For a century starting in the 1780s, America’s rivers, lakes and ocean shores were dominated by steamboats, as wind-driven and pole-powered vessels were fading into history.
The world’s first steamboat was invented in 1776 by French nobleman and inventor Claude-François-Dorothée, marquis de Jouffroy d’Abbans who installed a steam engine that powered rotating wooden oars in a 42-foot lifeboat-like vessel that he named “Palmipède.”
The first steam engine was built 13 years earlier in Scotland by James Watt; the invention that helped kick-start the Industrial Revolution and inspired other inventors to further develop steam power.
In 1787, John Fitch was the first to build a steamboat in the U.S., called “Perseverance.” It was 45 feet long and powered with a steam engine patterned after Watt’s invention, with oars attached like the French marquis.
It worked fine on the Delaware River.
Then Fitch went on to create four bigger and better steamboats that proved that steam-powered boats were a good idea.
He even tried it out on two locomotives he designed at the dawn of the railroad.
Unfortunately, Fitch was a better inventor than businessman.
Stressed out by his financial problems, at age 55 he took his own life overdosing on opium pills.
Both inventor and businessman, it was Robert Fulton — with the help of Robert R. Livingston, one of America’s Founding Fathers — who built the “Clarmont,” America’s first commercially successful steamboat in 1807.
The Clarmont successfully carried passengers on the Hudson River 150 miles between New York City and Albany.
Fulton also left his mark in France and England.
In France, he developed a submarine; then later in England, Britain’s Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger commissioned him to build a range of weapons — including mines and torpedoes for the Royal Navy to fight piracy and Napoleon.
He also worked on developing canal waterway technology and steam-powered warships.
Historically, the steamboat came along at just the right time. Jefferson had bought a huge part of North America from Napoleon in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
The only viable inland transportation routes needed to develop the region before the wagon trail era and trains were the rivers and lakes.
The steamboats began disappearing after the Golden Spike was driven into the last railroad tie at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869 bringing coast-to-coast train service.
Like almost all water vessels, steamboats had moments of glory and ignominious endings.
River, lake and ocean bottoms are littered with their remains.
Two ships of the 1700s are the oldest still in good condition (after considerable restoration) — surviving as historic attractions.
They’re the sail-powered warships HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England, Nelson’s flagship, and the USS Constitution in Boston — the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel.
In 1870, with sparks, fire and black smoke belching from smokestacks, two steamboats raced each other 1,154 miles up the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis.
They were the “Robert E. Lee” and the “Natchez.” The Lee won in three days, 18 hours and 14 minutes — hours ahead of the Natchez that was slowed by fog and carrying more weight.
In Idaho, Lake Coeur d’Alene boasted the most steamboats of any other lake west of the Great Lakes, operating until the mid-1930s when cars, trucks and trains took over.
In 1879, Captain Peder C. Sorensen arrived in Coeur d’Alene from Norway with his tool kit, and built the lake’s first steamboat — the paddle-wheeler “Amelia Wheaton,” named after the Fort Sherman commander’s daughter.
Sorensen built several more and was the lake’s first captain, and named the lake’s bays and landmarks.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing on the lake. “There were no federal steamboat inspectors assigned to Lake Coeur d’Alene,” Ruby El Hult wrote in her book Steamboats in the Timber, “and there were frequent races, overcrowding of vessels, instances of drunken crew members, including captains and pursers, and other hazardous actions.
“Another dangerous practice was to haul dynamite at the same time as a vessel carried passengers.”
There was intense rivalry between steamboat companies on Lake Coeur d’Alene — namely between the Red Collar Line and White Star whom they later bought out.
In 1905, Red Collar’s “Idaho” rammed and sank White Star’s “Boneta” while operating on the St. Joe River.
Ten years later, the Idaho ended up in flames at Blackrock Bay in Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Far more serious were many steamboat tragedies in earlier days.
One of them happened on July 27, 1862, when the ocean steamer “Golden Gate” carrying passengers, freight, mail and $1.4 million in gold specie caught fire 15 miles from Manzanillo, Mexico, enroute from San Francisco to Panama.
Panicked passengers rushed to safety in the stern but were soon threatened by the flames.
“When boats were launched in the heavy surf, the occupants were crushed against the ship or drowned,” one report said. “The ship broke up in the surf.”
Between 175 and 223 passengers and crew lost their lives. Also lost was the gold.
