showboat1951I love the musical “Showboat.” Not long ago, I stayed up late and watched it again. I still cry when Noley sells her hair to buy back Gay’s lucky walking stick, and watching the reunion of Noley and Gay still makes me sigh in happily-ever-after contentment. On a completely unrelated side note, do you remember the television show “Bewitched”? The woman who played Samantha’s mother, Agnes Moorehead, played Nolie’s mother in Showboat.

Since a few weeks ago, when fellow filly Tanya blogged about Mark Twain, writer, gold miner, and steamboat pilot, I’ve been wanting to follow-up and take a look at that “romantic” mode of travel, the Steamboat. Trust me, it’s about as steamboat New Orleans agroundromantic as Taking the Stage!

The first steamboat to travel the Mississippi was the New Orleans. A side-wheeler–meaning her wheel was positioned on the side of the vessel rather than at the stern–she was built in Pittsburgh in 1811 at the cost of $40,000. She was 116 feet long. On her maiden voyage, the New Orleans was caught in the New Madrid Earthquake. [See Winnie’s blog “When the Mississippi Ran Backward”] Nevertheless, she continued downriver, arriving in New Orleans January 12, 1812. Two years later, traveling between New Orleans and Natchez, she struck a tree stump and sank. Not exactly a fitting end to a boat with a remarkable history.

While Robert Fulton developed the steam engine, and is given credit for the steamboats as well, it was actually Daniel D. Smith, working for Captain Henry M. Shreve’s company, who worked out the structural and mechanical issues, and made the steamboat viable for westward travel. Where Fulton’s boat was a large, heavy, deep-draft side-wheeler, Smith developed and built the Comet, the first flat, shallow-draft hull with a lighter weight, high-pressure engine, and the paddle on the stern, or the back, of the boat. The design proved perfect for navigating the shallower rivers of the west.

The steamboat Enterprisethird boat launched was Fulton’s Vesuvius. But the fourth steamboat built for use in westward waterways was the Enterprise. If you’re a Trekker, like me, that little piece of information should make you smile.

Launched in 1814 by the Monongahela and Ohio Steam Boat Company, the Enterprise clearly demonstrated the suitability of the new design during her epic voyage from New Orleans to Brownsville, PA, a distance of more than 2,000 miles upriver. That means she was going against the powerful currents of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

In December 1814, Capt. Shreve used the Enterprise to deliver a cargo of supplies for Gen. Andrew Jackson’s army from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. In the smaller, more agile ship, he successfully ran the British batteries below New Orleans to make his delivery to Fort St. Philip during The War of 1812 [1812-1815].

Next came the Washington. Launched in 1816, she was the first steamboat with two decks, the predecessor of the Mississippi steamboats of lsteamboat Washingtonater years. The upper deck was reserved for passengers and the main deck was used for the boiler, increasing the space below the main deck for carrying cargo.

Unfortunately, putting the boiler on the main deck meant explosions became a serious threat to passengers and crew. In the forty years of travel before the mid-1850s, there were around 4,000 fatalities on the river due to boiler explosions, destroying some 500 vessels.

The worst recorded accident occurred at the end of the Civil War in April, 1865, when the Sultana, carrying an over-capacity load of Union soldiers finally heading home after having been released from Confederate prison camps, blew up, killing more than 1,700 people.

Although steamboats were in service between New Orleans and Natchez, they were not used for travel beyond Natchez. The Washington changed that. In 1817, the Washington made the round trip from Louisville, KY, to New Orleans and back in 41 days, opening a new way to get to New Orleans.

Yes, you read that right: 41 days. Today, you can make that trip by car in less than 32 hours–and that’s taking the scenic route!

In spite of how long the trip took, the Washington kicked off the golden era of the paddle-wheeler. In five years, the wharfs of New Orleans saw a tremendous growth in steamboat traffic. From only 21 boats in 1814, 1833 saw more than 1,200 unloading cargo on the city’s wharfs.

The Western EngineerIn 1820, the Western Engineer opened the next routes when she made a trip from St. Louis up the Missouri River to Nebraska. That’s her on the right in the Titian R. Peale painting with the Engineer Cantonment. In April, 1823, the Virginia left St. Louis bound for scattered posts up the Mississippi. If you’ve ever crossed the MLK Bridge from St. Louis into Illinois, you’ve seen the String of Rocks, a line of barely submerged rocks almost completely cross the river. Still, the crew managed to navigate past them and complete the trip. Twenty days and 683 miles later, the Virginia docked at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, established at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.

