History Podcasts

Steamboat Era

Steamboat Era

The stage for steam transportation was set in the 1760s by James Watt, a Scottish inventor, who developed a successful steam engine for removing water from mines. This event is regarded by many as the opening of the Industrial Revolution.Applying steam power to boats was an important idea to many. Flatboats could float down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in about six weeks; the return trip, however, took four to five months of strenuous labor.American John Fitch adapted steam engines to boats and demonstrated a working model on the Delaware River during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It would be a later figure, Robert Fulton, who became known as the “father of the steamboat.”In 1807, Fulton teamed with promoter Robert Livingston to attract public attention to the voyage of the Clermont, which steamed up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany. Roosevelt powered the New Orleans from Pittsburgh to the Crescent City at an amazing eight miles per hour. Steam-driven paddlewheelers were soon making the downstream trip in seven days and the return tip in a little more than two weeks.In 1817, there were about one dozen steamboats on the western rivers of the United States. These were mostly built in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.Steamships dominated traffic on America’s inland waters for much of the 19th century, but failed to capture traffic on the high seas. The superior speeds of the "clipper ships" assured the prominence of these wind-driven vessels until the 1880s.

Steamboats of the 1800s

Steamboats of the 1800s: John Fitch
The idea of using steam power to propel boats occurred to inventors soon after James Watt patented an improved version of the steam engine in 1769. John Fitch (1743-1798) was granted a United States patent for a steamboat on August 26, 1791. His first steamboats demonstrated the viability of using steam for water locomotion and made way for the Steamboats of the 1800s. Also refer to Railroads in the 1800s

Steamboats of the 1800s: Robert Fulton, "Father of Steam Navigation"
Robert Fulton (1765-1815) built his first steamboat after the death of John Fitch, and it was Robert Fulton who became known as the "Father of steam navigation."

Steamboats of the 1800s
Thomas Jefferson was the 3rd American President who served in office from March 4, 1801 to March 4, 1809. This was the era of the Industrial revolution and the steamboats.

Steamboats of the 1800s: Definition
Definition: Steamboats were water vessels that were propelled by steam.

Steamboats of the 1800s for kids: Flatboats
The forerunners to the Steamboats of the 1800s were the flatboats. The flatboats, or 'flats' were important forms of transportation for the new nation carrying produce to markets and occasionally transporting passengers.

Flatboats and Steamboats
The picture of the flatboat and steamboats illustrate these different forms of transportation navigating down a river. The flatboats preceded the steamboats, and could only go downstream, with the flow of the river. Powered by steam the steamboats were far more efficient and faster and had the advantage of also being able to travel upstream.

The cargo transported on flatboats included corn, furs, flour, fruit, whiskey, and vegetable and pork. Passengers were taken on flatboats with tent-like coverings for shelter. They were slow and uncomfortable. When they reached their destination the flat boatmen dismantled their 'flat', sold it for lumber and often the crew would walk home.

Steamboats of the 1800s for kids
The Steamboats of the 1800s started to appear on western rivers in 1807. The picture of the steamboats reflect this Important form of transportation in the United States in the 1800's. The invention of steam power made it much easier to travel along the rivers. The steamboats had a steam engine which turned a paddle wheel in back of the boats. Some steamboats had two paddle wheels on each side of the steamboat which could then reach even greater speeds. These paddle wheels powered the steamboats both up and down river. Steamboats could go downstream twice as fast as the flatboats that they replaced. Steam boats could also go upstream, which was a Important improvement over the flatboats.

The Steamboats of the 1800s for kids
The steamboats could travel at the astounding speed of up to 5 miles per hour. Steamboats quickly revolutionized river travel and trade, and dominated the waterways of the expanding areas of the United States in the south with rivers such as the Mississippi, Alabama, Apalachicola and Chattahoochee.

The Steamboats of the 1800s
The steam boats of the 1800s captured the imagination of the American people. They enabled relatively fast and comfortable travel across the rivers and waterways of the US - also refer to Erie Canal. There were dangers to traveling by the steamboats. Some sank, there were boiler explosions and fires. Some steam boats were attacked by Native American Indians.

Steamboats of the 1800s for kids: The Romance of the Steamboats
People were captivated by the Steamboats of the 1800s. They were new, and exciting and there were occasionally steamboat races. However it was the Showboats that really captured the imagination of the public - but they were not steamboats. Showboats were pushed by a small tugboat! A steam engine would needed to have been placed right in the auditorium, where fabulous shows were performed.

Steamboats of the 1800s for kids
The info about the Steam boats of the 1800s provides interesting facts and important information about important events and the progress of the United States during the early presidency of the 3rd President of the United States of America.

Steamboats of the 1800s - President Thomas Jefferson Video
The article on the Steam boats of the 1800s provides an overview of one of the developments during his presidential term in office. For additional info refer to Facts on Industrial Revolution Inventions. The following video will give you additional important facts, history and dates about the political events experienced by the 3rd American President whose presidency spanned from March 4, 1801 to March 4, 1809.

