Steamboats played a major role in the 19th-century development of the
Mississippi River and its tributaries by allowing the practical
large-scale transport of passengers and freight both up- and
down-river. Using steam power, riverboats were developed during that
time which could navigate in shallow waters as well as upriver against
strong currents. After the development of railroads, passenger traffic
gradually switched to this faster form of transportation, but
steamboats continued to serve
Mississippi River commerce into the
early 20th century.
The Delta Queen at Paducah, Kentucky, 2007.
Steamboat Princess" (Adrien Persac,
1861), showing elaborate interior of an antebellum Mississippi
3 Golden age of steamboats
4 Construction of the vessels
5 The steamers Natchez
5.1 Natchez I
5.2 Natchez II
5.3 Natchez III
5.4 Natchez IV
5.5 Natchez V
5.6 Natchez VI
5.7 Natchez VIII
6 Improved navigation
7 St. Louis
9 Washington, LA
10 Mark Twain
11 Boiler explosions
Steamboat Act of May 30, 1852
16 In Oklahoma
17 Civil War Service
19 The Great Race
20 Competition from the railroads
21 Rise of barge traffic
22 Flood of 1927
Mississippi River Commission
24 US Army Corps of Engineers
25 The Feds Step In: the
Tennessee Valley Authority
Tennessee Valley Authority Project
World War II
World War II LST construction
27 The end of steamboats
28 Current Natchez
29 See also
31 External links
The Mississippi is one of the world’s great rivers. It spans 3,860
miles (6,210 km) of length as measured using its northernmost
west fork, the Missouri River, which starts in the Rocky Mountains in
Montana, joining the Mississippi proper in the state of Missouri. The
Ohio River and
Tennessee River are other tributaries on its east, and
the Arkansas, Platte and Red River of Texas on the west. The
Mississippi itself starts at
Lake Itasca in Minnesota, and the river
wends its way through the center of the country, forming parts of the
boundaries of ten states, dividing east and west, and furthering trade
Steamboats on the Mississippi benefited from technology and political
changes. The US bought the
Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803. At
the time, a semi-bankrupt
Napoleon was attempting to extend his
hegemony over Europe in what came to be known as the Napoleonic Wars.
As a result, the US was then free to expand westward out of the Ohio
valley and into the
Great Plains and the Southwest. The success of the
Charlotte Dundas in Scotland in 1801 and Robert Fulton's Clermont on
the Hudson River in 1807 proved the concept of the steamboat. At this
time, walking beam mill engines, of the
Boulton and Watt
Boulton and Watt variety, were
dropped onto wood barges with paddles to create an instant powerboat.
The overhead engines of the "walking beam" type became the standard
Atlantic Seaboard paddle engine for the next 80 years. For smaller
boats, Watt perfected the side-lever engine with the engine cut down
using side bell-cranks to lower the center of gravity. Sidewheel
paddlers were the first to enter the scene. In 1811 the steamer New
Orleans was built in
Pittsburgh for Fulton and Livingston. Fulton
started steamboat service between Natchez and New Orleans.
War of 1812
War of 1812 caused political upheaval in the south, particularly
Royal Navy blockade of the US
Gulf Coast ports but after the
Treaty of Ghent
Treaty of Ghent and resumption of peace,
New Orleans was firmly
American, after passing through French and Spanish hands. New Orleans
became the great port on the mouth of the Mississippi.
Golden age of steamboats
"Enterprise on her fast trip to Louisville, 1815"
The historical roots of the prototypical Mississippi steamboat, or
Western Rivers steamboat, can be traced to designs by easterners like
James Rumsey, John Fitch, John Stevens, Oliver Evans, Robert Fulton
and Daniel French. In the span of just six years the evolution of
the prototypical Mississippi steamboat would be well underway:
New Orleans, or Orleans, was the first Mississippi steamboat.
Launched in 1811 at
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for a company organized
by Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton, her designer, she was a large,
heavy side-wheeler with a deep draft. Her low-pressure
Boulton and Watt
Boulton and Watt steam engine operated a complex power train that was
also heavy and inefficient.
Comet was the second Mississippi steamboat. Launched in 1813 at
Pittsburgh for Daniel D. Smith, she was much smaller than the New
Orleans. With an engine and power train of Daniel French's design
and manufacture, the Comet was the first Mississippi steamboat to be
powered by a light weight and efficient high-pressure engine turning a
stern paddle wheel.
Vesuvius was the third Mississippi steamboat. Launched in 1814 at
Pittsburgh for the company headed by Robert Livingston and Robert
Fulton, her designer, she was very similar to the New Orleans.
Enterprise, or Enterprize, was the fourth Mississippi steamboat.
Launched in 1814 at
Brownsville, Pennsylvania for the Monongahela and
Ohio Steam Boat Company, she was a dramatic departure from Fulton's
boats. The Enterprise - featuring a high-pressure steam engine, a
single stern paddle wheel, and shoal draft - proved to be better
suited for use on the Mississippi than Fulton's boats. The
Enterprise clearly demonstrated the suitability of French's design
during her epic voyage from
New Orleans to Brownsville, a distance of
more than 2,000 miles (3,200 km) performed against the powerful
currents of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
Washington was launched in 1816 at
Wheeling, West Virginia
Wheeling, West Virginia for Henry
Shreve and partners. George White built the boat and Daniel French
constructed the engine and drive train at Brownsville. She was the
first steamboat with two decks, the predecessor of the Mississippi
steamboats of later years. The upper deck was reserved for
passengers and the main deck was used for the boiler, increasing the
space below the main deck for carrying cargo. With a draft of 4
feet (1.2 m), she was propelled by a high-pressure, horizontally
mounted engine turning a single stern paddle wheel. In the spring
of 1817 the Washington made the voyage from
New Orleans to Louisville
in 25 days, equalling the record set two years earlier by the
Enterprise, a much smaller boat.
