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Inventors. Robert Fulton gets well-deserved credit for building an economically useful combination of steam engine and hull design, but he was certainly not the first person to build a steamboat, nor even the first American to do so. The Englishman Jonathan Hull patented a steamboat in 1737, and Americans James Rumsey, John Stevens, and James Fitch all ran working steamboats on American rivers before Fulton launched The Steamboat (later called the Clermont ) in 1807. In 1805 Oliver Evans, of automatic flour-milling fame, launched his own version of a steam wagon-steamboat called the Orukter Amphibolos. In July of that year Evanss contraption, a seventeen-ton steam engine on wheels, trundled around downtown Philadelphia and then plunged into the Schuylkill River, where its paddle wheels took over and pushed the vessel sixteen miles to a dock on the Delaware. Evans would later design an important new steamboat engine, but it was Fultons successful ascension of the Hudson from New York to Albany and back in August 1807 that proved the practicability of steam travel. Fulton had many advantages over his competitors, including technical virtuosity; he had previously invented a submarine, a marble-cutting machine, and several types of bridges. But Fulton also had the backing of one of the richest men in America, Robert Livingston, who not only possessed great wealth but also happened to hold two monopolies on steam navigation, one granted by the New York state legislature for the states rivers and one granted by the Louisiana Territory for the lower Mississippi valley.

Monopoly. Fultons success on the Hudson generated a wave or public enthusiasm for steamboat building and travel. The steamboat seemed especially suited for the developing frontier along the great interior river system formed by the Ohio, the Mississippi, and their tributaries. In 1811, four years after the successful run of the Clermont, Fulton launched the New Orleans from a Pittsburgh shipyard and sent her downriver on the first successful steamboat run to its namesake city. Soon Fulton had a regular shuttle running between New Orleans and the cotton port of Natchez. The Fulton-Livingston monopoly, however, was short-lived. Competitors began to build their own boats, which, unlike roads, canals, or railroads, did not require years of expensive construction; once American shipyards gained some experience, they could construct medium-size vessels for $20, 000 and even the grandest models for around $60, 000. The monopoly could not keep other boats off the rivers, which after all were public highways. And in an age devoted to increasing economic opportunity for all, the Fulton-Livingston monopoly rankled the public as well as other steamboat companies. Constantly under attack in the courts, the monopoly finally fell in the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824).

Heavy Dew. The end of the Fulton monopoly ushered in a new era of rapid growth in the steamboat industry. By the 1850s steamboats dominated river transportation, especially in the West where there were only 17 steamboats in 1817, but 727 by 1855. Numbers, however, tell only half the story. Western rivers also presented a challenge to steamboat designers. Except for the Mississippi, most Western rivers were shallow, and in seasons of drought, water levels could fluctuate as much as 40 feet in a few weeks. As a result Western steamboat pilots had to relearn the rivers constantly, and the deep-draft design of eastern vessels simply would not work out west. In response to these problems Western builders came up with the Mississippi steamer, a long, wide vessel of shallow draft and light construction with an on-deck engine. According to historian George Rogers Taylor, by the late 1830s at least 20 of these new steamboats on the Ohio could navigate in only 20 inches of water. Contemporaries claimed they could run on a heavy dew.


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.


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

George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution: 18151860, Economic History of the United States, volume 4 (New York: Holt, 1951).


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STEAMBOATS. The origin of steam-powered boats in America is typically traced to Robert Fulton's experiences on the Hudson River with the Clermont in the first decade of the nineteenth century. The idea dates at least to sixteenth-century Spain, when Blasco de Garay, a native of Barcelona, experimented with a steamer. Work on the concept continued in England and France through the eighteenth century, but in almost every case, the boats were too heavy, unwieldy, and underfinanced. By 1784, innovation met demand when the Scotsman James Watt and others improved the efficiency of the steam engine at about the time America needed better transportation systems for its struggle westward.

James Rumsey, on the Potomac River, and John Fitch, on the Delaware, worked with steamboat ideas in the 1780s that were used by future entrepreneurs. With the successful commercial application of steam by Fulton and his financier, Robert R. Livingston, boats were soon plying the Hudson, Delaware, Connecticut, and Providence Rivers, as well as Lake Champlain. The first steamboat on western waters, the 116-foot sternwheeler New Orleans, was built by Nicolas J. Roosevelt, a partner of Fulton's and ancestor of the future presidents, in Pittsburgh.

The most dramatic improvements in steamboat design came at the hands of Henry Shreve, whose name lives on in the river city in Louisiana. Shreve's second steamboat, the 148-foot-long sidewheeler Washington, featured the machinery and a high-pressure engine on the upper deck (rather than below deck), allowing the flat, shallow hull to draw less water and more safely navigate the treacherous shoals, rapids, and chutes of the Mississippi River system. His round trip from Louisville to New Orleans in 1816 took forty-one days, a journey that would have taken a keelboat several months to complete. Shreve also deserves credit for the design of the snagboat, first seen in the Heliopolis; a snagboat was a steamer with a Samson's chain, A-frame, and block-and-tackle system at its bow that could remove trees and other obstructions from inland waters.

