River Navigation

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RIVER NAVIGATION. The continental United States is a network of water highways. Immense rivers thread the interior of the country for thousands of miles and empty into the vast seas at the nation's borders. At the time of initial contact with Europeans, Native Americans plied these rivers in bark canoes, bull-boats (tubs of buffalo hide stretched over a frame of willow), and pirogues (canoes made out of hollowed tree trunks).

The "keelboat age" began shortly after white colonists arrived on the continent. Taking its name from the long, narrow boat of shallow draft that rivermen propelled with poles, this was the period when humans had to rely on their own strength, wind, or water currents to drive their boats. Where the nature of the river permitted, the early settlers traveled on sailing craft, as on the Hudson, Delaware, and Potomac rivers; and it was often possible for ships to ascend far upstream. But on such waterways as the Connecticut and most of the western rivers,

they used the bateau and keelboat, because rowing or poling were more feasible than sailing. During this period, packet boats—vessels that traveled on a regular schedule between specific ports—were rare on the western rivers, and their services were not long continued, but in the East they existed on the Hudson and Delaware rivers.

Boatbuilding was among the earliest activities of the colonists, especially in New England, in New Amsterdam, and on Delaware Bay. In fact, by the start of the American Revolution, many English merchants owned vessels built in the colonies. But these sea-faring boats were much larger and faster than the boats that settlers built to traverse the continent. The crudest river craft were log rafts, one-way carriers that floated downstream ladened with produce, furs, and other items to sell. Once all was sold, the rafters broke up the raft, sold the logs for lumber, and returned home by foot or on another boat. Keelboats could make the return voyage, but typically took twice as long to travel upstream as down.

Flatboats, known also as arks and Kentucky boats, were the most numerous of the many types of river craft. Typically, they were larger than keelboats and could hold livestock in their hulls. Like rafts, flatboats were built at the headwaters of eastern and western rivers for downstream travel only. River crews used flatboats to transport produce, coal, cattle, and immigrants down American waterways

until after the Civil War. The number of flatboats that traveled the country's rivers is incalculable, and so too is the amount of freight they carried and the number of immigrants they transported. But flatboats were certainly a vital factor in the development and peopling of the West, particularly byway of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, western rivers were not only important avenues of commerce and settlement, but were also important lines of defense and the sites of crucial military battles. The French and the Spanish maintained fleets of galleys, boats propelled by both oars and sails, on the Mississippi for military purposes. The colonists built a number of gunboats that plied western rivers during the Revolution and in the years following. One of the first steamboats, Fulton's Orleans or New Orleans, was of some assistance to Andrew Jackson's army in battles against the British in 1814 and 1815. The U.S. Army used gunboats and keelboats against the Indians on the western rivers as late as the War of 1812. Thereafter steamboats took their place. During the Civil War, few steamboats moved in civilian occupations on the lower Mississippi River, because the waters ran red from the fires of burning boats and human blood as soldiers fought for control of the river and the forts and towns on its banks.

Long before the military battles of the Civil War, however, Americans engaged in competition of a different sort on the commercial inland waterways. When Robert Fulton launched the Clermont on the Hudson in 1807, he initiated a battle royal between river steamboats and coastwise sailing packets, with the former destined to eventual victory. Although the first steamboat on western waters was Fulton's Orleans, it could not travel far upstream and other boats built on Fulton's patents had deep hulls, which were unsuited to the shallow western rivers. It was not until Henry Shreve's Washington was launched in 1816, with its boilers on the deck, that a craft was found suitable for western river navigation. In 1820, more than sixty steamboats were working the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers; two decades later, there were more than one thousand. By the 1840s, steamboats had also become much larger and evolved into floating entertainment palaces that boasted ornate cabins and private staterooms, bars, barbar shops, elegant food service, calliopes, bands, orchestras, and gambling tables. The largest boats could carry several thousand bales of cotton and several hundred passengers at the same time. But despite the advances in design, during the antebellum period, the title "packet" as applied to the western passenger steamboat was a misnomer, as they rarely operated on schedule. The eastern river steamboats were more reliable.

Nineteenth-century river travel was a dangerous enterprise. Swirling currents, bad weather, and underwater obstructions such as sunken tree trunks threatened to spin boats into river banks or rip holes in their hulls. Steamboats also brought onto the rivers high-pressure boilers that too frequently exploded. Early boilers were often defective. And boat captains and owners sometimes asked too much of the boilers by overloading the boat or trying to travel too fast. Between 1836 and 1848, there were approximately seventy-six steamboat explosions on western rivers. The use of high-pressure boilers resulted in so many explosions that in 1852 Congress set up a system of licensing and inspection. The average life of a western steamboat was about four years.

By 1850, the railroads had begun to sap the trade from the steamboats and from the canals both in the East and West. But, the tremendous volume of transport needed during the Civil War gave the steamboats a new lease on life. This continued for a couple of decades, since most railroads crossed rather than paralleled the rivers. During this second great age of the steamboat, lines of packets were formed and schedules became more honored by observance. "Low water boats" were even developed to cater to mail and passenger needs during the summer. And steamboats towed barges (the modern form of flatboat) laden with coal, oil, and other heavy goods. By the 1880s, however, the competition of the railroads parallel to the rivers was rapidly displacing steamboats in the West and had won a victory in the East.

It was partially in a desperate sectional effort to block the railroads that the federal government was pushed into western river improvements after 1879. A magnificent system of dams and other water controls have made the rivers of the Mississippi Basin important highways for heavy freight, carried chiefly in barges pushed in the early 2000s by tugboats fueled by diesel rather than steamboats. The Mississippi River system is connected with the Saint Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes by the Illinois Waterway, completed in 1933, and the Ohio River system, and it extends to the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. This system—including the Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois rivers—saw a great increase in commercial traffic in the second half of the twentieth century.

On the Atlantic coast, the Hudson, Delaware, and Savannah rivers are linked to the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, which connects Boston and New York City with Key West, Florida. This system was especially important during World War II, since it enabled navigation to continue to and from Florida and Massachusetts unmenaced by German submarines. Commercial traffic on the Atlantic coastal rivers and canals also increased significantly in the second half of the twentieth century.


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

Durant, John, and Alice Durant. Pictorial History of American Ships on the High Seas and Inland Waters. New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1953.

Gould, Emerson W. Fifty Years on the Mississippi. Columbus, Ohio: Long's College Book Co., 1951 (orig. pub. 1889).

Hunter, Louis C. Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History. New York: Dover Publications, 1993 (orig. pub. 1949).

Merrick, George B. Old Times on the Upper Mississippi: The Recollections of a Steamboat Pilot from 1854 to 1863. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002 (orig. pub. 1909).

Owens, Harry P. Steamboats and the Cotton Economy: River Trade in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

Robson, Nancy Taylor. Woman in the Wheelhouse. Centreville, Md.: Tidewater, 1985.

Skalley, Michael R. Foss: Ninety Years of Towboating. Seattle: Superior Publishing, 1981.

Leland D.Baldwin

Cynthia R.Poe

See alsoBargemen ; Canoe ; Flatboatmen ; Galley Boats ; New Orleans ; Packets, Sailing ; Rafts and Rafting ; River and Harbor Improvements ; Shipbuilding ; Towboats and Barges ; Waterways, Inland .