In the 1810s there were 20 boats on the river; by the 1830s there were
more than 1200. By the 1820s, with the southern states joining the
Union and the land converted to cotton plantations so indicative of
the Antebellum South, methods were needed to move the bales of cotton,
rice, timber, tobacco and molasses. The steamboat was perfect. America
boomed in the age of Jackson. Population moved west, and more farms
were established. In the 1820s Steamers were fueled first by wood,
then coal, which pushed barges of coal from
Pittsburgh to New Orleans.
Regular steamboat commerce begun between
Pittsburgh and Louisville.
Construction of the vessels
Vessels were made of wood—typically ranging in length from 40 to
nearly 300 feet (91 m) in length, 10 to 80 feet (24 m) wide,
drawing only about one to five feet of water loaded, and in fact it
was commonly said that they could "navigate on a heavy dew."  The
boats had kingposts or internal masts to support hogchains, or iron
trusses, which prevented the hull from sagging. A second deck was
added, the Texas Deck, to provide cabins and passenger areas. All was
built from wood. Stairs, galleys, parlors were also added. Often the
boats became quite ornate with wood trim, velvet, plush chairs, gilt
edging and other trimmings sometimes featured as per the owner's taste
and budget. Wood burning boilers were forward center to distribute
weight. The engines were also amidships, or at the stern depending on
if the vessel was a sternwheeler or sidewheeler. Two rudders were
fitted to help steer the ship.
Vessels, on average, only lasted about five years due to the wooden
hulls being breached, poor maintenance, fires, general wear and tear,
and the common boiler explosion. Early trips up the Mississippi River
took three weeks to get to the Ohio. Later, with better pilots, more
powerful engines and boilers, removal of obstacles and experienced
rivermen knowing where the sand bars were, the figure was reduced to 4
days. Collisions and snags were constant perils.
The steamers Natchez
Belle of Louisville
Belle of Louisville flying the
Jolly Roger during the 2006 Great
Main article: Natchez (boat)
The first Natchez was a low pressure sidewheel steamboat built in New
York City in 1823. It originally ran between
New Orleans and Natchez,
Mississippi, and later catered to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Its most
notable passenger was Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the
American Revolutionary War, in 1825. Fire destroyed it, while in New
Orleans, on September 4, 1835.
Natchez II was the first built for Captain Thomas P. Leathers, at
Crayfish Bayou, and ran from 1845 to 1848. It was a fast two-boiler
boat, 175 feet (53 m) long, with red smokestacks, that sailed
New Orleans and Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was built in
Cincinnati, Ohio, Leathers sold it in 1848. It was abandoned in 1852.
Natchez III was funded by the sale of the first. It was 191 feet
(58 m) long. Leathers operated it from 1848 to 1853. On March 10,
1866, it sank at Mobile, Alabama due to rotting.
Natchez IV was built in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was 270 feet (82 m)
long, had six boilers, and could hold 4,000 bales of cotton. It
operated for six weeks. On January 1, 1854, the ship collided with the
Pearl at Plaquemine, Louisiana, causing the Pearl to sink. A wharf
fire on February 5, 1854 at
New Orleans caused it to burn down, as did
10-12 other ships.
Natchez V was also built in Cincinnati, as Captain Leathers returned
there quickly after the destruction of the third. It was also six
boilers, but this one could hold 4,400 cotton bales. This one was used
by Leathers until 1859. In 1860 it was destroyed while serving as a
wharfboat at Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Natchez VI was again a Cincinnati-built boat. It was 273 feet
(83 m) long. The capacity was 5,000 cotton bales but the power
remained the same. It helped transport
Jefferson Davis from his river
plantation home on the
Mississippi River after he heard he was chosen
president of the Confederacy. Even after the war, Davis would insist
on using Leather's boats to transport him to and from his plantation,
Brierfield. Natchez VI was also used to transport Confederate troops
to Memphis, Tennessee. After Union invaders captured Memphis, the boat
was moved to the Yazoo River. On March 13, 1863, it was burned either
by accident or to keep it out of Union hands at Honey Island. Remains
were raised from the river in 2007.
Natchez VIII was launched August 2, 1879 by the Cincinnati Marine
Ways. It was 303.5 feet (92.5 m) long, with a beam of 45.5 feet
(13.9 m), 38.5 feet (11.7 m) floor, and 10 feet (3.0 m)
hold depth. It had eight steel boilers that were 36 feet (11 m)
long and had a diameter of 42 inches (1,100 mm), and thirteen
engines. It had 47 elegant staterooms. Camp scenes of Natchez Indians
wardancing and sunworshipping ornamented the fore and aft panels of
the main cabin, which also had stained glass windows depicting
Indians. The total cost of the boat was $125,000. Declaring that the
War was over, on March 4, 1885, Leathers raised the American flag when
the new Natchez passed by Vicksburg, the first time he hoisted the
American flag on one of his ships since 1860. By 1887 lack of business
had stymied the Natchez. In 1888 it was renovated back to perfect
condition for $6000. In January 1889 it burned down at Lake
Providence, Louisiana. Captain Leathers, deciding he was too old to
build a new Natchez, retired.
Jefferson Davis sent a letter of
condolences on January 5, 1889, to Leathers over the loss of the boat.
