Mississippi Steamboats

The Mississippi River was Americas own small scale ‘silk road’ in the 19th Century and nothing played a more major role in its development than the steamboat. Before its invention it was only possible to travel in one direction, that of the current, but that all changed with its arrival. Thanks to the steam powered engines of the steamboat it was possible to travel up and down the river, whether it was for freight purposes or simply for travel.

After the success of early steamboats such as in 1801 with the Charlotte Dundas in Scotland and later in 1807 with Robert Fulton’s Clermont on the Hudson River the concept became a reality. In 1811 Fulton created the New Orleans, he then started a steamboat service between the ships namesake and the city of Natchez. The ship was a large ship with a big, heavy side wheel attached. She was also equipped with a low-pressure Bolton and Watt steam engine that had a complex power train that was also heavy and somewhat inefficient.

Within a short while designs improved and it wasn’t long until more services were offered on the river. In the 1810s there where a total of 20 boats on the river, by the 30s they had become so successful that there were over 1200, this really was the golden age of the steamboat. By this point the boats were used for a wide variety of services that had gone beyond simply ferrying people about.

As the southern states joined the Union much of the land in the Southwest had been transformed into cotton plantations. The river became the best way to transport the cotton to the other states for sale. Things like rice, tobacco, timber and molasses were also hot products of the time that were exported across the Great River.

The steamboats were also the perfect place for shadier activities due to the lack of regulations on the water. Cities began to crack down on the gambling houses in the towns and so many set up shop in boats instead. Often these gambling boats would also be a home to the services of a brothel; these steamy steamers were much like the stereotypical whore houses of the Wild West, only here on the Mississippi River.

The steamboat era also brought with it the showboat; these were basically a travelling theatre on the waterways. Nowhere were these more prominent than on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. These were large flat topped barges, usually pulled along by a smaller tugboat. The showboat couldn’t house an engine as it would need to be placed in the centre of the auditorium, which I imagine would likely ruin the performances.

Since their heyday the use of the steamboat has declined greatly, things like wars and the railway services have made them somewhat redundant. That being said there are still a few in service that you can visit today, the oldest of those being the Belle of Louisville operated by the city of Louisville, Kentucky which is amazingly over 100 years old.