Now this blog wouldn’t be complete without a look at those wonderful creations, the showboats! From Wikipedia: “A showboat, or show boat, was a form of theater that traveled along the waterways of the United States, especially along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. A showboat was basically a barge that resembled a long, flat-roofed house, and in order to move down the river, it was pushed by a small tugboat (misleadingly labeled a towboat) which was attached to it. It would have been impossible to put a steam engine on it, since it would have had to have been placed right in the auditorium.

“British-born actor William Chapman, Sr. created the first showboat, named the “Floating Theatre,” in Pittsburgh in 1831. He and his fajames adam floating theatremily performed plays with added music and dance at stops along the waterways. After reaching New Orleans, they got rid of the boat and went back to Pittsburgh in a steam boat in order to perform the process once again the year after. Showboats had declined by the Civil War, but began again in 1878 and focused on melodrama and vaudeville. Major boats of this period included the New Sensation, New Era, Water Queen, and the Princess. Between 1850 and 1939 there were 50 showboats on the Mississippi alone. The showboat shown here is The James Adams’ Floating Theatre, which plied the tidewaters off North Carolina beginning in 1914.

“With the improvement of roads, the rise of the automobile, motion pictures, and the maturation of the river culture, showboats declined again. In order to combat this development, they grew in size and became more colorful and elaborately designed in the 1900s. These boats included the Golden Rod, the Sunny South, the Cotton Blossom, and the New Showboat. Jazzmen Louis Armstrong and Bix Biederbecke played on Mississippi River steamers.”

Sadly, I have to bust a myth. The fancy confection we all think of as a showboat–like the one featured in the 1951 movie “Show Boat” was nowhere near the real thing. A showboat wMusicCityQueenas essentially a barge pushed down the river by a small attached tugboat. Putting a steam engine on a showboat would have put it in the middle of the auditorium.

Fortunately, modern-day showboats, like the Music City Queen and the General Jackson in Nashville, and the Branson Belle in Branson, Missouri, are being designed as the twin-stacked, paddle-wheel-driven, multi-deck fantasies we’ve come to expect.

By 1901, the invention of the diesel-powered engine began to erode the steamboat’s dominance in river travel. By 1931, they’d mostly replaced the steamboat as the preferred mode of transportation. What they didn’t take over, the railroads did.

The steamboat was a crucial part of the growth of our nation. And even if the image most of us carry of a showboat isn’t exactly accurate, it’s nice to know that the legend is still alive and well.

Have you ever been on a showboat or a steamboat? Which one and where?

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  1. Hi Tracy, fantastic blog! Wow, I had no idea on some of your statistics…500 boiler-exploded vessels, 1700 casualties, 41 days to go north! Wow.

    I have been on two “touristy” sternwheelers…one across Mark Twain’s beloved Lake Tahoe, and the other, replica steamboat dubbed The Mark Twain at Disneyland. It’s supposed to be as authentic as a modern reproduction can be. Boy, I sure feel good when I’m on it!

    Wonderful blog…great way to start my way! oxoxoxox (or end my night…off to bed now in Pacific Daylight time…)

  2. Thank you for a wonderful post, Tracy! “Show Boat” (1951) is my all-time favorite movie! The beautiful love story, the fantastic singing and dancing, the gorgeous costumes and production details, all in magnificent technicolor! The acting was superb throughout, and who could remain untouched by William Warfield singing “Old Man River”? The final scence of the ship pulling away from the dock with Ava Gardner watching them leave makes me cry every time. I only recently learned that Howard Keel (Gay Ravenal) and Kathryn Grayson (Magnolia Hawks)had a real-life off and on love affair for many years.

    I love the dreamy romanticism of the riverboats and the twangy humor of Mark Twain. As a child, I did get to take a ride on a tourist attraction paddle wheeler. It was a slow, peaceful ride on a beautiful sunny day. The swish of the paddle wheel was hypnotic.

  3. That Sultana story, what a terrible tragedy.
    I loved this post, Tracy. I read it and re-read chunks of it. I can think of about five books just in the time it took me to read it.
    41 days. Can you imagine? And this was groundbreaking?