Much of the cabin was salvageable, but the hull broke up due to sand
In 1824 Congress passed an "Act to Improve the Navigation of the Ohio
and Mississippi Rivers" and "to remove sand bars on the Ohio and
planters, sawyers, and snags on the Mississippi". The Army Corps of
engineers was given the job. In 1829, there were surveys of the two
major obstacles on the upper Mississippi, the
Des Moines Rapids
Des Moines Rapids and
the Rock Island Rapids, where the river was shallow and the riverbed
was rock. The
Des Moines Rapids
Des Moines Rapids were about 11 miles (18 km) long
and, traveling upriver, began just above the mouth of the Des Moines
River at Keokuk, Iowa. The Rock Island Rapids were between Rock Island
and Moline, Illinois. Both rapids were considered virtually
impassable. In 1848, the Illinois and Michigan Canal was built to
Mississippi River to
Lake Michigan via the Illinois River
near Peru, Illinois. The Army Corps of Engineers recommended the
excavation of a 5 ft (1.5 m) deep channel at the Des Moines
Rapids, but work did not begin until after Lieutenant Robert E. Lee
endorsed the project in 1837. The Corps later also began excavating
the Rock Island Rapids. By 1866, it had become evident that excavation
was impractical, and it was decided to build a canal around the Des
Moines Rapids. The canal opened in 1877, but the Rock Island Rapids
remained an obstacle.
The St. Louis levee in 1857
St. Louis became an important trade center, not only for the overland
route for the Oregon and California trails, but as a supply point for
the Mississippi. Rapids north of the city made St. Louis the
northernmost navigable port for many large boats. The Zebulon Pike and
his sisters soon transformed St. Louis into a bustling boom town,
commercial center, and inland port. By the 1830s, it was common to see
more than 150 steamboats at the St. Louis levee at one time.
Immigrants flooded into St. Louis after 1840, particularly from
Germany. During Reconstruction, rural Southern blacks flooded into St.
Louis as well, seeking better opportunity. By the 1850s, St. Louis had
become the largest U. S. city west of Pittsburgh, and the
second-largest port in the country, with a commercial tonnage exceeded
only by New York.
James Eads was a famed engineer who ran a shipyard
and first built riverboats in the 1850s, then armed riverboats and
finally the legendary bridge over the Mississippi. His Mound City
Ironworks and shipyard was famous, and featured often in the naming of
Historic aerial view of Memphis (1870)
Memphis became another major port on the Mississippi. It was the slave
port. Hence the city was contested in the Civil War.
Battle of Memphis
Battle of Memphis was a naval battle fought on the
Mississippi River immediately above the city of Memphis on June 6,
1862, during the American Civil War. The engagement was witnessed by
many of the citizens of Memphis. It resulted in a crushing defeat for
the Rebels, and marked the virtual eradication of a Confederate naval
presence on the river. Despite the lopsided outcome, the Union Army
failed to grasp its strategic significance. Its primary historical
importance is that it was the last time civilians with no prior
military experience were permitted to command ships in combat.
Tom Lee Park
Tom Lee Park on the Memphis riverfront is named for an
African-American riverworker who became a civic hero. Tom Lee could
not swim. Nevertheless, he single-handedly rescued thirty-two people
from drowning when the steamer
M.E. Norman sank in 1925.
Washington, LA is not located directly on the Mississippi River; it is
more than 30 miles west of the Mississippi on Bayou Courtableau.
Nevertheless, the port there was the largest between
New Orleans and
St. Louis during much of the 19th century. Products such as
cotton, sugar, and livestock were brought to Washington overland or by
small boat and then transferred to the steam packets for shipment to
New Orleans. By the mid-19th century, Washington developed a thriving
trade and became the most important port in the vicinity of St. Landry
Parish. This can be seen in the number of steamers that used the port
and in the volume of freight. In 1860 there were 93 steam packets
operating in the Bayou Courtableau trade, as compared with 90 in Bayou
Lefourche and 94 in Bayou Teche. An 1877 tabulation showed the total
quantity of goods shipped from Washington to New Orleans: 30,000 bales
of cotton, 32,000 sacks of cotton seed, 3,000 hogsheads of sugar,
5,800 barrels of molasses, 30,000 dozen poultry, As many as 93 packets
came to Washington during the steamboat era which ended in 1900.
Many of the works of
Mark Twain deal with or take place near the
Mississippi River. One of his first major works, Life on the
Mississippi, is in part a history of the river, in part a memoir of
Twain's experiences on the river, and a collection of tales that
either take place on or are associated with the river. Twain's most
famous work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is largely a journey down
the river. The novel works as an episodic meditation on American
culture with the river having multiple different meanings including
independence, escape, freedom, and adventure.
Twain himself worked as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi for a few
years. A steamboat pilot needed a vast knowledge of the ever-changing
river to be able to stop at any of the hundreds of ports and wood-lots
along the river banks. Twain meticulously studied 2,000 miles
(3,200 km) of the Mississippi for two and a half years before he
received his steamboat pilot license in 1859. While training, he
convinced his younger brother Henry to work with him. Henry died on
June 21, 1858, when the steamboat he was working on, the Pennsylvania,
In the forty years to the mid-century mark, there were some 4,000
fatalities on the river due to boiler explosions. Some 500 vessels
were wrecked by the peril. Early boilers were riveted of weak iron
plate. Vessels at the time were not inspected, or insured. Passengers
were on their own. Meanwhile, the explosions continued: the Teche in
1825, with sixty killed; the Ohio and the Macon in 1826; the Union and
the Hornet in 1827; the Grampus in 1828; the Patriot and the Kenawa in
1829; the Car of Commerce and the Portsmouth in 1830; the Moselle in
Mark Twain noted a bad boiler explosion which occurred aboard the
steamboat Pennsylvania in 1858. Among the injured passengers was Henry
Clemens, his brother, whose skin had been badly scalded. Twain came to
visit Henry in an improvised hospital. This is how he described the
long painful death of his brother: "For forty-eight hours I labored at
the bedside of my poor burned and bruised but uncomplaining
brother...and then the star of my hope went out and left me in the
gloom of despair..."