● Interesting Facts about the Steam boats of the 1800s for kids and schools
● Steam boats of the 1800s of historical events for kids
● Definition of the Steam boats of the 1800s
● Thomas Jefferson Presidency from March 4, 1801 to March 4, 1809
● Fast, fun, interesting facts about the Steam boats of the 1800s
● Foreign & Domestic policies of President Thomas Jefferson
● Thomas Jefferson Presidency and Steam boats of the 1800s for schools, homework, kids and children

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Late in the afternoon of 25 April 1838 the 150-ton steamboat Moselle pulled away from the Cincinnati wharf and headed east on the Ohio River to pick up a few passengers at a small landing before heading back downstream on her way to Saint Louis. During the stop the engineer kept the safety valve loaded down and the boiler fires at full blast, preserving steam pressure but violating accepted safety procedures. As the Moselle backed away from the landing, three of her four boilers exploded with a deafening roar, spewing steam, boiler parts, and fragments of bodies all over the waterfront. What was left of the Moselle drifted out into the current and began to sink within fifteen minutes only the smokestacks and a segment of the upper decks still showed above the surface. Rescuers could only save about half of the passengers, and many who were not killed by the initial blast drowned in midstream. All told, about half of the 280 people on the Moselle died, the biggest steamboat catastrophe to that time.

Between 1816 and 1848 steamboat explosions in the United States cost almost 1, 800 lives and destroyed 230 boats, most due to poor boiler design and inexperienced engineers. When two other steamboats blew up within weeks of the Moselle, the Oronoko in the West and the Pulaski in the East, Congress finally passed regulatory legislation for “ the better security of the lives of the passengers. ” The 1838 bill proved largely ineffective, however, and it would take another series of disasters in the late 1840s to bring about effective safety legislation in 1852.

Source: Louis C. Hunter, Steamboat on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949).

Obstacle Course. Mark Twain made the tobacco-chewing, ever-cussing, always-wary riverboat pilot a larger-than-life figure in American culture, but he did not exaggerate the dangers such men encountered. Huge snags, sandbars, and constantly shifting channels made the Mississippi River a two-thousand-mile obstacle course, described by Charles Dickens in 1842 as “ an enormous ditch … choked and obstructed everywhere by huge logs and forest trees. ” Every spring high water scoured and collapsed the banks of the Ohio and the Mississippi, sending huge trees crashing into the swirling waters John James Audubon noted sycamores fourteen feet in diameter on the Ohio shore in the 1830s. At one time the Red River was blocked by a two-hundred-mile-long raft of trees. With no levees or concrete channels, in big flood periods the ever-curving lower Mississippi was especially prone to cutting across one of its meanders to make a new channel for itself. Steamboat pilots had to rely on experience, instincts, and word-of-mouth to guide their way through the treacherous and shifting channels, and they did not always make it. One narrow defile on the Ohio carried the nickname The Graveyard because of the number of wrecks that occurred in its snag-choked channel.

Floating Palaces. The dangers of the river contrasted sharply with the luxurious accommodations available onboard the finer steamboats, which featured grand saloons running the three-hundred-foot length of the boat elegant, heavy wood furniture soaring gilded ceilings and (on the fanciest boats) mirror-lined walls even in the engine rooms. Those who could afford them traveled in private cabins on the upper decks while poorer passengers slept on the freight decks, using cotton bales or grain sacks for beds. For the well-off, fine food, drinking, and gambling broke the monotony of the two-week journeys up the Mississippi and Ohio. So too did the famous steamboat races.

Steamboat Races. Organized races between rival steamers became the stuff of legend on the Mississippi, but far more common were the impromptu battles between captains who tried to beat each other to the next landing to pick up more business. These chance encounters often erupted into races that lasted for days, with excited passengers egging the captains on to put on more fuel and speed. The connection between racing and steamboat boiler explosions has always been difficult to make precisely, but it was certainly true that many engineers and captains tied down safety valves on steam engines and stoked their boilers with the most flammable resinous woods to maximize speed. Federal safety legislation in 1838 and 1852 largely ended this sort of activity, but races continued to occur well after the Civil War.

The Steamboat Era Was Glamorous but Very Brief in Utah

The old Garfield Boat stationed near Blackrock. Used for dancing, bathing, etc. Destroyed by fire. Utah Writer’s Project, 2-24-42. ‘the General Garfield’ originally ‘The city of Corinne.’ Digital Image © 2008 Utah State Historical Society.

On May 23, 1871, nearly 3,000 people stood by the banks of the Bear River in Corinne to witness the launching of Utah’s first steamboat—an event that excited the imagination of the public. About a year earlier, Corinne businessmen had conceived the idea of creating a steamship line to rival the newly constructed Utah Central Railroad. By offering cheaper freighting rates than the local railroad, investors were convinced that the steamboat would capture the mineral transport business created by the growing mining camps south of the Great Salt Lake.

The Corinne Steam and Navigation Company purchased some $40,000 worth of machinery to begin the project in January 1871. When the parts arrived from St. Louis, Corinne was bombarded with the clanking sounds of construction as workers labored for nearly four months to assemble the steamboat.

The completed ship, majestically docked at the Corinne port, weighed two tons and was 150 feet long. Prepared for leisure cruises, the three-decker vessel had eight staterooms, a dance hall, and private dining cabins that could accommodate 60 to 70 people. A large paddle wheel was fixed to the stern of the ship. On the side was emblazoned the steamboat’s name, the City of Corinne.

The May celebration of the launching of the ship was a lively affair. Horse races, baseball, and a grand ball in the Opera House kept the guests from Salt Lake and beyond busy throughout the day. At 2 P.M. an excited crowd stood at Corinne’s port to witness the launching of the City of Corinne. Many walked away disappointed, however, when the vessel was caught, apparently on the launching timbers, in shallow water only 20 feet downriver. Four hours later the City of Corinne was finally freed and on its way to the Great Salt Lake.