    I always imagine (well not ALWAYS. I stop to eat and stuff) But I often imagine Louis and Clark going upstream from St. Louis against the Missouri River current. Of course the river is very different now than it was then. It’s been dredged out and is much deeper and the current fast. Back then it might have been a slow, meadering, muddy old thing so not such a strong current. But still….didn’t they mostly WALK along on the shore and pull the book using long ropes? I mean they’d HAVE TO. No one could row against a current could they?
    This is the kind of post that awakens all my creative juices. Thanks.

  4. I always liked the great musicals of the 50’s and Showboat was one of the really fun ones to watch.
    Yes, I have been on a paddlewheel boat from Nashville to New Orleans. It was interesting and we viewed some beautiful scenery along the way.

  5. i tell ya…you girls make me smarter every day…soon i’ll be brilliant 🙂

    i live along the mississippi and last summer we took out kids to the mississippi river museum where we were able to tour a working steam boat on the water…it was pretty cool and a job i would not be interested in at all!
    they have fun dinner tours on river boats up here becaues we are in such a beautiful location–fall is breathtaking on the river
    i think most people on here are more familiar with the casino boats however 🙂
    a way to get gambling in a town that wouldn’t give you permits for land casinos

  6. Tanya, the number killed shocked me as well.

    Virginia, the sound of the water on the hull and splashing around the paddlewheel is my favorite part of being on one of these boats.

  7. Mary, the L&C expedition paddled upstream a lot of the way and, according to the journals it was backbreaking work.

    I found more than a few books while researching this, too.

  8. Joye, I’ll bet that was a gorgeous trip. A steamboat from St Louis to New Orleans is on my gotta-do-it list.

    Tabitha, you must live further north on the river. And I understand about the casinos. 😉

  9. What a great post, Tracy. I’ve been very interested in the Sultana and all of the implications that came out of the incident. Fascinating subject. I’ve been on a couple of steamboats and each was a wonderful adventure. I’m not a boater and am scared of the water, but there’s just something about the vastness of a steamboat that makes you feel safe. Fantastic subject!

  10. I just love stories and movies on riverboats! I wish my publisher would let me write one, but they claim they don’t sell. 🙁

    Great post.

  11. Great post Tracy, there is a river boat on the KY river that takes you on a tour the the Shaker Village and the river! During this past heavy rains and flooding it got loose and now they are trying to get it moved back to its home!

  12. Tracy, I’ve always wanted to take a steamboat up the Mississippi River. That must be the life. Meandering along with not a care in the world, stuffing my face and going to sleep with the gentle sway of the boat. Pure heaven. Except if it blew up. I’ll bet it’s a lot safer now than it was back in the 1800’s.

    By the way, Phyliss Miranda blogged on the subject of the Sultana when she once guested on here. There has been evidence uncovered that the steamboat’s explosion was sabotage. It was just so tragic that all those people lost their lives.

  13. Linda, I sure did blog on the Sultana. Thanks for mentioning it. One of the interesting aspects of the tragedy is just the fact that it was the biggest maritime disaster ever and didn’t even make the headlines! A bigger news story superseded it … the assassination of Lincoln. I always thought that we interesting, and as the sabotage theory developed it more or less fit together.

  14. Disney has one in Frontier town, the Mark Twain, but that doesn’t count as much of a trip.

    A year or so ago, my husband and I spent a few nights in Nashville and took the night dinner cruise on the GENEAL JACKSON. Was the perfect full moon, starlit night for it. Too bad RWA won’t be there. They shut down because of the flood, but are supposed to resume their cruises this coming weekend.

    There is a multi-day paddle wheeler cruise along the Columbia, Snake and Willamette Rivers that shadows part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Route. There are side trips, lectures and gorgeous scenery. One of these days we hope to be able to take that trip.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  15. Hi Tracy.
    Great post and it brought back pleasant memories. I took the Mississippi Queen up the Mississippi and it was great. Can you still take these cruises? I thought I read that they were no longer running.

    I also took a paddle wheeler cruise along the Colombia River to the Snake River. I got off at one port to explore and pretty near got mauled by a bear.

  16. Hi Tracy
    I have been on two steamboats amd loved every minute. The first time was a field trip to Hannibal, MO and my little sister got to steer the boat and blow the horn. WOW! The second time was a dinner cruise and the Mississippi was so lovely.
    I have also visited the Steamship Arabia Museum in Kansas City. The Arabia hit a snag and sank in 1856, and was dug out of a farm field 130 years later after the river had changed course. Much of the cargo is perfectly preserved. It really gives you a feel for what life was like back then.
    I learned a lot from your post. Thanks!