On February 24, 1830, as the Helen McGragor prepared to pull away from
the Memphis waterfront, the starboard boiler blew. The blast itself
and flying debris killed a number of people, and about thirty others
were scalded to death. The boiler explosions and resulting fire aboard
the Sultana in 1865 (near Memphis) lead to 1192 deaths and is
considered the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.
Mississippi Riverboats being loaded on the Memphis waterfront (1906)
Gambling took many forms on riverboats. Gambling with one's life with
the boilers aside, there were sharks around willing to fleece the
unsuspecting rube. As cities passed ordinances against gaming houses
in town, the cheats moved to the unregulated waters of the Mississippi
aboard river steamers.
There was also gambling with the racing of boats up the river. Bets
were made on a favorite vessel. Pushing the boilers hard in races
would also cause fires to break out on the wooden deck structures.
One of the enduring issues in American government is the proper
balance of power between the national government and the state
governments. This struggle for power was evident from the earliest
days of American government and is the underlying issue in the case of
Gibbons v. Ogden. In 1808,
Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston were
granted a monopoly from the New York state government to operate
steamboats on the state's waters. This meant that only their
steamboats could operate on the waterways of New York, including those
bodies of water that stretched between states, called interstate
waterways. This monopoly was very important because steamboat traffic,
which carried both people and goods, was very profitable. Aaron Ogden
held a Fulton-Livingston license to operate steamboats under this
monopoly. He operated steamboats between New Jersey and New York.
However, another man named Thomas Gibbons competed with Aaron Ogden on
this same route. Gibbons did not have a Fulton-Livingston license, but
instead had a federal (national) coasting license, granted under a
1793 act of Congress.
The United States at this time was a loose confederation of states.
The federal government was weak, and so regulating vessels, even for
gaming statutes, was an imposition on States Rights. The Interstate
Steamboat Commerce Commission was finally set up in 1838 to regulate
steamboat traffic. Boiler inspections only began in 1852.
Steamboat Act of May 30, 1852
The 1838 law proved inadequate as steamboat disasters increased in
volume and severity. The 1847 to 1852 era was marked by an unusual
series of disasters primarily caused by boiler explosions, however,
many were also caused by fires and collisions. These disasters
resulted in the passage of the
Steamboat Act of May 30, 1852 (10 Stat.
L., 1852) in which enforcement powers were placed under the Department
of the Treasury rather than the Department of Justice as with the Act
of 1838. Under this law, the organization and form of a federal
maritime inspection service began to emerge. Nine supervisory
inspectors responsible for a specific geographic region were
appointed. There were also provisions for the appointment of local
inspectors by a commission consisting of the local District Collector
of Customs, the Supervisory Inspector, and the District Judge. The
important features of this law were the requirement for hydrostatic
testing of boilers, and the requirement for a boiler steam safety
valve. This law further required that both pilots and engineers be
licensed by the local inspectors. Even though time and further insight
Steamboat Act inadequate, it must be given credit for
starting legislation in the right perspective. Probably the most
serious shortcoming was the exemption of freightboats, ferries,
tugboats and towboats, which continued to operate under the
superficial inspection requirements of the law of 1838. Again,
disasters and high loss of life prompted congressional action through
the passage of the Act of February 28, 1871.
Union Troops arrive at Louisville, 1862
A showboat (or show boat) was a form of theater that traveled along
the waterways of the United States, especially along the Mississippi
and Ohio rivers. A showboat was basically a barge that resembled a
long, flat-roofed house, and in order to move down the river, it was
pushed by a small tugboat (misleadingly labeled a towboat) which was
attached to it. It would have been impossible to put a steam engine on
it, since it would have had to have been placed right in the
British-born actor William Chapman, Sr. created the first showboat,
named the "Floating Theatre," in
Pittsburgh in 1831. He and his family
performed plays with added music and dance at stops along the
waterways. After reaching New Orleans, they got rid of the boat and
went back to
Pittsburgh in a steam boat in order to perform the
process once again the year after. Showboats had declined by the Civil
War, but began again in 1878 and focused on melodrama and vaudeville.
Major boats of this period included the New Sensation, New Era, Water
Queen, and the Princess. With the improvement of roads, the rise of
the automobile, motion pictures, and the maturation of the river
culture, showboats declined again. In order to combat this
development, they grew in size and became more colorful and
elaborately designed in the 20th century. These boats included the
Golden Rod, the Sunny South, the Cotton Blossom, the New Showboat, and
the Minnesota Centennial Showboat. Jazzmen
Louis Armstrong and Bix
Biederbecke played on
Mississippi River steamers.
As the federal government removed the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek
Nations to Oklahoma, the new immigrants and the military forces
demanded supplies, creating a vibrant steamboat trade to the
Mississippi River down to
New Orleans or upstream to points north. At
the peak of steamboat commerce, in the 1840s and 1850s, there were
twenty-two landings between Fort Smith in present-day Arkansas, and
Fort Gibson, with the most difficult point at Webbers Falls.