During the months of June and July the steamboat kept a tri-weekly schedule, transporting passengers and cargo to and from Lake Point on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake and the transcontinental railroad at Corinne. Though Lake Point was a remote port far removed from Salt Lake City, investors worked hard to make it an appealing destination for their customers. Fox Diefendorf, owner of the City of Corinne, invested in a newly invented “steam wagon” to transport ores from the Stockton and Ophir mines to the landing at Lake Point. Meanwhile, Jeter Clinton was busy transforming the port into a resort beach. In early 1871 he had constructed a temporary building, Lake House, that provided showers and refreshments for tourists. In the fall Clinton replaced the structure with a hotel.

Despite these efforts business had dropped by late July. Since no railroad connected Salt Lake City with Lake Point, few passengers were willing to take the trip. Numerous attempts were made to promote passenger sales but to no avail. Diefendorf sought to lure passengers with newspaper advertisements that read: “(Spend) a whole day on the south shore, to visit the caves and grottoes near Lake Point, enjoy surf bathing, and hunting….” When passenger rates continued to drop in August, Diefendorf had no choice but to end scheduled sightseeing trips around the lake. Instead, the City of Corinne was launched for private parties and school field trips. Finally, in April 1872, Diefendorf sold the City of Corinne to H. S. Jacobs of Salt Lake City.

Three years later John W. Young (a son of Brigham Young) bought the ship to attract tourists to his Great Salt Lake resort at Lake Side near Farmington. In September 1875 General James A. Garfield, soon to be elected as the U.S. president, took a complimentary tour of the lake in the City of Corinne. At the suggestion of a woman passenger, Corinne’s steamboat was renamed General Garfield. To the humiliation of the people of Corinne, who had so proudly celebrated its launching, the steamboat was permanently anchored at the Garfield Beach Resort until it was destroyed by fire in 1904.

See: Dale L. Morgan, The Great Salt Lake (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1947) Brigham D. Madsen, Corinne: The Gentile Capital of Utah (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1980).

A Brief History of Steamboats – The Steamboat Era

The steamboat Enterprise. Built by David French and launched in 1814, the Enterprise was one of the first commercial steamboats on the Ohio River.

A Brief History of Steamboats: The Steamboat Era
by Ben Morrill, Visitor Center Site Manager

Following his success with the Clermont, Fulton and Livingston ambitiously set about to find a way to demonstrate their invention to a national audience with a journey from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Enlisting the help of inventor Nicholas Roosevelt, great grand uncle to future president Theodore Roosevelt, they set about surveying and exploring the waters of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. After a yearlong expedition in 1809 down the Ohio and Mississippi, construction began on their new vessel in 1810.

Dubbed the New Orleans after the city that would become her home port, construction began in Pittsburgh in 1810. Finishing the following year, estimates put the New Orleans at just over 148 feet long, 32 and a half feet wide, and 12 feet deep, although whether or not the boat was a stern wheeler or side wheeler is still up for debate by historians. Launching in October 1811, the New Orleans began her historic journey down river on October 20 th , passing through Cincinnati on October 27 th , finally reaching New Orleans January 10, 1812. Although the New Orleans sank two years later, once again Fulton successfully demonstrated the power of steam engines.

A packet boat laded with cargo, ready to set sail.

The Rise of the Steamboat Era

Once again successfully demonstrating of the power of steam engines, Fulton’s work inspired others, sparking a boom for steamboats that lasted well into the 19 th century. Production of steamboats continued to grow and in 1826, just fourteen years after the New Orleans successfully completed its journey, there were 143 steamboats on the river. By 1830, there were more than 1200. Demand for steamboats continued to increase and Cincinnati and the surrounding area soon became a hub for steamboats and steamboat production.

Traveling at an average speed of 5 miles an hour and able to travel up river, steamboats proved to be a popular alternative to slower flatboats that often had to be disassembled and sold for scrap at their final destination. More steamboats began appearing on the nation’s waterways and while every steamboat had side or a stern mounted paddlewheel and shallow hull, steamboats featured different designs for specialized tasks and roles. With flat decks and luxurious first class state rooms packet boats transported people and goods up and down river while glamorous showboats provided entertainment and snagboats, with cranes mounted on their bows, helped clear dangerous debris from the river.

An image from Harper’s Weekly depicting the Sultana on fire after her boiler’s exploded.

Despite the popularity of steamboat travel, it was not without its risks. In 1860 alone more than 474 people died travelling on steamboats due to collisions, fires, and boiler explosions. Boiler explosions were the deadliest and the most common disaster on steamboats as the poor construction of many engines along with the high pressure steam engines the boats used could lead to temperature spikes resulting in explosions. Between 1812 and 1865 almost 4,000 passengers perished due to boiler explosions, the deadliest being the Sultana, which resulted in the deaths of 1192 people and is considered to be the worst maritime disaster in United States history.

Following the Civil War, railroads emerged as a cheaper, faster alternative to river travel marking the beginning of the end of the steamboat era in America. Find out more about the decline and end of the steamboat era next week.


The steamboat played an important role in Arkansas from the earliest days of the Arkansas Territory. Before being superseded by the railroad in the post–Civil War era, steamboats were the primary means of passenger transport, as well as moving raw materials out of Arkansas and consumer goods into the state.

The inland rivers steamboat, invented in the Mississippi River Valley in the first half of the nineteenth century, eventually connected every person on or near a stream to the larger world. The first major historian of the steamboat, Louis Hunter, saw the steamboat as the “most notable achievement of the industrial infancy” of the United States, not to mention the chief technological means by which the frontier advanced and by which steam power was introduced and spread in the United States. Building and supplying steamboats with hulls and machinery provided the infrastructure that pushed the United States’ transition from the “wood age” to the “iron age.”