  17. I live near the Missouri River and all the ‘riverboats’ around here are for gambling…and I don’t think they actually go out on the river. They’re moored permanently.

    Not all that romantic. Unless the dinging of slot machines is your idea of love.

  18. Hi Mary, Thaks for the link to Phyllis Miranda’s blog. It’s a good one. I had never heard the sabotage theory before. Makes you wonder. Either way. what a tragedy – to survive the war and die on the way home.
    And slot machines dinging may not do much for me, but I think I could get excited over the ringing if I hit the jackpot!

  19. What an interesting post, Tracy. I teach about early transportation in Iowa to fifth graders and we talk about steamboats and the importance of them (transporting crops, goods, immigrants, being able to go upriver against the currents).

    Have you heard about the Bertrand on the Missouri River? It hit a sandbar, sank, and everything on the boat was encased and preserved in mud. There is a little museum near De Soto Bend that shows the contents of the boat.

    I’ve been on a big paddleboat on the upper Mississippi near Dubuque, Iowa. There are afternoon, evening, or dinner cruises and it is very relaxing to be on the river.

  20. Hi Tracy! I’m checking in late to say the only paddleboat I’ve been on is the one at Disneyland 🙂 If you count my characters, though, I’ve got a villain who spent some time on the Mississippi. Take care!

  21. i’ve seen the stuff they found from the Bertrand, Deb. We go down there every few years to watch the Canadian Geese, and Pelicans and Ducks migration. Spectacular site.

    If you like thousands of honkin’ birds.

  22. You’ve been busy while I’ve been celebrating the college graduation of our youngest nephew. Glad to see you’re enjoying the subject.

    Margaret & Patricia, I’m definitely going to check out that paddlewheeler for a future vacation!

  23. The Bertrand is a new one for me. I’ll have to check it out.

    There was a packet boat from the early 1800s found in the mud of the Ohio River a few years ago–maybe 10 years. Packet boats were flat bottomed craft, built for a single, one-way trip. The vessel was stripped at the end and the wood used to build a new home.

  24. Mary, when I taught in western Iowa 24 years ago, I took my class to De Soto Bend Wildlife Refuge. Wow, there was an estimated 400,000 snow geese there that day! We only saw 4 eagles, but the park ranger said it was still early yet (October 1). We also saw the Bertrand’s “stuff”.

  25. Loved this blog. I love riverboats and it was the setting for one of my first books. And the Sultana really rings a bell with me. The wreck was near Memphis and is a legend here. A Black fisherman kept rowing out and saving passengers. There’s a big statue celebrating his heroism in one of our parks.

  26. Wonderful blog on the Sultana. I found it while researching steamboat explosions for a book I’m writing about my ancestor, Capt. Ben Glime who lost his life, along with his bride of 9 months when his steamboat the St. Nicholas blew her boiler on the Mississippi River on 24 April 1859 near Memphis.

    Your blog was very informative, thanks for posting it!

    Sandra VanOrman

  27. Daniel French designed the “Comet,” designed and built the machinery, and in 1813 launched her at Pittsburgh for Daniel D. Smith. About a year later Comet’s engine was removed. Shreve had no connection with the “Comet.”

    The “Enterprise” never ran the British batteries. Shreve and the “Enterprise” didn’t reach New Orleans until January 9, 1815. She was used north of New Orleans until after the British had ceased hostilities. However, she did steam to Fort St. Philip – and past it to the Gulph – while on a mission to exchange prisoners, but that was after the British had withdrawn to their ships. Robert M. Hunt

  28. My great grandmother’s husband, Oliver Hugh McMullan, was half owner of the St.Nicholas that exploded on April 24, 1859, and he was the steamboat captain. He was in the pilot house when the boiler to the boat exploded. The pilot house blew up with him int it and he was thrown on deck an dpinioned with the broken timbers. The mate and another officer, tried to rescue him til their own arms blistered. He begged them to cut off his legs so he could be helped out, but in the confusion, nothing was available to help. He took his own pocket knife and cut the flesh to the bone, but to no avail. Nothing could be done, and men heard him saying, “Oh God, must I die this way”.

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