I 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 romantic 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 third 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 later 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.
In 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 family 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 was 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?