In 1820, the steamboat Comet made it to Arkansas Post (Arkansas County) two years later, the Eagle was the first to visit Little Rock (Pulaski County) on its way to what is now Russellville (Pope County) with a load of supplies for Dwight Mission. The Arkansas Gazette reported numerous steamboats operating regularly on Arkansas waters even in the 1820s, including the Robert Thompson, Allegheny, Spartan, Industry, and Catawba. By 1831, even Batesville (Independence County) on the upper White River had been reached by the Waverly, and that same year, the now-extinct town of Davidsonville (Randolph County) on the Black River was reached by the Bob Handy. The Ouachita River had its Dime, and even the Red River Raft was breached by the late 1830s. By about 1875, steamboats had reached everywhere in the state, up the Little Red River, into the Fourche La Fave River, up the St. Francis River and Bayou Bartholomew, and eventually up the Buffalo River as far as Rush (Marion County). The keelboats that had once supplied these towns were supplanted by these vessels that could reach almost anywhere in the state with cargoes of factory goods and foodstuffs, along with emigrants and travelers, and then go downstream with cotton or subsistence staples.

It is difficult to find details on most of these steamboats. After the mid-nineteenth century, boats were required to be registered and their boilers certified, but even these requirements documented only such details as name, length, width, depth of hull, sometimes the number of boilers and the diameter of cylinders in the engines, and something called “tonnage,” which was calculated in different ways at different times. The earlier boats are especially poorly known, partly because the inland rivers steamboat had to be created to deal with unique conditions on inland rivers, a process that was poorly recorded. Rapid progress involved numerous false steps, hand labor, and experiment tempered by experience. Rapid development also took place in building and controlling steam engines to make them more reliable and safe, with the concurrent development of all the associated regulations and legal protections.

The form of the steamboat itself came into being particularly in the 1820s and 1830s. A steamboat is different from the deep-water, deep-draft vessel that has cargo, quarters, and everything else deep in the hull. The new form was simply a long, narrow, shallow pontoon upon which cargo was stacked and cabins were built higher and higher. Some cargo could be placed in the hull, but the engines and boilers sat on the main deck passengers’ cabins and the salon were on the second or “boiler” deck with perhaps a “Texas” deck above that for the crew and the pilot house perched at the front of the stack for visibility. The hull, much like a bridge, had to be reinforced with an extensive truss system, known as “hog chain” and consisting of long runs of wrought-iron rods over stout “sampson” posts, both along the length, as much as 350 feet, and across the width, up to forty feet plus overhanging “guards” that made the main deck even wider than the hull. The wrought-iron rods were fitted with enormous turnbuckles, and by tightening or loosening these turnbuckles, the flexible hull could even be “walked” over shallow sand bars.

There were variations in placement of the paddlewheels. Putting them on each side of the hull, as in those boats known as “sidewheelers,” made for smoother passenger travel and a bit easier steering, but the paddlewheels were outside the lines of the hull, leaving them vulnerable and making the vessel much wider. The sternwheeler put the paddlewheel at the back, creating a narrower vessel as well as protecting the fragile paddlewheel by hiding it at the rear of the hull. The sternwheeler eventually proved more efficient at pushing barges, and it was the sternwheeler form that survived the loss of the passenger trade brought on by the spread of railroads after the 1870s in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sternwheelers were used for towboats.

These wooden-hulled steamboats were vulnerable, and their lives were often short. The most frightening losses were from boiler explosions due to abuse, clogging by muddy river water, or design weaknesses. One of the most famous boiler explosions occurred on the sidewheel steamboat Sultana. The only photograph of the Sultana was taken during a short stop at the waterfront at Helena (Phillips County) on April 26, 1865. The photograph shows that the boat was astonishingly overloaded—in a vessel 260 feet long and forty-two feet wide, built in 1863 for 300 or so passengers, thousands of people could be seen, nearly all of them Union soldiers recently released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps. Not long after the boat stopped briefly at Memphis, the boilers of the Sultana exploded near Mound City (Crittenden County) in the middle of the night on April 27. Approximately 2,000 to 2,300 people were killed. This remains the worst maritime disaster in North America. Many times the disaster was less spectacular, the result of accidentally holing the hull by ramming into submerged log, but the result was still loss of the vessel most of the time, at least some of the cargo and steamboat machinery was salvaged.

In spite of their vulnerability, hundreds of sternwheelers and sidewheelers of various dimensions were an integral part of daily life in Arkansas for most of the 1800s, certainly from 1830s into the 1880s, when the network of railroads finally reached maturity. Any factory goods from ceramic tablewares to pianos traveled at least part of the way by steamboat, and even for isolated farmsteads, the wagon journey at the end was only a few miles from the riverside landing to the house. Cotton, corn, livestock, wool, bricks, lumber, staves, logs, and other products traveled only a short way to the docks.

Steamboats played a role in tumultuous events as well, beginning with carrying troops and supplies in the early 1800s to Fort Smith (Sebastian County). In the 1830s, tens of thousands of Native Americans passed through Arkansas as part of Indian Removal, and many traveled on steamboats such as the Smelter, Thomas Yeatman, Reindeer, Little Rock, Tecumseh, and Cavalier, or on the keelboats often towed by these vessels. Moreover, much of the crew on antebellum steamboats were slaves.

