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The Proliferation

By 1815, just eight years after the North River Steam Boat had made its historic voyage up the Hudson, the Fulton-Livingston company had built twenty-one steamboats, all of them designed by Fulton. Master of the Hudson by virtue of the monopoly granted it by the New York State legislature, the firm was reaping profits from five steamboats in service on the Hudson, including a new version of the North River, rebuilt from the original and nearly twice as big, the Car of Neptune, the Paragon, the Richmond and the Chancellor Livingston, which was not completed until after Fulton’s death. On the Mississippi the Fulton-Livingston company had similarly expanded, operating the New Orleans (until 1814, when it sank), the Aetna, the Natchez and the Buffalo.

It operated five steam ferryboats from Manhattan — the Firefly, the Jersey, the Yor k , the Camden and the Nassau— and two ferries that plied Long Island Sound, the Connecticut and the Fulton. In addition, it operated the Washington on the Potomac River and the Olive Branch and the Raritan on the Raritan River in New Jersey. In an attempt to establish a steamboat monopoly in Russia, the firm had built the Empress of Russia, and winning himself one more distinction, Fulton had also designed the world’s first steam warship, the Demologos —which the U.S. Navy called Fulton the First—the guns of which boomed a salute to Fulton in New York’s harbor on the day of his funeral.

On March 2, 1824, in a ruling written by Chief Justice John Marshall, deciding the case of Gibbons v. Ogden, the New York law that gave Fulton and Livingston their steamboat monopoly was struck down by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Hudson, like the Mississippi, like every other navigable river and lake in the nation, was open to all comers, all vessels, however propelled. It was a grand new day for steamboats in America.

The statistics indicate the difference that Gibbons v. Ogden made. In 1819 there were eight steamboats operating on the Hudson River. In 1826, two years after the Supreme Court’s ruling, there were sixteen Hudson River steamboats; in the late 1830s there were forty-five, and by 1840 there were more than one hundred. More than a dozen steamboat companies were established to operate in New York. In 1849 passengers could choose between twenty steamboats that ran daily between New York City and Albany. Cornelius Vanderbilt became the owner of more than fifty steamers, operating on several routes, and began amassing the fortune that would later make him the richest man in America.

Steamboats were also multiplying elsewhere in the Northeast. Lake Champlain, gateway for trade between Canada and New York State, was the second oldest water route regularly traveled by steamboats, its first steamer being the Vermont, built in 1808 at Burlington, Vermont, on the lakeshore. By July 1821 a Lake Champlain excursion-boat service had been established, using the steamer Congress to carry, as its advertisement read, “Parties of Pleasure, and others, who may wish to view the remains of those ancient fortresses, Ticonderoga and Crown Point, and other more recently memorable places on the Lake, such as the Battle Ground of Macdonough’s Naval Engagement — Plattsburgh, &c .”1 The Congress steamed out of Whitehall every Thursday morning at five o’clock. Excursion passengers disembarked from it on the second day and boarded the southbound steamer Phoenix for a return trip to Whitehall while the Congress continued north to Canada.

By 1842 at least sixteen steamboats had been put into service on Lake Champlain. On one of them, the Burlington, the renowned British novelist Charles Dickens traveled as a passenger in 1842 and he wrote fulsomely about the experience :

There is an American boat — the vessel which carried us on Lake Champlain, from St. John’s to Whitehall, which I praise very highly, but no more than it deserves, when I say that it is superior to any other in the world. The steamboat, which is called the Burlington, is a perfectly exquisite achievement of neatness, elegance and order. The decks are drawing-rooms; the cabins are boudoirs, choicely furnished and adorned with prints, pictures and musical instruments; every nook and corner in the vessel is a perfect curiosity of graceful comfort and beautiful convenience.2

Steamboat service blossomed along the Connecticut coast. The Lafayette was built in 1828 to operate out of Bridgeport, and in 1835 one of the Vanderbilt steamboats, the Nimrod, was shifted from the Hudson River to Bridgeport. Thanks largely to the building of railroads that terminated there, Bridgeport in the 1840s became a busy port for steamers, which brought freight from New York City to the Bridgeport railroad terminals for shipment by rail to the interior of Connecticut and New York State.

New Haven was introduced to steamboats when the Fulton, the last boat built under Fulton’s supervision and which he designed specifically for service on the waters of Long Island Sound, arrived there from New York in March 1815. It left New York a little after five o’clock on a Tuesday morning and landed at New Haven at four-thirty that afternoon, which was not considered a speedy trip. But the New York Evening Post reporter who told of its introductory voyage speculated that when hindering mechanical problems were solved and the weather was good, the trip would be made in eight or nine hours. He had other good things to say about the boat. “We believe it may be affirmed,” he wrote, “that there is not in the whole world such accommodations as Fultonaffords. Indeed it is hardly possible to conceive that anything of the kind can exceed her in elegance and convenience.”3

The New Haven Steamboat Company, formed in 1822, operated the United States and the Hudson out of New Haven. The United States was said to be the first steamboat with a pilot house.

