Steamboat Act of 1852

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The Steamboat Act of 1852 was the U.S. Congress' second attempt to ensure safety of the steamboats that dominated the nation's waterways, principally the Mississippi River, where "packet" steamboats regularly ferried passengers and freight between St. Louis and New Orleans. The legislation improved an earlier (1838) law that had proved a weak attempt to enforce vessel operators' compliance with certain safety standards and measures: vessels were required to undergo periodic hull and boiler inspections and to carry basic lifesaving and fire-fighting equipment. In the eight months preceding passage of the 1852 act, seven boiler explosions aboard steamboats claimed more than seven hundred lives. Congress responded to these maritime disasters by establishing precise standards for steamboat boiler construction, including rules about safety valves and operating pressures. It also set up a licensing system for all operators of passenger steamboats. Licensing came under the purview of the U.S. Department of Treasury, which hired civilian inspectors. The Steamboat Act of 1852 was the basis for the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service, whose authority was steadily strengthened by subsequent acts of Congressmost of them in response to further disaster along American waterways. In 1865 the boiler blew up on the steamboat Sultana, which was en route between Memphis, Tennessee, and St. Louis, Missouri. The explosion and resulting fire claimed the lives of more than 1,500 of the 2,300 people on boardmany of them Union soldiers recently released from Confederate prisons. Since the Steamboat Inspection Service had certified the Sultana to carry only 376 passengers, it was cleared of any blame; the vessel's operators were held responsible for the disaster. Nevertheless, Congress subsequently passed a series of steamboat safety laws to aid the Inspection Service's efforts to enforce safety. An 1871 act gave the service the authority to issue licenses to masters, pilots, and engineers. In 1903 the service was moved from the Treasury Department to the Department of Commerce and Labor. When that department split in 1913, the service came under the purview of the newly formed Department of Commerce. In 1932 the Steamboat Inspection Service was merged with the Bureau of Navigation (established 1844), which became known as the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation.

See also: Mississippi River, New Orleans