During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate forces exploited steamboats for rapid communication and transport of troops, horses, and supplies on Arkansas waters. Little Rock, Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), DeValls Bluff (Prairie County), and Helena became major re-supply centers and shipping points, first by the Confederacy, then by the Union. Civilian vessels were chartered in the case of the Homer, the Confederacy made use of it until its capture by the Union and scuttling in the Ouachita River in April 1864 at Camden (Ouachita County). Bombardment of Confederate positions on land by Union gunboats was an important factor in the capture of St. Charles (Arkansas County) on the White River in June 1862, the destruction of Arkansas Post (Arkansas County) in January 1863, and the defense of Helena in July 1863. The Engagement at St. Charles included the scuttling of three steamboats by Confederates in a vain attempt to block the upstream advance of the Union fleet. The capture of Little Rock in September 1863 saw the sinking of more Confederate vessels, including the gunboat Pontchartrain. Throughout the war, Union-chartered steamers and specially built tin-clad and iron-clad warships were fired on regularly from the shore, and Confederates even managed to capture and burn the tin-clad Queen City at Clarendon (Monroe County) in June 1864.

After the Civil War, some of the biggest-ever sidewheel steamboats were built for use on the Mississippi, but by the 1890s, passenger travel had largely ended. Indeed, passage on many rivers was made more difficult simply by the construction of many bridges for the trains. However, improvements in sternwheel maneuverability and increases in power—combined with increasing improvement of the waterways by dredging, snag removal, and electric light channel marking—made the larger rivers such as the Arkansas, the lower White, and Red efficient for the transport of bulk cargoes such as iron, grain, construction materials, chemicals, gravel, sand, and coal. Water transport is still common today, when a diesel-powered all-steel towboat can push twelve to thirty-six steel barges, and just one steel barge can carry the equivalent of fifteen large hopper-type railroad cars or fifty-eight semi-trailers. Even a modern sternwheel passenger steamboat sometimes plies the Arkansas River, such as the Delta Queen, built in 1924–1927 for excursions on the Sacramento River in California and rebuilt for the Mississippi River system in 1947.

For additional information:
Baldwin, Leland Dewitt. The Keelboat Age on Western Waters. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1941.

Bates, Alan L. The Western Rivers Engine Room Encyclopoedium. Louisville, KY: Cyclopoedium Press, 1996.

———. The Western Rivers Steamboat Cyclopoedium, or, American Riverboat Structure and Detail, Salted with Lore. Leonia, NJ: Hustle Press, 1968.

Branam, Chris. “A Database of Steamboat Wrecks on the Arkansas River, Arkansas, Between 1830–1900.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 2003.

Brown, Mattie. “A History of River Transportation in Arkansas from 1819–1880.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 1933.

Dethloff, Henry C. “Paddlewheels and Pioneers on Red River, 1815–1915, and the Reminiscences of Captain M. L. Scovell.” Louisiana Studies 6 (Summer 1967): 91–134.

Fitzjarrald, Sarah. “Steamboating the Arkansas.” Journal of the Forth Smith Historical Society 6 (September 1982): 2–30.

Gandy, Joan W., and Thomas H. Gandy. The Mississippi Steamboat Era in Historic Photographs: Natchez to New Orleans, 1870–1920. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1987.

Haites, Erik F., James Mak, and Gary M. Walton. Western Rivers Transportation: The Era of Early Internal Development, 1810–1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

Huddleston, Duane, Sammie Rose, and Pat Wood. Steamboats and Ferries on White River: A Heritage Revisited. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1995.

Hunter, Louis C. Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949.

McCague, James. Flatboat Days on Frontier Rivers. Champaign, IL: Garrard Publishing Co., 1968.

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Stewart-Abernathy, Leslie C. “Ghost Boats at West Memphis.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 67 (Winter 2008): 398–413.

Stewart-Abernathy, Leslie C., ed. Ghost Boats on the Mississippi: Discovering Our Working Past. Popular Series No. 4. Fayetteville: Arkansas Archeological Survey, 2002.

Way, Frederick, Jr. Way’s Packet Directory, 1848–1994. Rev. ed. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994.

Way, Frederick, Jr., compiler, and Joseph W. Rutter. Way’s Steam Towboat Directory. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990.

Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy
Arkansas Archeological Survey

Floor Plans

NARRATOR: This Indiana Bicentennial Minute is made possible by the Indiana Historical Society and the law firm of Krieg Devault.

A series of images depict different scenes of riverboats on the water, some are moving down the river using a giant water wheel on at the rear of the boats to propel them, while others are pulling into port.

JANE PAULEY: When the steamboat New Orleans came down the Ohio River in 1811 Hoosiers in Madison mistook the noise for an Indian attack. But by midcentury thousands of steamboats were plying the Ohio and Wabash rivers and steamboat companies raced to offer every luxury, Persian rugs, crystal chandeliers, and separate parlors for women and men, where ladies could sew and gossip and men could drink, gamble, and gossip. Lining the steamboats were private cabins named after the states, they’ve been staterooms ever since.

Photographs of the steamboats’ interiors show colorful Persian rugs, and large crystal chandeliers, and two large parlors, one filled with women and the other with men.

JANE PAULEY: Steamboat whistles could be heard for miles down our rivers. Faster transportation replaced steamboats but they are still a part of our river heritage today.

Text on the screen reads visit indianahistory.org for more information, with an image of a steamboat in the background.

JANE PAULEY: I’m Jane Pauley with this Indiana Bicentennial Minute.

NARRATOR: Made possible by the Indiana Historical Society and the law firm of Krieg Devault.