Civil War Service
American Civil War
American Civil War spilled over to the Mississippi with naval
sieges and naval war using paddlewheelers. The Battle of Vicksburg
involved monitors and ironclad riverboats. The
USS Cairo is a wrecked
survivor of the Vicksburg battle. Trade on the river was suspended for
two years because of a Confederate blockade. The triumph of Eads
ironclads, and Farragut's seizure of New Orleans, secured the river
for the Union North.
The worst of all steamboat accidents occurred at the end of the Civil
War in April 1865, when the steamboat Sultana, carrying an
over-capacity load of returning Union soldiers recently freed from
Confederate prison camp, blew up, causing approximately 1,800 deaths.
The Sultana on fire, from Harpers Weekly
With the Union Victory and occupation of the south, transport was
administered by the US Army and Navy. The year 1864 brought an
all-time low water mark on Upper Mississippi mark for all subsequent
measurements. Stern wheelers proved more adaptable than side wheelers
for barges. Immediately after the war, passenger steamboats become
larger, faster and floating palaces began to appear; on the freight
barges salt, hay, iron ore, and grain were carried. A few boats
specialized in pushing huge log rafts downstream to lumber mills. By
1850, a system of moving barges and log rafts lashed alongside and
ahead of the towboat was developed which allowed greater control than
towing on a hawser. This type of service favored sternwheel propelled
boats over sidewheelers and promoted other improvements as well.
Towboats became a distinct type by 1860. Sand and gravel for
construction was dredged up from river bottoms, and pumped aboard
cargo barges. Simple hydraulic dredging rigs on small barges did the
work. Towboats moved the dredge and sand barges around as needed.
The Great Race
Steamboat Robert E. Lee, by August Norieri.
Natchez VII was built in 1869. It was 301 feet (92 m) long, had
eight boilers and a 5,500 cotton bale capacity. In its
9 1⁄2-year service, it made 401 trips without a single
deadly accident. It became famous as the participant against another
Mississippi paddle steamer, the Robert E. Lee, in a race from New
Orleans to St. Louis in June 1870, immortalized in a lithograph by
Currier and Ives. This Natchez had beaten the previous speed record,
that of the J. M. White in 1844. Stripped down, carrying no cargo,
steaming on through fog and making only one stop, the Robert E. Lee
won the race in 3 days, 8 hours and 14 minutes. By contrast, the
Natchez carried her normal load and stopped as normal, tying up
overnight when fog was encountered. Despite this she berthed only six
hours later. One way Leathers tried to speed up his boat was giving
all of his workers whiskey. When Leathers finally dismantled the boat
in Cincinnati in 1879, this particular Natchez had never flown the
(This article may have incorrect information regarding the time taken
Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee to win the race as it conflicts with the
information cited on the
Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee
Competition from the railroads
Railroads were rebuilt in the south after the Civil War, the
disconnected small roads, of 5-foot (1.5 m) broad gauge, were
amalgamated and enlarged into big systems of the southern Illinois
Central and Louisville and Nashville. Track was changed to the
American Standard of 4 feet 8 and one half inches. This ways cars
could travel from
Chicago to the south without having to be reloaded.
Consequently, rail transport became cheaper than steamboats. The boats
could not keep up. The first railroad bridge built across the
Mississippi River connected Davenport and Rock Island, IL in 1856,
built by the Rock Island Railroad. Steamboaters saw nationwide
railroads as a threat to their business. On May 6, 1856, just weeks
after it was completed, a pilot crashed the Effie Afton steamboat into
the bridge. The owner of the Effie Afton, John Hurd, filed a lawsuit
against The Rock Island Railroad Company. The Rock Island Railroad
Abraham Lincoln as their trial lawyer.
Rise of barge traffic
Barge traffic exploded with the growth of trade from the First World
Freight tonnage on the Upper Mississippi fell below 1 million tons per
year in 1916 and hovered around 750,000 tons until 1931. A number of
factors had led to this decline. Log rafts and raft towboats had
disappeared and river cargo service had shifted to short-haul instead
of long distance hauling. The
First World War
First World War made crewmen scarce and
helped to make the railroads stronger. The deficiencies of railroad
transportation during World War I led to the Transportation Act of
In spite of these problems, the heavy transportation needs of wartime
could not be met by railroads and river transport took off some of the
pressure. In 1917, the United States Shipping Board allocated
$3,160,000 to the Emergency Fleet Corporation to build and operate
barges and towboats on the Upper Mississippi. Federal control was
augmented by the Federal Control Act of 1918. The U.S. Railroad
Administration formed the Committee on Inland Waterways to oversee the
work. All floating equipment on the Mississippi and Warrior River
systems was commandeered and $12 million was appropriated for new
construction. Service was provided primarily on the Lower Mississippi.
New floating equipment was designed by prominent naval architects, and
built by boat yards known for high-quality work. Modern terminal
facilities were constructed to handle bulk and package freight. A
special rate system was put into place to reflect the lower cost of
river transportation in comparison with railroads. In spite of their
innovative approach, the Railroad Administration lost money on river
services and in 1920 the Federal Barge Fleet was transferred to the
The name was changed to the Inland and Coastwise Waterways Service and
the experiment continued. The Waterways Service lost less money than
the Railroad Administration and in 1924 was modified yet again to
allow even more economical operation in a less restrictive
environment. The government transferred $5 million worth of floating
equipment to provide the capital stock for the new Inland Waterways
Compression ignition or diesel engines were first used about 1910 for
smaller sternwheel towboats, but did not gain ascendancy until the
late 1930s, when diesel-powered propeller boats appeared. The
introduction of screw propellers to the rivers came late because of
their vulnerability to damage and the greater depth of water required
for efficient operation. The Federal Barge Lines experiment was
successful in restarting the river transportation industry.
