Smoke Alarms

Page 7 of 9

Smoke Alarm

It was Sgt. Gass who reported on a situation that seriously threatened to put a damper on their Christmas jollity: "We found our huts smoked; there being no chimneys in them except in the officers' rooms. The men were therefore employed, except some hunters who went out, in making chimnies to the huts." Perhaps chimneys had been omitted because the Indians from the Great Falls all the way to the coast didn't use them, and didn't appear to be seriously troubled by smoke, so the easterners may have concluded that hereabouts a hole in the roof above the fire would be enough to keep the inside air breathable. But the coastal Indians had learned long ago how to cope with the physics of fire management and fresh air circulation in their houses. For one thing, the soldiers strove to make their huts snug and, as Clark proudly witnessed, they succeeded. They daubed mud in the chinks between the logs to keep out the wind. The Indians, for their part, allowed their houses to breathe.

Over a period of many generations, perhaps hundreds or even thousands of years, coastal Natives had devised simple, reliable ways of manipulating the balance of atmospheric pressure, temperature and air flow in what is now called the "stack effect." In terms of the Indians' practices, that meant that as the warming or cooking fire heats the room above the outside temperature, the warm air rises, decreasing the atmospheric pressure toward the floor, and raising it toward the ceiling. The horizontal zone in which the atmospheric pressure inside is equal to that outdoors, is a neutral pressure plane that holds the smoke indoors, close to the fire. In thee, with 8 men in each of the two 15 by 16-foot rooms and 10 in the 18 x 15-foot room, the frequent opening of doors would have created strong downdrafts and increased the concentration of smoke in the rooms, especially when the wind was blowing hard. Heating and ventilating are much easier to control with a properly designed chimney and flue. Indeed, as one authority has declared, "The chimney is the engine that drives a wood heat system."1

Figure 8

Detail from "Interior of a Chinook House"

by Alfred T. Agate (1812–1846)

Large one-room house made from wide cedar planking

Archives and Special Collections, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, University of Montana

Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (6 vols, 1844-45), Vol. 4, p. 341

Venting smoke from a coastal Indian plank house

American artist Alfred Agate (1812-1846) was the official portrait and botanical illustrator for the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, commanded by the naval officer Charles Wilkes (1798-1877). Agate created 172 of the 342 drawings and paintings that were reproduced as lithographs in Wilkes's six-volume report. It is known that he used an optical tracing aid called a camera lucida, which was similar to the camera obscura in effect, but more easily portable. Both instruments reflected an image or view on a drawing surface such as a piece of paper, where it could be copied with a pencil.

The first version of the camera lucida was patented by the English physicist William Wollaston in 1807, but new models based on the same principles are still in use for certain types of illustration. In fact, a digital Camera Lucida application for the iPhone appeared on the market in 2011. As of the present date, version 4 of the iPhone App supports landscape mode and can be used to capture panoramic scenes. Whether Agate could have used his instrument to capture the interior of this large Pacific Coast plank house is questionable.

The opening in the highest part of the gable roof admits light (along with some rain), and draws the smoke from the fire pit. Two sturdy log beams span the length of the house, supporting the wooden grid from which are suspended the haunch of an elk plus several fish of various sizes in the flavoring effect of the rising smoke. The lofty grid also enabled persons to reach the roof planks to rearrange them so as to increase or decrease the fire's draft. A single pole suspended from the two beams serves as a crank (without a handle) with which the cooking pot could be raised or lowered relative to the fire's heat.


Figure 9

Klickitat Lodge

by Paul Kane (1810–1871)

klikitat lodge by paul kane

Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario, No. 46.15.221

Watercolor on paper (1847)

Friendly Village

Whereas, aside from the haphazard arrangement of planks in the gable and roof, Alfred Agate's impression of a Chinook plank house appears very neat and orderly–"classy," one might say, especially in the Klikitat house depicted by Paul Kane looks more casual, even haphazard, to put it kindly, at least from the outside.

In his journal, the artist described the abodes of the Chinook people as follows:

During the season the Chinooks are engaged in gathering camas and fishing, they live in lodges constructed by means of a few poles covered with mats made of rushes, which can be easily moved from place to place, but in the villages they build permanent huts of spit cedar boards. Having selected a dry place for the hut, a hole is dug about three feet deep, and about twenty feet square. Round the sides of square cedar boards are sunk and fastened together with cords and twisted roots, rising about four feet above the outer level; two posts are sunk at the middle of each end with a crotch at the top, on which the lodge pole is laid, and boards are laid from thence to the top of the upright boards fastened in the same manner. Round the interior are erected sleeping places, one above another, something like the berths in a vessel, but larger. In the centre of this lodge the fire is made, and the smoke escapes through a hole left in the roof for that purpose.2

The Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies (1754–1842), who accompanied Captain George Vancouver on his voyage around the world in 1791–1795, wrote a more laconic word-picture of a scene that caught his attention in the Gulf of Georgia, in mid-June of 1792:

[T]he appearance of smoke issuing from a part of the wood on an Island before us induced us to land at a place where we found four or five families of the Natives variously occupied in a few temporary huts formd in the slightest & most careless manner by fastening together some rough sticks & throwing over them some pieces of Mats of Bark of Trees so partially as to form but a very indifferent shelter from the inclemency of the weather.3

  • 1. The Wood Heat Organization Inc., (Retrieved 21 March 2013).
  • 2. Paul Kane, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America (London: Longman, Brown Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1859), 187.
  • 3. E. V. Newcombe, ed., Menzies' Journal of Vancouver's Voyage, April to October, 1792 (Victoria, BC: William J. Cullin, 1923), 58. Internet Archive.