Steaming Up the River

by Terry Hogan

They're pretty much gone now. At least the real ones. They don't belch black smoke and shoot fiery sparks into the night sky. They tend not to go boom as boilers explode and send metal shrapnel, wood splinters, high pressure steam, and a fireball into the sky. But they were, with all their faults and dangers, a part of the Midwest, and the Midwestern rivers. If your family roots extend deep into the prairie soil, there is probably a steamboat story there to be found.

The steamboats we find today resemble the steamboats of yesteryear to some degree. They aren't coal or wood-fired. They are much safer to ride. And they are generally more pleasurable in that you run no risk of nasty unburned carbon or glowing embers landing on your skin or clothing. Nevertheless, the originals were spectacular.

The old, real steamboats played an important role in the Midwest. They shipped goods east and west and north and south. They shipped troops and prisoners and released prisoners during the Civil War. Some peaceable steamboats were converted to gunboats and had their moments of glory.

The old Mississippi and Ohio riverboats churned the river, with the flashing paddles beating water into a white froth. They were as different in size and in design as their intended purpose. Some carried ornate rooms filled with the wealthy. Others carried 500 pound bales of cotton, loaded to the point that the steamboat was barely visible. Others carried the "common folks" on short runs up and down the river for shopping, business, or pleasure. Others neither went up nor down the river. They were not travelers. They were ferries that connected Illinois to Iowa or Missouri or Ohio to Kentucky. They were less glamorous, but no less important to the economy of the old Midwest. They did have a few things in common. They were broad, and relatively flat-bottomed so that they could navigate shallow water with the minimum risk of running aground. The problem with this was, that it made them harder to control in a strong side wind.

Mark Twain did a lot for the glory and romance of the old steamboats. River steamboats rival trains in little boys' imaginations. Who cannot wonder about what may lay in wait around the next bend? That wanderlust must be handed down from our ancestors who got us where we are.

It is recorded that the big old stern paddle-wheelers were held in contempt by the side-wheelers. The stern-wheelers were considered the ugly duckling and were called the "wheelbarrow boats." These stern paddle-wheelers were in the minority early in the steamboat era. The side-wheelers were faster and carried passengers and mail. These were the fast boats that set speed records and blew up boilers from time to time.

However, times change and the Midwest settled. Trains came and captured the passenger traffic. Trains were less susceptible to problems of low water, high water, ice, and the like. However, the rivers became highways for shipping goods. Lumber from the north woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin was shipped south. Anthracite coal was shipped west from Pennsylvania. With improvement in boiler design, allowing greater steam pressure and safety, the stern-wheelers largely replaced the smaller side-wheelers.

These stern-wheelers were work boats, pushing rafts of logs, barges full of coal, and were generally not the glamorous Delta Queen or Mississippi Queen that we see taking tourists on river journeys. These were called tow boats just like their contemporary versions that also push, not tow. No, I don't know why the misnomer. But we tend to think of paddle-wheelers as being ornate, deluxe passenger boats with calliopes, not work boats. We have a habit of reshaping history to glorify our past.

In fact, I stumbled across an interesting fact about the Delta Queen that I didn't know. Would you believe she isn't a Midwesterner? Nope, she's closer to being a California "valley girl" with a Scottish brogue. Would you believe that the Delta Queen was built in Scotland in 1927? She was assembled in Stockton, California. She worked the Sacramento River until WWII. Then, Uncle Sam turned her into a ferry. After the war (1947), she traveled 7,309 miles form Antioch, California to the Ohio River, and started a new life as an inland tourist boat, visiting such places as Cincinnati, St. Paul, New Orleans, and ports along the way. How's that for shock? She's a Scottish California "valley girl." But the Midwest has always accepted immigrants. We are the melting pot, even for boats.

Of course, the design of the paddle-wheelers weren't the only changes that affected steamboating on the rivers. Prior to 1929, the steamboats were limited in when, what, and how much they could ship by the river. During low flow, steamboats couldn't make the shallows and shipping stalled. With a good rain and rising waters, the Ohio became a rush of boats making their way to various ports. In 1929, the free flowing Ohio became subject to its first set of locks and dams, allowing for a more stable series of pools, and predictable shipment of goods. It probably also reduced the risk of running aground or being pierced by a snag lurking just below the surface of the water.

Steamboats were big business. River towns made steamboats possible and steamboats made river towns. Steamboats were often three wide, moored to the muddy shoreline of Cincinnati. Coal, passengers, barrels of apples and the general goods of commerce were loaded and unloaded; carried from points of abundance to points of scarcity. Such was the role of the paddle-wheelers. Travel between river cities by steamboats was not without risk. Old river town newspapers frequently had articles about boilers exploding and massive fires on these wooden vessels. Steamboats carrying 500 pound bales of cotton were especially susceptible to fiery deaths.

These steamboats had to be built somewhere. Generally, I thought of southern Indiana and Cincinnati as having put many of the boats to the water. And they did. But I was surprised to learn that Dubuque, Iowa produced the "Sprague" in 1902. She was a stern-wheeler tow that was known simply as "Big Mama" by Mississippi rivermen. She was 276 feet long and 61 feet wide. In 1907, she set a record for the largest river cargo handled. She hitched up 56 coal boats and 4 barges that contained over 67,000 tons of coal. It is reported that the collected group of barges covered 6.5 acres.

Not all such boats were as successful. The "John K. Speed" appeared to have more than its share of hard times in the late 1800s. In three years, it sunk three times. It repeatedly broke paddle-wheel shafts and once lost its paddlewheel completely. Its final hard time was a fiery death.

A quarter of a century ago, when we lived in Cincinnati, I used to take a side-wheeler ferry across the Ohio River from Cincinnati to Kentucky. It wasn't steam-powered but it was a working side-wheeler. It was called the Anderson Ferry. It could handle only a "handful" of cars. If you lived on the west side of Cincinnati and were going to the Cincinnati airport (located in Kentucky), the ferry was faster than driving into downtown Cincinnati to cross the Ohio River on the Interstate 75 bridge. Many a trip I made by car, by ferry, and by air in a single day to get from Cincinnati to Washington, DC and back again. During periods of high river flow, the trip was more than slightly interesting. The little ferry was under-powered and had a hard time keeping from being swept downstream to Indiana. I don't suppose many of these types of ferries remain today.

But the steamboats made small river towns great by making them centers of commerce. Other river towns, like Madison, Indiana and Galena, Illinois also became homes for successful river pilots and boat owners. Much of the early architectural glory seen in river towns can be attributed to the wealth delivered by steamboats in their heyday.

It must have been quite a show to see the black plume of smoke rising above the tree line along the bend of the river. It must have been pretty exciting to hear the steam whistle blow its "begging whistle" while it was still several miles away, alerting the "wharf master" of its pending arrival. As the steamboat approached the wharf, it would then blow a "loading whistle" consisting of a combination of long and short blasts, specific to the shipping line.

It must have been something worth getting steamed up about.