Congress created the Inland Waterways Corporation (1924) and its
Federal Barge Line. The completion of the nine-foot channel of the
Ohio River in 1929 was followed by similar improvements on the
Mississippi and its tributaries and the Gulf Intra-Coastal Canals.
Each improvement marked a giant step by the U.S. Army Engineers (Corps
of Engineers) in promoting inland waterways development. Private
capital followed these improvements with heavy investments in towboats
and barges. In the years before World War II, towboat power soared
steadily from 600 to 1,200 to 2,400. The shift from steam to diesel
engines cut crews from twenty or more on steam towboats to an average
of eleven to thirteen on diesels. By 1945, fully 50 percent of the
towboats were diesel; by 1955, the figure was 97 percent. Meanwhile,
the paddlewheel had given way to the propeller, the single propeller
to the still-popular twin propeller.
Traffic on the Mississippi system climbed from 211 million short tons
to more than 330 million between 1963 and 1974. The growth in river
shipping did not abate in the final quarter of the century. Traffic
along the Upper Mississippi rose from 54 million tons in 1970 to 112
million tons in 2000. The change from riveted to welded barges, the
creation of integrated barges, and the innovation of double-skinned
barges have led to improved economy, speed, and safety. Shipping on
Mississippi barges became substantially less expensive than railroad
transport, but at a cost to taxpayers. Barge traffic is the most
heavily subsidized form of transport in the United States. A report in
1999 revealed that fuel taxes cover only 10 percent of the annual $674
million that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spends building and
operating the locks and dams of the Mississippi River. Barges figured
there were a lot more corn and soybeans in Iowa than there was scrap
iron! Until then, some had limited themselves to pushing scrap
downstream and coal upriver, but those commodities were dwarfed by the
potential downstream grain business. Overcoming the challenges of
expansion, more players jumped into the booming barge industry.
Today 60% of U.S. grain exports travel by barge down the Mississippi
River system to the Gulf. The barge industry handles 15% of the
nation's inter-city traffic for just 3% of the nation's freight bill.
Barge transportation is the safest surface mode of transportation and
is more fuel efficient than rail. A single barge carries the
equivalent of 15 railcars and on the Lower Mississippi some tows
handle up to 40 plus barges.
Flood of 1927
The Mississippi 1927 flood began when heavy rains pounded the central
basin of the Mississippi in the summer of 1926. By September, the
Mississippi's tributaries in Kansas and Iowa were swollen to capacity.
On New Year's Day of 1927, the
Cumberland River at Nashville topped
levees at 56.2 feet (17.1 m). The
Mississippi River broke out of
its levee system in 145 places and flooded 27,000 square miles
(70,000 km2) or about 16,570,627 acres (67,058.95 km2). The
area was inundated up to a depth of 30 feet (9.1 m). The flood
caused over $400 million in damages and killed 246 people in seven
states. The flood affected Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana,
Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee.
Arkansas was hardest hit, with
14% of its territory covered by floodwaters. By May 1927, the
Mississippi River below Memphis, Tennessee, reached a width of
60 mi (97 km).
Mississippi River Commission
Battle of Fort Hindman
Mississippi River Commission was established in 1879 to facilitate
improvement of the
Mississippi River from the Head of Passes near its
mouth to its headwaters. The stated mission of the Commission was to:
Develop and implement plans to correct, permanently locate, and deepen
the channel of the Mississippi River.
Improve and give safety and ease to the navigation thereof.
Prevent destructive floods.
Promote and facilitate commerce, trade, and the postal service.
For nearly a half century the MRC functioned as an executive body
reporting directly to the Secretary of War. The Great Mississippi
Flood of 1927 changed the mission of the MRC. The consequent Flood
Control Act of 1928 created the
Mississippi River and Tributaries
Project (MR&T). The act assigned responsibility for developing and
Mississippi River and Tributaries Project (MR&T)
Mississippi River Commission. The MR&T project provides
Control of floods of the
Mississippi River from Head of Passes to
vicinity of Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
Control of floods of the tributaries and outlets of the Mississippi
River as they are affected by its backwaters.
Improvement for navigation of the
Mississippi River from Baton Rouge,
Louisiana, to Cairo, Illinois. This includes improvements to certain
harbors and improvement for navigation of Old and Atchafalaya Rivers
Mississippi River to Morgan City, Louisiana.
Bank stabilization of the
Mississippi River from the Head of Passes to
Preservation, restoration, and enhancement of environmental resources,
including but not limited to measures for fish and wildlife, increased
water supplies, recreation, cultural resources, and other related
water resources development programs.
Semi-annual inspection trips to observe river conditions and
facilitate coordination with local interests in implementation of the
The President of the
Mississippi River Commission is its executive
head. The mission is executed through the Mississippi Valley Division,
U.S. Army Engineer Districts in St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg, and New
US Army Corps of Engineers
United States Army Corps of Engineers
United States Army Corps of Engineers is a federal agency and a
major Army command made up of some 34,600 civilian and 650 military
personnel, making it the world's largest public engineering, design
and construction management agency. Although generally associated with
dams, canals and flood protection in the United States, USACE is
involved in a wide range of public works.