Steamboats were serving customers on Nantucket Sound, too, running between New Bedford and Edgartown and providing service to Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Hyannis. Steamers, including the Massachusetts, the Connecticut, the Fanny and the Merrimack, operated from other Massachusetts ports as well. The Tom Thumb, thirty feet in length, was the first steamboat to appear in Maine, where after being towed from Boston, it steamed up the Kennebeck River in 1818. It was later joined in service in, to and from Maine by the Kennebeck, the Patent, the Maine, the Waterville, the Legislator and the New York, among others.

On the Delaware River, Robert Livingston’s brother-in-law, John Stevens, first operated the Phoenix, then replaced it with the Philadelphia in 1815. Two other steamers, the Bristol and the Sea Horse, later entered the competition on the run between Philadelphia and Bristol, Pennsylvania. Stevens’s company, the Union Line, added the Rain Bow, the Swan, the Stevens, the Stockton, the Nelson, the Burlington, the Trenton and the Belknap to the steamboats serving the upper Delaware. Others followed.

Steamboats also ran between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, the first of which, the Vesta, was in service by 1820. After it came the Superior and the Wilmington. Steamer service from Philadelphia to Salem, New Jersey, below Wilmington, began in 1824 and was initiated by the Lafayette, followed by the Albemarle, the Essex, the Proprietor, the Linnaeus, the Flushing and the Pioneer, among others. Cape May, New Jersey first received steamboat service in 1824, the earliest steamers including the Delaware, the Ohio and the Robert Morris.

Baltimore’s first steamboat was the Chesapeake, built in Baltimore in 1813 at a cost of forty thousand dollars. It soon had to compete with the Eagle and after that came the Virginia, the Norfolk, the Roanoke, the Surprise, and the Richmond and others later, running between Baltimore and Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia. When the marquis de Lafayette, the French general who had aided the American cause in the Revolutionary War, came back to visit the United States in 1824, there were five steamboats gathered in Baltimore harbor to extend an official greeting and welcome him back to the grateful nation whose independence he had helped win.

Steamboats were also plying the Great Lakes in the 1820s, one of the earliest being the Walk-in-the-Water, which was launched into Lake Ontario in 1819. By 1826 there were seven steamers operating on the lakes. In 1833 there were eleven steamboats serving Buffalo, New York, and together they carried more than sixty thousand passengers to and from Buffalo.

By 1835 steamboats were also navigating the waters off the Atlantic Coast, running between New York and Charleston, South Carolina. Those boats included the David Brown, the William Gibbons, the Columbia and the New Yor k. In 1835 the Columbia, owned by Charles Morgan of New York, became the first steamboat to operate in the Gulf of Mexico, running between New Orleans and Galveston, Texas. Morgan’s sea-going, iron-hulled steamers also established service between New York and New Orleans and ports on the Mexican coast, and ran steamboats from New Orleans on Lake Pontchartrain, through Lake Borgne to Mobile on the gulf.

In North Carolina, steamboats, including the Prometheus, operated from the mouth of the Cape Fear River up to Wilmington; and in South Carolina, steamboats regularly plied the lower Waccamaw River and the Ashley. Steamboats appeared in Georgia as early as 1816, operating on the Savannah River, eventually running between Savannah and Augusta, and in 1828 they began making regular runs on the Georgia river system that includes the Apalachicola, Chattahoochie and Flint. In 1829 the first steamer arrived at Macon, on the Ocmulgee River, and in 1833 a commercial steamboat service was begun between Darien, on the Georgia coast, and Macon.

In Alabama the steamboat era began when the steamer Alabama, built at St. Stephens, Alabama, on the Tombigbee River, upstream of Mobile, was launched in 1818. Its engine, though, lacked sufficient power to take it back up the river after it had gone with the current down to Mobile. The Alabama was followed by the more powerful Mobile, which made it up the Tombigbee and Black Warrior rivers all the way to Tuscaloosa. The next steamboat to operate out of Mobile was the Harriet, which successfully ran from Mobile to Montgomery. Cotton was the mainstay of Alabama’s economy then, and the Alabama River, winding through the southern half of the state, carried it, aboard the multiplying steamboats, to Mobile where it could be shipped across the gulf to far-flung destinations.

The greatest growth in steamboat numbers, however, was on the Mississippi and its tributaries. Between 1811, when Nicholas Roosevelt set out for New Orleans aboard the New Orleans, and 1820 at least sixty steamboats were either built on the western rivers or sent to them to begin operations. An early twentieth-century record4 shows the increase and the total steamboats in service and compares the western-water numbers with those elsewhere. It also reveals the increasing size of the vessels.

Number of Steamboats Year on the Mississippi 1834 231

1840 225

1843 672

1844 686

1845 789

1847 958

1849 1,000 (probable)









250,000 (probable) Steamboat tonnage by sections and cities of the United States, operating in 1842.