Paynes Prairie History Hike Group size: 1 – 24 people Trip time: 2 – 3 hours Skill level: Great for anyone capable of a 3 – 4 mile hike. (Shorter hikes and wheelchair accessible routes also available. Cost: $20 per person Dates: Check the calendar.

Hontoon Island Kayak (& Canoe) Tour Group size: 1 – 24 Trip time: 4.5 – 5 hours Skill level: Intermediate, narrow winding creek can be a challenge for novices Cost Most guided tours are $50 per person. (includes boat, paddle, vest, shuttling and your.

Steamboats on the Missouri Discover the history of paddle-wheelers on the historic river from Kansas City, Missouri, to Fort Benton, Montana.

The Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site in Williston, North Dakota, provides the heritage traveler with a living history center experience that illuminates the legendary steamboat era on the Upper Missouri River.
— Courtesy Xerxes 2004 at English Wikipedia —

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark took their Corps of Discovery expedition up the Missouri River using keelboats and pirogues that they poled and propelled by dragging the vessels using heavy ropes. Following them, the fur traders also used those labor-intensive methods of transportation to haul trade goods upriver, and bring furs and pelts back down the Missouri to markets.

In 1819 the steamboat Independence departed from St. Louis and steamed upriver to the area of the Chariton River. This was the beginning of steamboat travel on the Missouri River. The Western Engineer would take nearly three months to steam from St. Louis to the confluence of the Yellowstone River near Fort Union in North Dakota.

Steam-powered boats became the primary vehicles for commercial transportation. These faster, bigger paddle-steamers revolutionized travel on the river and carried both supplies and passengers.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is built around the remarkable archaeological discovery of the 1853 paddle-wheeler, which sank into the soft mud of the Missouri in 1856 and was rediscovered in 1987.
— Courtesy Kansas City Tourism —

The best place to start a trip that highlights steamboat travel on the Missouri River is in Kansas City, not far from where in 1987 a group of five men located the wreck of the steamboat Arabia in a Kansas field, fully a half-mile from where the Missouri then flowed. They dug it up, recovering a large proportion of the more than 200 tons of cargo that had been aboard, bound for the frontier. In the years since, they have cleaned, restored and preserved the cargo. Some of the items are now on display at the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, looking ready for use, even though they are more than 150 years old .

The Arabia, a 171-foot side-wheel steamer built in 1853, headed upstream from St. Louis on August 30, 1856. The steamer docked at Westport Landing (in present-day Kansas City) six days later, but soon slid back into the river to continue toward St. Joseph, Missouri, intending to go on to Council Bluffs and Sioux City, Iowa.

Visitors to the Arabia Steamboat Museum will tour exhibits such as “Frontier Trade: A Pathway to Riches” that explains how commerical steamboat operations on the Missouri River from Kansas City, Missouri, to Fort Benton (in the future territory of Montana), influenced the fur trade, exploration and settlement of the territories from the Central Prairie to the Middle and Upper Missouri River basins.
— Photo of Exhibit at Arabia Steamboat Museum Exhibit Courtesy Kansas City Tourism —

The cargo on the Arabia—ranging from heavy tools, harness and leather shoes, to fine china, perfume, beads and buttons—represented the best frontier goods to be had. And there were kegs of whiskey aboard. Just upstream from Westport Landing, the Arabia hit a sunken tree snag that rammed the hull and sent the steamboat to the bottom of the river. One mule died in the sinking, and all the cargo was lost, though the captain and crew survived.

When the wreck was rediscovered and then recovered in the late 1980s, the cargo was still aboard—except for the whiskey! Visiting the Steamboat Arabia Museum is like stepping back in time. In addition to displaying cargo items, the museum has a piece of the hull and the snag that brought the boat down. You can even watch and talk with conservators who continue to preserve the cargo from the Arabia.

From Kansas City, I head north along the Missouri for a stop in St. Joseph. Best known for its Pony Express roots, St. Joe has 13 museums and beautiful historical archi-
tecture. One interesting location to visit is Robidoux Row, which includes a museum dedicated to fur trader Joseph Robidoux, who built the structure in the 1850s.

The first Upper Missouri steamboat powered past the spectacular Chalk Bluffs of the Upper Missouri River in 1860 en route to Fort Benton, which established the fort as one of the most important inland trading centers in the northern Rockies.
— Courtesy BLM.gov —

Brownville, Nebraska, established in 1854 was a regular stopping point for steamboat traffic on the Missouri. Today visitors see the Meriwether Lewis Dredge and Museum of Missouri River History, take a stroll through the town, and visit the historic Carson House, once owned by Brownville founder Richard Brown.

Desoto National Wildlife Refuge in both Nebraska and Iowa, north of Omaha, is a great place to observe a vast population of seasonal waterfowl and wildlife. Here you can see another collection of steamboat cargo that once was bound for the frontier. The steamboat Bertrand left St. Louis for Montana but struck a submerged log on April 1, 1865, and quickly sank int o the Missouri.

While a portion of the Bertrand’s cargo was immediately recovered, far more went down and stayed submerged until rediscovered in 1958 by modern-day treasure-hunters Sam Corbino and Jesse Pursell. They recovered items including bolts of cloth, food, clothing and tools. The mud of the Missouri had successfully encapsulated the goods, keeping them surprisingly intact until their recovery. A portion of the recovered cargo is now on display at the Desoto National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center.