Navigation. Supporting navigation by maintaining and improving
channels was the Corps of Engineers' earliest Civil Works mission,
dating to Federal laws in 1824 authorizing the Corps to improve safety
on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and several ports. Today, the Corps
maintains more than 12,000 miles (19,000 km) of inland waterways
and operates 235 locks. These waterways—a system of rivers, lakes
and coastal bays improved for commercial and recreational
transportation—carry about 1/6 of the Nation's inter-city freight,
at a cost per ton-mile about 1/2 that of rail or 1/10 that of trucks.
USACE also maintains 300 commercial harbors, through which pass 2
billion tons of cargo a year, and more than 600 smaller harbors.
Flood Damage Reduction. The Corps was first called upon to address
flood problems along the Mississippi river in the mid-19th century.
They began work on the
Mississippi River and Tributaries Flood Control
Project in 1928, and the Flood Control Act of 1936 gave the Corps the
mission to provide flood protection to the entire country. Neither the
Corps nor any other agency can prevent all flood damages; and when
floods cause damage, there is sure to be controversy.
The Corps maintained its own fleet of river steamers, derricks,
dredges and cranes, all steam powered, for many years. See Montgomery
The Feds Step In: the
Tennessee Valley Authority
Tennessee Valley Authority Project
Typical modern snagboat
On May 18, 1933, Congress passed the
Tennessee Valley Authority
Tennessee Valley Authority Act.
Right from the start, TVA established a unique problem-solving
approach to fulfilling its mission-integrated resource management.
Each issue TVA faced—whether it was power production, navigation,
flood control, malaria prevention, reforestation, or erosion
control—was studied in its broadest context.
By the end of the war, TVA had completed a 650-mile (1,050 km)
navigation channel the length of the
Tennessee River and had become
the nation’s largest electricity supplier. Again the TVA project
needed the services of steamers to haul cement for the dams.
World War II
World War II LST construction
LCT being lowered into the water
The Second World War put huge demands on shipping. Every floating
vessel was put to work, retired or old. The
Gulf Coast was turned into
a huge industrial works. Shipbuilding, steel making in Alabama,
forestry, and landing craft building in the Plains towns. The Prairie
boats were moved down the river for re-staging in New Orleans. The
Higgins boat put its mark on shipping.
The need for Landing Ships, Tank (LST), was urgent in the war, and the
program enjoyed a high priority throughout the war. Since most
shipbuilding activities were located in coastal yards and were largely
used for construction of large, deep-draft ships, new construction
facilities were established along inland waterways of the Mississippi.
In some instances, heavy-industry plants such as steel fabrication
yards were converted for LST construction. This posed the problem of
getting the completed ships from the inland building yards in the
Plains to deep water. The chief obstacles were bridges. The US Navy
successfully undertook the modification of bridges and, through a
"Ferry Command" of Navy crews, transported the newly constructed ships
to coastal ports for fitting out. The success of these "cornfield"
shipyards of the Middle West was a revelation to the long-established
shipbuilders on the coasts. Their contribution to the LST building
program was enormous. Of the 1,051 LSTs built during World War II, 670
were constructed by five major inland builders. The most LSTs
constructed during WWII were built in Evansville, Indiana, by Missouri
Valley Bridge and the International Iron & Steel Co.
The end of steamboats
The Str. Natchez in New Orleans
The Great Depression, the explosion of shipbuilding capability on the
river because of the war, and the rise of diesel tugboats finished the
steamboat era. Boats were tied up as they had time expired, being
built in the
First World War
First World War or 1920s. Lower crew requirements of
diesel tugs made continued operation of steam towboats uneconomical
during the late 1940s. The wage increases caused by inflation after
the war, and the availability of war surplus tugs and barges, put the
older technology at a disadvantage. Some steam-powered,
screw-propeller towboats were built but they were either later
converted to diesel-power or retired. A few diesel sternwheelers
stayed on the rivers after steam sternwheelers disappeared. Jack
Kerouac noted in
On the Road
On the Road seeing many derelict steamers on the
River at this time. Many steam vessels were broken up. Steam derricks
and snagboats continued to be used until the 1960s and a few survivors
Today, few paddlewheelers continue to run on steam power. Those that
do include the Belle of Louisville, Natchez, Minne-Ha-Ha, Chautauqua
Belle, Julia Belle Swain, and American Queen. Other vessels propelled
by sternwheels exist, but do not employ the use of steam engines.
Overnight passage on steamboats in the United States ended in 2008.
The Delta Queen could resume that service, but it requires the
permission of the United States Congress. The
American Queen was in
the US Ready Reserve fleet and was purchased and relaunched in April
2012 and now carries passengers on 4 to 10 night voyages on the
Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers as the flagship of
On October 18, 2014, the
Belle of Louisville
Belle of Louisville became the first
Mississippi River-style steamboat to reach 100 years old. To celebrate
the unprecedented achievement there was a five-day festival in
Louisville, KY called Belle's Big Birthday Bash.
The ninth and current Natchez, the Str. Natchez, is a sternwheel
steamboat based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Built in 1975, she is
sometimes referred to as the Natchez IX. She is operated by the New
Steamboat Company and docks at the Toulouse Street Wharf. Day
trips include harbor and dinner cruises along the Mississippi River.
