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KEELBOAT, a type of craft that was used on American rivers, chiefly in the West. The earliest keelboat seems to have been a skiff with a plank nailed the length of the bottom to make the boat easier to steer, but by about 1790 the keelboat had become a long narrow craft built on a keel and ribs, with a long cargo box amidships. It was steered by a special oar and propelled by oars or poles, pulled by a cordelle, or occasionally fitted with sails. Keel-boats were 40 to 80 feet long, 7 to 10 feet in beam, 2 feet or more in draft, with sharp ends. A cleated footway on each side was used by the pole men. The success of Henry M. Shreve's shallow draft steamboats drove the keelboats from the main rivers by about 1820, except in low water, but they were used quite generally on the tributaries until after the Civil War. The chief utility of the keelboat was for upstream transportation and for swift downstream travel. It was used extensively for passenger travel.


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

Haites, Erik F. Western River Transportation: The Era of Early Internal Development, 1810–1860. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

Leland D.Baldwin/a. r.

See alsoFlatboatmen ; Galley Boats ; Lewis and Clark Expedition ; Missouri River ; River Navigation ; Waterways, Inland .