More specialized steamboats, with higher tonnage, were constructed for the Great Lakes beginning in 1818. The following year, the first ship with steam power, the Savannah, crossed the Atlantic to Europe, although it ran mostly under sail and it was thirty years until regular steamship service began on the ocean. By 1825, the steamboat, fueled by wood or coal, was becoming the vehicle of choice for long-distance inland travel, replacing the keelboat, flatboat, barge, and canoe. Ten years later, 700 boats were registered in U.S. waters. The cost of shipping raw materials and manufactured goods dropped considerably, beginning at the deep-water ports of the lower Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico, and after the work done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, shallower ports in other inland river systems. Steamboats soon plied the Red, Colorado, Rio Grande, Arkansas, Savannah, Sacramento, and Columbia Rivers. Ocean steamships, powered by coal and drawing four times as much water as steamboats, began to use a screw propeller instead of paddle-wheels as early as 1851.

The first steamboats were crude, dangerous contraptions with short life spans. Fires, boiler explosions, collisions, snags, ice, and rot took their toll throughout the steamboat era. Various estimates put the average life of an inland steamboat at between three and five years. Shreve's Washington, for example, exploded on the Ohio River on 9 January 1819, killing eight but sparing the captain. Perhaps the worst inland shipping disaster in U.S. history came on 27 April 1865, when the steamer Sultana, carrying more than 2,300 people (mostly Union soldiers returning from Confederate prison camps) exploded seven miles up the Mississippi from Memphis, killing more than 1,700.

In the early years, captains tended to be boat owners, but corporations soon replaced them. By the 1850s, the

fancy packets and floating palaces made famous by Mark Twain were churning American rivers. Steam lines like those owned by Diamond Joe Reynolds on the Mississippi and the Fall River line on the East Coast fought smaller firms in court and at the wharves. Boats increased in tonnage and opulence: bars, staterooms, dance halls, and lounges decorated the upper decks, while orchestras, stewards, chefs, and barbers served the needs of travelers. One of the most opulent steamboats was the third boat named J. M. White, finished in 1878 at Louisville for $200,000. It was 325 feet long, powered by 10 boilers—each 34 feet long—and had cylinders 43 inches in diameter. Its cabin stretched 260 feet, featuring chandeliers and a single piece of Belgian carpet 19 feet wide, and its hold carried 8,500 bales of cotton. It could easily carry 300 cabin passengers, 500 deck passengers, and 90 roustabouts. The boat burned only eight months into service.

Steamboat racing was a popular activity. Many captains needed only a slight excuse to start a match with a rival, even with a load of dry goods and decks full of passengers. Perhaps the most famous race took place in 1870 from New Orleans to St. Louis between the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez. The Robert E. Lee won the race in a time of three days, eighteen hours, and fourteen minutes. Racing added to the romance of the steamboat era, which also took in gambling, drinking, music, and other pursuits as part of life on the waters.

During the Civil War, steamboats were used to transport troops and in battle, but the coming of the railroad (it had reached the Mississippi in 1854) was a warning sign. The peak period of the steamboat lasted from about 1850 to 1875. With the exception of the great lumber boom of the 1880s in the northern forests of Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin and the shipping of cotton from the Mississippi Delta, steamboats were reduced to short runs, day trips, and ferrying by the early twentieth century. After World War I, diesel-powered towboats and barges increasingly provided the muscle to move goods on the inland rivers; by the end of the twentieth century, only a handful of working steamboats, including the Delta Queen, were in operation as tourist attractions.


Corbin, Annalies. The Material Culture of Steamboat Passengers: Archaeological Evidence from the Missouri River. New York: Kluwer Academic, 2000.

Dayton, Frederick Erving. Steamboat Days. New York: Tudor, 1939. Written by a former riverman.

Hunter, Louis C. Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949. The definitive economic history.

Morrison, John H. History of American Steam Navigation. New York: Stephen Daye Press, 1958. The original edition was published in 1903.

Petersen, William J., Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi. Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1968. An anecdotal account.


See alsoGreat Lakes Steamships ; Mississippi River ; New Orleans ; River Navigation ; Savannah ; Steam Power and Engines .


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Steamboats were first developed in the late 1700s and became commercially viable in the early 1800s. There were two types of steam-driven vesselsthose designed for the deep coastal waters along the eastern seaboard of the United States and those designed to navigate the shallower inland rivers of the nation's interior. Steamboats are propelled by steam engines, which drive paddle wheels (either along the boat's side or stern) to move the vessel through water.