It is modeled not after the original Natchez, but instead by the
steamboats Hudson and Virginia. Its steam engines were originally
built in 1925 for the steamboat Clairton, from which the steering
system and paddlewheel shaft also came. From the S.S. J.D. Ayres came
its copper bell, made of 250 melted silver dollars. The bell has on
top a copper acorn that was once on the Avalon, now known as the Belle
of Louisville, and on the Delta Queen. It also features a steam
calliope, made by the Frisbee Engine Company, that has 32 notes. The
wheel is made of white oak and steel, is 25 feet (7.6 m) by 25
feet (7.6 m), and weighs 26 tons. The whistle came from a ship
that sank in 1908 on the Monagabola River. It was launched from
Braithwaite, Louisiana. It is 265 feet (81 m) long and 46 feet
(14 m) wide. It has a draft of six feet and weighs 1384 tons.
It's mostly made of steel, due to United States Coast Guard rules.
In 1982 the Natchez won the Great
Steamboat Race, which is held every
year on the Wednesday immediately before the first Saturday in May, as
part of the Kentucky Derby Festival held in Louisville, Kentucky.
It has partaken in other races, and has never lost. Those it has
beaten include the Belle of Louisville, the Delta Queen, the Belle of
Cincinnati, the American Queen, and the Mississippi Queen.
Mark Twain Riverboat
Steamboats of the Columbia River
Steamboats of the upper Columbia and Kootenay Rivers
Steamboats of the Willamette River
Steamboats of the Yukon River
Tourist sternwheelers of Oregon
Frederick Way, Jr.
^ a b c d e Hunter, Louis C. (1993). Steamboats on the Western Rivers,
an Economic and Technological History. New York: Dover
^ Lloyd, James T. (1856). Lloyd's
Steamboat Directory, and Disasters
on the Western Waters... Philadelphia: Jasper Harding. p. 41. In
1811, Messrs. Fulton and Livingston, having established a shipyard at
Pittsburgh, for the purpose of introducing steam navigation on the
western waters, built an experimental boat for this service; and this
was the first steamboat that ever floated on the western rivers." "The
first western steamboat was called the Orleans.
^ Dohan, Mary Helen (1981). Mr. Roosevelt's Steamboat, the First
Steamboat to Travel the Mississippi. Dodd, Meade & Co.
^ Dohan (1981), p. 19. An image of a model replica of the New
Orleans reveals her form.
^ Lloyd (1856), p. 42. "The second steamboat of the West was a
diminutive vessel called the 'Comet.' Daniel D. Smith was the owner,
and D. French the builder of this boat. Her machinery was on a plan
for which French had obtained a patent in 1809."
^ Miller, Ernest C. "Pennsylvania's Oil Industry". Pennsylvania
History Studies, No. 4. Gettysburg, PA: Pennsylvania History
Association: 69. In the summer of 1813, Daniel D. Smith altered a
river barge at Pittsburgh, using an engine invented by Daniel French.
The craft, called the Comet, was sent down to
New Orleans and also
made a few trips to Natchez, but apparently was unsuccessful in the
^ Hunter (1993), p. 127. "The first departure from the Boulton
and Watt type of engine was the French oscillating cylinder engine
with which the first three steamboats built by the Brownsville group
were equipped- the Comet (25 tons, 1813), the Despatch (25 tons,
1814), and the Enterprise (75 tons, 1814). The first of these was not
a success, and the Despatch made no name for herself; but the
Enterprise was one of the best of the early western steamboats."
^ Lloyd (1856), pp. 42–43. "The Vesuvius is the next in this
record. She was built by Mr. Fulton, at Pittsburgh, for a company, the
several members of which resided at New York, Philadelphia, and New
Orleans. She sailed under the command of Capt. Frank Ogden, for New
Orleans, in the spring of 1814."
^ Hunter (1993), p. 70. "The first steamboats were too heavy and
required too much power and too much depth of water to be practicable
on most parts of the Mississippi-
Ohio River system."
^ Lloyd (1856), p. 43. "The Enterprise was No. 4 of the Western
^ a b c d Maass, Alfred R. (1996). "Daniel French and the Western
Steamboat Engine". The American Neptune. 56: 29–44.
^ Maass (1996), p. 39. "She had a shallow draft; Latrobe,
inspecting a shoal the Enterprize passed daily, wrote [to Robert
Fulton on 9 August 1814] that no boat of greater than 2' 6" could pass
in low water."
^ American Telegraph. Brownsville, PA. July 5, 1815. Arrived at this
port on Monday last, the Steam Boat Enterprize, Shreve, of Bridgeport,
from New Orleans, in ballast, having discharged her cargo at
Pittsburg. She is the first steam boat that ever made the voyage to
the Mouth of the Mississippi and back. Missing or empty title=
(help)[full citation needed]
^ Hunter (1993), pp. 12–13.
^ Steubenville Western Herald. November 10, 1815. Missing or
empty title= (help)[full citation needed]
^ Hunter (1993), p. 127. "Not only was the Washington the largest
steamboat on the western rivers at the time of her construction, but
she outperformed all previously built steamboats and established a
high reputation for herself and for Shreve."
^ French, Lester Gray, ed. (July 1900). "Boating on the Ohio".
Machinery. Industrial Press. 6: 334.
^ "History of Washington". Historic Town of Washington, LA. Retrieved
February 2, 2017.
Cramer, Zadok (1817). The Navigator: Containing Directions for
Navigating the Monongahela, Allegheny, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers
(9th ed.). Pittsburgh: Cramer, Spear and Eichbaum.
Maass, Alfred R. (1994). "Brownsville's
Steamboat Enterprize and
Pittsburgh's Supply of General Jackson's Army".
77: 22–29. ISSN 1069-4706.
——— (2000). "The Right of Unrestricted Navigation on the
Mississippi, 1812–1818". The American Neptune. 60: 49–59.
Twain, Mark (1859). Life on the Mississippi.
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