The Lewis and Clark State Memorial overlooks the Missouri River from the steamboat levee at Fort Benton. For nine days in 1805 the Corps of Discovery camped at the future inland port town at the confluence of the Marias and Missouri rivers.
— Courtesy Jerrye and Roy Klotz, MD, Wikimedia Commons —

If I were on a steamboat, I’d stoke up the fire in the boiler and make some good time following the river through the Missouri National Recreational River area, continuing on to Pierre and then Bismarck, North Dakota, before steaming to Fort Union, an early fur trade post now operated as a National Historic Site. Each of these locations has attractions ranging from the natural landscape, to places important to the American Indian tribes of the region, and later the fur traders and frontier soldiers. Once in Montana, it is time to head west toward my ultimate destination: Fort Benton.

The first steamboat reached Fort Benton in 1860. The goods brought by steamboat up the Missouri from St. Louis were unloaded at Fort Benton and were dispersed throughout Montana Territory for use in gold camps and frontier towns.

After passing up the Missouri en route to Oregon in 1805, Meriwether Lewis launched his canoe back to St. Louis in 1806 from the area that would become Fort Benton. When fur trappers and traders used the area, they launched bullboats or keelboats, and after the first steamboat arrived, Fort Benton’s levee saw ever-increasing use.

A tour along the levee at Fort Benton today includes monuments to Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea and Thomas Francis Meagher. Old Fort Benton, the Museum of the Upper Missouri and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument provide interpretation about all eras of Fort Benton’s history.

Side Roads

Kansas City, Missouri, north on I-29 to St. Joseph, MO, Brownville, NE, Bellevue, NE, and Desoto National Wildlife Refuge, IA & NE Missouri National Recreational River, then Sioux Falls, SD turn west on I-90 to Pierre, SD, then US 83/Highway 1804 north to Bismarck, ND then northwest to Williston, ND, then west to Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, then US 2 to Fort Benton, MT

Steamboat Arabia Museum, Kansas City, MO Robidoux Row Museum, St. Joseph, MO Meriwether Lewis Dredge Museum of Missouri River History, Brownville, NE DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, Bellevue, NE South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center, Pierre, SD Lewis and Clark Riverboat, Bismarck, ND North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum, Bismarck, ND Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, Williston, ND Old Fort Benton, Fort Benton, MT

Pierpont’s at Union Station, Kansas City, MO InterContinental Kansas City at the Plaza, Kansas City, MO Stoney Creek Hotel and Conference Center, St. Joseph, MO Cattlemen’s Club Steakhouse, Pierre, SD Blarney Stone Pub, Bismarck, ND
Grand Union Hotel, Fort Benton, MT

Wild Rivers, Wooden Boats by Michael Gillespie Steamboat Treasure by Dorothy Heckmann Shrader

Road warrior Candy Moulton lives and writes in Encampment, Wyoming, or anywhere else she can find a place to open the laptop and work.

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Candy Moulton is a frequent contributor to the Renegade Roads column in True West Magazine. For 17 years, she edited the Western Writers of America’s Roundup Magazine in 2012, she became WWA’s executive director. The Wyoming native leading the organization has written 13 Western history books (including the Spur-winning biography Chief Joseph), co-edited a short fiction collection and written and produced several documentary films (including the Spur-winning Oregon Trails documentary In Pursuit of a Dream).

Steamboats of the Chesapeake Bay

As soon as they saw puffs of smoke rise above the trees at the river’s bend and heard the blast of a ship’s whistle, townsfolk rushed at breakneck speed to the wharf. From farmers, watermen and preachers to housewives and especially children, everyone knew when the steamboats of the Chesapeake Bay arrived in the remote waterside village.

What caused all this ruckus? Keep in mind that land travel at the dawn of the 19th-century was inconvenient. Trains were just starting to chug out of urban pockets, horse-drawn stagecoaches rattled across dusty roads, and automobiles hadn’t yet entered the transportation scene.

The best way to link growing populations between Baltimore and Norfolk was to master the water. And so a new era of mass transit began in the Chesapeake Bay in 1813 when a Baltimore shipyard built the first local steamboat. “Over the next 120-plus years, the fleet would swell to nearly 600 vessels that reached 300
locations in an intricate network crisscrossing the Bay,” says Barbara Brecher, executive director of the Steamboat Era Museum in Irvington, Virginia.

Steamboats on the Chesapeake Bay changed everybody’s lives in the region. Farmers and fishermen expanded their markets by shipping wares to urban consumers. Once-isolated rural folks received the latest fashions, machinery, books, mail and more. They could travel easily to cities to conduct business, go shopping or visit doctors. Their urban counterparts gained access to new buyers for manufactured goods, welcomed the arrival of fresh foods and cruised to picturesque parts of the Bay to escape city life.

This waterfront boom wasn’t just about commerce. Steamboats were also built for fun. By the mid-1800s, many ship companies wanted a piece of the Chesapeake pie and competed for customers by promising hard-to-resist amenities and attractions. Floating theaters delivered entertainment to arts-starved small towns, while moonlight dance cruises brought music to sleepy harbors. Many companies lured travelers with luxurious staterooms decked out with velvet, crystal and brass, and meals served on linendraped tables. A Chesapeake Steamship Co. menu from 1900 kicked off with oysters prepared five different ways, followed by steak, tongue, lamb, chicken, soft-shell crabs and lobster salad.


After decades of amiable trade between the industrial North and agrarian South, the Civil War’s maritime restrictions caused the Bay’s steamboat routes to turn murky.

When President Lincoln set up blockades in Southern ports to curb the flow of goods and weapons to the Confederacy, access to Norfolk was cut off and travel between Baltimore and Richmond came to a screeching halt. Old Point Comfort became the boats’ last stop south. Fortunately, steady traffic between Washington officials and Navy facilities in Virginia’s Tidewater region kept steamboat companies afloat during this difficult time.