The first workable steamboat was demonstrated by Connecticut-born inventor John Fitch (174398) on August 22, 1787, on the Delaware River. He launched two larger vessels in 1788 and 1790, receiving a patent for his design in 1791. But Fitch's fourth boat was ruined by a storm in 1792 and the innovator lost the support of his backers.

The first commercially viable steamboat was designed by Pennsylvania engineer and inventor Robert Fulton (17651815); the Clermont made its maiden voyage on August 17-22, 1807, when it sailed up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany in thirty hours, and then returned. The vessel was 133 feet long and had only a seven-foot (considered shallow) draft. The Clermont was the forerunner of the "western" steamboats that would soon dominate the interior waterways and Gulf Coast. In 1817 the stern paddle steamboat the Washington completed the first round-trip voyage between Louisville, Kentucky, and New Orleans, Louisianatraveling along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. By the end of that year dozens of steamboats were in operation on those two principle rivers and their tributaries; by 1840, there were more than two hundred on the Mississippi alone; by 1860, this number had swelled to more than one thousand. Mississippi steamboat traffic and trade had by 1850 pushed New Orleans to exceed New York City in volume of shipping, with New Orleans' outbound cargo accounting for more than half the nation's total exports.

Steamboat technology was put to use on many kinds of vessels. Packets were the most common kind of steamboat; they carried passengers and cargo from city to city. There were also towboats (which pushed cargo barges), showboats (outfitted for the entertainment of the paying public), ferries (which carried covered wagons and other vehicles across waterways in the absence of bridges), dredges (to deepen existing waterways), and light tenders (which conducted maintenance along rivers). This variety of steamboats made settlement possible by permitting travel from West Virginia in the East to the Rocky Mountains in the West, and from Minnesota in the North to Louisiana in the South.

The development of transcontinental railroads later in the 1800s caused steamboat use to decline. For decades more, however, they maintained a place in the nation's ever-expanding transportation network, particularly up and down the Mississippi River.

See also: Robert Fulton, Steamboat Act of 1852


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Steamboats are boats powered by steam engines that move a mechanism for propulsion. In the early days of steamboats, the mechanism for propulsion was a paddle wheel. Steamboats became widely used in the United States in the nineteenth century, helping to develop the country's internal economy. By the end of the century, railroads had surpassed steamboats as the primary mode for commercial transportation inland.

Steamboat technology was first developed in Europe. As early as 1690, French inventor Denis Papin used a steam engine to drive a paddle wheel boat. The Englishman Jonathan Hull patented a steamboat in 1737, but his design was too large to be useful. In 1783 the Frenchman Claude de Jouffroy d'Abbans designed and built a 150-foot (46-meter) steamboat that navigated a river near Lyons, France, for over a year. In Great Britain, Scottish inventor William Symington designed a steamboat that operated on a canal for a month.

At the end of the eighteenth century, Americans began to experiment with steamboats, which would be useful on the country's great rivers, such as the Hudson and the Mississippi. John Fitch demonstrated one in 1787 and developed others, but lost investors when further progress failed. By 1804 Oliver Evans had designed a high-pressure steamboat engine using a copper boiler, technology that worked but occasionally exploded, with tragic results. Samuel Morey came close to building a commercially successful steamboat, but he declined to accept investment from Robert Livingston because he wanted to control the project himself.

Gibbons v. Ogden

In 1824 in the case of Gibbons v. Ogden, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the steamboat navigation monopoly that Robert Livingston had received from New York violated the federal government's power over interstate commerce. This ruling allowed the federal government to open steamboat navigation to all commercial companies. Over the next few decades, thousands of steamboats entered service in the United States, transporting people, shipping goods in commerce, and providing entertainment, such as gambling.

Livingston was a wealthy man and the American ambassador to France, who had monopolies for steam navigation on the Hudson River (granted by the New York legislature) and on the lower Mississippi River (granted by the Louisiana Territory). Livingston financed steamboat design by American inventor Robert Fulton. Fulton made a successful steamboat in France. In 1807 he launched the Clermont for a thirty-hour voyage from New York City to Albany and back on the Hudson River. Four years later Fulton sent the New Orleans from Pittsburgh down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to its namesake city in Louisiana Territory.

The use of steamboats grew greatly in America in the middle of the nineteenth century. By 1840 there were more than two hundred operating on the Mississippi River. This number increased to a thousand by 1860. At the middle of the century, annual shipping to New Orleans exceeded shipping to New York City, accounting for more than half of the entire nation's total exports.

After steamships could operate on rivers, inventors designed ways for them to operate on oceans. Vessels that sailed the oceans had to store more coal for the engines than river steamboats. They also needed to have screw propellers instead of paddle wheels because of the rough seas in the ocean.