug 20, 2013 at 21:59
  • Thanks for checking and verifying this. I'll add "steering spar" to the answer and mark it correct.
    – guypursey
    Aug 22, 2013 at 7:35

Pointer, in the sense of something that points or is used for pointing, is a slight possibility. Here is an entry from OED1, 1909:

Pointer 3. d. An indicator used in whale-fishery to point out to the boats the place of the whale [...] 1877 W. H. MACY There she blows! 143 The extended ‘pointer’ (a light pole with a black ball on the end of it, to be used at the masthead, when the boats are down) told us that the whale was off the ship's lee bow. 1887

  • Great answer! I can't seem to find other references to it, and I imagine it's not used as a common term because it could be confused with a type of boat. The fact that it's shown with quotation marks suggests it's used with doubt in that excerpt. But still a great find and worth a +1 at least for sure!
    – guypursey
    Aug 16, 2013 at 16:53
  • Except OP's reference, unlike the quote, is not at the masthead but rather at the bow. Aug 20, 2013 at 21:30

A 'steersman's fishing-pole'. Possibly.

A sharp breeze sprang up abeam, and M. Radisson ordered a blanket sail hoisted on the steersman's fishing-pole. But if you think that he permitted idle paddles because a wind would do the work, you know not the ways of the great explorer. He bade us ply the faster, till the canoe sped between earth and sky like an arrow shot on the level. The shore-line became a blur.

Agnes C. (Agnes Christina) Laut - Heralds of Empire: Being the Story of One Ramsay Stanhope, Lieutenant to Pierre Radisson in the Northern Fur Trade

[Reference found here.]

[Source text to the specific chapter here.]

  • 1
    I quite like this "answer". The angle of the pole would make the phrase "fishing pole" a very colourful term for it, very imaginative. But I suspect the passage above may relate to something else and thinking this is the correct answer would be wishful thinking on my part!
    – guypursey
    Aug 20, 2013 at 19:43

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