Postwar conditions created a favorable climate for steamboats. As the South rebuilt its communities, construction materials and life necessities were loaded into boats’ hulls and carried south. Cargo traffic bloomed, and a heyday even grander than before ensued. Once again, travelers were courted with lavish, swanky ships. Galley chefs dazzled passengers with feasts of local duck and terrapin. Revelers danced their way around the Bay to Big Band tunes on evening cruises.

Along the Eastern Shore, Potomac River and other destinations, savvy steamer companies developed amusement parks where city dwellers could find relief from the sweltering heat. One of the most famous was Tolchester Beach, which opened in 1887 in Maryland’s Kent County north of Rock Hall. Every summer day, thousands of Baltimore passengers took a short steamboat trip across the water carrying bathing suits and picnic baskets. Tolchester eventually grew to 150 acres and offered vacationers a hotel, beach, music pavilion, horse racing, roller coaster, merry-go-round and other fun-filled attractions. By the turn of the century, six steamboats ferried about 20,000 revelers there and back each weekend.


Steamboats reached such popularity that it was hard to imagine life and commerce on the Bay without them. But the deck was stacked against the ships, and fate dealt more bad cards than they could handle. They paddled through World War I relatively unscathed, but the Great Depression shrunk passenger rosters and
put a dent in the steamers’ revenue stream. In 1933, a Category 4 hurricane shattered many of the wharfs and washed away scores of boat landings.

During World War II, the War Shipping Administration gained the power to expropriate civilian-owned ships, and seized the cream of the steamboat crop for the nation’s defense. Many of the pilfered steamboats were sunk abroad or sustained extensive damage that was too costly to repair.

The knockout blow came from planes, trains, automobiles and bridges. Post- WWII America became infatuated with modern transportation. Superhighways replaced bumpy dirt roads, and bridges spanned waterways where ferryboats once reigned. Railroads could transport more cargo and people longer distances across the continent than watercrafts. The 12-hour cruise down the Chesapeake Bay seemed slow and outdated compared to speedy new modes of travel.

The remaining steamboat companies tried to win back the hearts of their passengers. They ran ads extolling the romance of adventure on the water and the benefits of a leisurely cruise. Vessels were reconfigured to carry cars, but travelers’ interest was lukewarm and ticket sales sunk. In 1962, steamboat service on the Bay ended, as did an era of elegance on the Chesapeake Bay.

A Brief History of Steamboats – The End of an Era

A 1927 replica of the first steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb.

A Brief History of Steamboats: The End of an Era
by Ben Morrill, Visitor Center Site Manager

While steamboats revolutionized transportation in the early 1800s, another transportation revolution ultimately spelled the end of the steamboat. By the 1890s, trains and railroads were the most popular method of travel in America, while the emergence of automobiles in the early 1900s provided travelers with greater options to reach their destinations. As a result, steamboats soon became a symbol of a bygone era.

The Emergence of Railroads

The development of practical, functioning steam engines in the 1700s had an important impact on the creation of not just steamboats, but railroads as well. As early as 1764 railways called “gravity roads” were developed to help move heavy items and goods. Throughout the late 1700s inventors like John Fitch began demonstrating the power of steam engines as propulsion systems, and following Robert Fulton’s successful steamboat demonstrations, engineers and inventors began looking for new ways to use the power of steam.

Around the same time steamboats began appearing on the nation’s waterways, early trains were being developed and tested on land. Between 1810 and 1826 early systems like the Leiper Railroad and the Granite Railroad demonstrated the practical applications of railroads, leading to the

An 1890 map showing the westward expansion of railways after the Civil War.

expansion of rail lines in the eastern United States and the eventual development of the Tom Thumb, the first steam powered locomotive.

While steamboats could take advantage of natural transportation routes giving them an advantage over early railroads, miles of track still needed to be built. But thanks to land grants from the United States government, by the 1860s more than 30,000 miles of operational track existed in the US, more than triple the amount that existed in 1850. Following the end of the Civil War, westward expansion only fueled the growth of rail lines, marking the beginning of the end of the “golden age” of steamboats.

How Railroads Rose in Popularity

The completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 now meant that the United States was connected coast to coast by railways. Rail lines continued to expand across the country throughout the late 1800s, allowing them to reach inland cities and towns steamboats couldn’t. By 1916, more than 254,037 miles of track stretched across the United States.

Trains were also a lot safer and less expensive than steamboat travel. In the late 1800s most workers made around $20 a month, and with long trips costing as much as $8.50 for a first class cabin, many travelers were only able to afford

The Belle of Louisville faces off against the Delta Queen during the 2007 Great Steamboat Race.

deck tickets, often sleeping outside with the cargo. Additionally, river hazards like sandbars, snags, and the threat of unexpected boiler explosions made steamboat travel dangerous, making trains a safer alternative for many travelers.

By the 20 th century, trains and automobiles made steamboats all but obsolete, and in the 1950s many shipping companies switched to more efficient and powerful diesel engines. In the later half of the 20 th century few steamboats remained on the nation’s waterways, often providing river trips to allow travelers to experience the glamor of the steamboat era. Ships like the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen earned their legendary reputations this way, becoming some of the most famous boats on the river. While few steamboats travel the rivers today, they have become an important part of the history and culture of the Ohio River.

Watch the video: Steamboat Era Oral History - Describing the Radio in Pilot House (January 2022).