On April 27, 1865 — just 12 days after Lincoln was assassinated — the steamboat “Sultana” exploded and sank on the Mississippi River near Memphis, killing 1,168 passengers. Almost all were former Union POWs from Andersonville heading home.
Months later on July 30, the ocean paddle-steamer “Brother Jonathan” left San Francisco and headed north for Portland and Victoria, B.C., with 225 passengers and crew aboard — and also jewelry, and crates of gold from the government for the Indians.
VIP passengers on board were Army Brigadier General George Wright and his wife Margaret, reassigned back to the Northwest.
He was a West Point graduate, fought bravely in the Mexican-American War, but during the Civil War was assigned to the Pacific Northwest to deal with the Indians and settlers. His legacy however is that he terrorized the Indians and slaughtered 800 of their horses just west of Post Falls near the Washington border.
In rough seas, Brother Jonathan hit an uncharted rock near Point St. George, Calif., and sank. Some 225 including General Wright died.
A far worse steamboat disaster was the “General Slocum,” a side-wheel passenger steamer.
In 1904, the Slocum was chartered by St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church for $350 for an excursion tour. The passengers were mostly German-Americans from New York City’s Lower East Side, and everyone was excited about the outing.
Around 9:30 a.m. the Slocum with 1,358 passengers plus crew aboard — mostly women and children — was traveling the East River between Queens and Manhattan when a fire broke out, quickly engulfing the ship.
One report said many couldn’t swim. Only 321 passengers survived, while the rest perished in the flames or jumped into the water and drowned — many of the women possibly handicapped by wearing the bulky clothing of those times.
For days, bodies washed ashore and the New York Times headline said “List of Slocum’s Dead Now May Reach 1,000.”
It was 1,021 — the highest death toll in the United States until 9/11.
Testimony at the ensuing trial, said the life vests were rotten, life boats in bad shape, crewmembers weren’t trained to handle emergencies and there were no fire drills.
The ship’s captain, William Henry Van Schaick was found guilty of criminal negligence and sentenced to 10 years hard labor in Sing Sing, but was pardoned by President William Howard Taft after serving only five years.
The disaster changed the German-American community in Manhattan forever.
Despite all the gloom and doom in steamboat history, the good news today is that steamboats plying America’s waterways must comply with strict federal maritime safety standards — though the government gave some slack to one paddle-wheeler:
President Trump recently signed legislation allowing the “Delta Queen” exemptions from certain maritime safety rules — the exemptions approved by Congress for the ninth time over the last half century.
The Delta Queen is on the Register of National Historic Landmarks — the ship called by its owners Delta Queen Steamboat Company, “the oldest overnight passenger steamboat still fully intact and capable of traveling the inland waterways of America”
Presidents Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter have all traveled on her.
The steamboat is undergoing a $10-12 million refurbishing and will be ready to resume river service in 2020.
And hopefully, the Delta Queen will also be ready to rejoin the annual Great Steamboat Race, next time against the Belle of Cincinnati, Belle of St. Louis and the American Queen.
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Contact Syd at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Fitch’s surviving model…
In the late 1700s, while John Fitch was working on developing a steam engine in Kentucky, he made two models. One burned up in a fire, and the other was found in his daughter’s house in Ohio in 1849 and is now on display at the Ohio Historical Society Museum in Columbus. A Smithsonian curator thinks the model was for a locomotive engine.
“Steam propulsion and railroads developed separately but it was not until railroads adopted steam technology that rail truly began to flourish. Rail transport was faster and not as hampered by weather conditions as water transport, nor was it dependent on the geographical constraints of predetermined waterways. By the 1870s, railroads — which could travel not only north and south but east, west, and points in between — had begun to supplant steamboats as the major transporter of both goods and passengers in the United States.”
— Thoughtco.com report
It’s hard to think about the Mississippi River and not think about the iconic paddle-wheelers — made even more popular by movies like “Showboat” and “Ol’ Man River” and the song:
Ol’ man river
That ol’ man river
He don’t say nothing
But he must know something
Cause he just keeps rolling
He keeps rolling along—
— Ol’ Man River movie (1927)
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Invitation to readers…
Everyone has a story. Press readers are invited to submit their Popcorn History stories (“Tasty little morsels of personal history”) for possible publication. Keep them 600 words or less. The stories may be edited if required. Submission of stories automatically grants permission to publish. Send to Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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