Southwest :

New Orleans 80,993

St. Louis 14,725

Cincinnati 12,025

Pittsburgh 10,107

Louisville 4,618 Nashville 3,810

Total Southwest 126,278 

Northwest :

Buffalo 8,212

Detroit 3,296

Presque Isle 2,315

Oswego 1,970

Cuyahoga 1,859

Total Northwest 17,652


New York 35,260 Baltimore 7,143 Mobile 6,982 Philadelphia 4,578 Charleston 3,289 Newbern 2,854

Perth Amboy 2,606

Apalachicola 1,418

Norfolk 1,395

Boston 1,362

Wilmington 1,212

Georgetown 1,178

Newark 1,120

Miscellaneous 4,767

Total Seaboard 76,064

Grand Total 219,994

Those statistics show that in 1842 steamboat tonnage on the Mississippi and its tributaries accounted for more than 57 percent of the total steamboat tonnage of the nation. In 1842 Pittsburgh alone had more steamboat tonnage than Philadelphia, Boston and Charleston combined. The tonnage of steamboats operating out of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati together exceeded the total tonnage of all Great Lakes ports combined by five thousand tons. In 1842 the steamboat tonnage on the Mississippi and its tributaries exceeded by forty thousand tons the total 1834 tonnage of steamers in England, Scotland, Ireland and the then-British dependencies combined. As far as steamboats were concerned, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the Mississippi and its tributaries were definitely where the action was.

All those steamboats represented a busy and growing boat-building industry. Cincinnati, which led the towns of the Ohio River valley in the number of steamboats built, in 1843 employed some seven hundred and seventy persons in boat-building, constituting a significant proportion of its then meager population. The statistics clearly show the steamboat’s growth. In 1820 the Ohio valley boat-building towns built fifteen steamboats, with a total tonnage of 2,643 tons. In 1830 those towns built thirty-three boats, totaling 4,881 tons. In 1840 they built sixty-three steamboats, totaling 9,224 tons. In 1850 they built one hundred and nine steamboats, with a total tonnage of 20,911 tons.

In 1843, a single year, Cincinnati alone produced forty-five steamboats, with a total tonnage of 12,035 tons; Pittsburgh produced twenty-five, totaling 4,347 tons; and the clustered towns of Louisville, Kentucky; New Albany, Indiana; and Jeffersonville, Indiana, together produced thirty-five steamboats, totaling 7,406 tons. Boatyards along the Ohio River were hard-pressed to keep up with the demand. They put on extra work crews that worked at night by torchlight for double-time wages. Machine shops and foundries as well toiled furiously to keep up with orders.

Some of those vessels did not add to the size of the steamboat fleet but were replacements for boats that wrecked or burned or were otherwise lost or those that simply wore out after several years of service, the average lifespan of a steamboat then being only about five years. Steamboat owners who lost their vessels to accidents or obsolescence usually were quick to replace them. So eager were owners to keep their steamboat business humming, and the cash returns flowing, that they often would order new vessels from the boatyards within twenty-four hours of having lost a boat to a snag, fire or explosion.

The U. S. Treasury Department reported that in 1842 steamboat tonnage on the Mississippi and its tributaries amounted to 70,033 tons, and in 1851 that tonnage doubled. The rise in total tonnage during the second quarter of the nineteenth century of course came from increases in size and carrying capacity as well as in the number of steamboats. The following table shows the increase in capacity.5

Years Average Capacity Average Capacity in Tons (Downstream) in Tons (Upstream)

Before 1820 110 55

1820–1829 232 116

1830–1839 310 155

1840–1849 496 248

1850–1859 630 315

Through improvements in construction techniques during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Mississippi steamboats, built almost entirely on the Ohio, not only got bigger but much more efficient as payload carriers, boosting the amount of freight they could carry in proportion to their size, more than tripling the ratio of their carrying capacity to their tonnage, from 0.50 to 1.75. That increase, pure joy to steamboat owners, meant that a boat of two hundred tons, for example, built before the 1820s, could carry no more than 100 tons of freight, but a steamboat of two hundred tons built in the 1850s could carry 350 tons.

Paddle wheels on sidewheelers and sternwheelers alike evolved over the same period, becoming larger in diameter, thereby increasing the speed of the boat without significantly increasing the amount of fuel consumed.

Another important technological advancement in steamboat construction was the use of high-pressure engines, which were developed more or less through trial and error over a period of years on the western rivers. The highpressure engine presented a number of advantages over the low-pressure, condensing engine. For one thing, important in the relatively shallow Mississippi and other western waters, it was some 60 percent lighter than a comparable low-pressure engine, making the steamboat lighter and its draft shallower. Not only was the high-pressure engine more powerful than its low-pressure counterpart, it was also a simpler machine, simpler to manufacture, and thus it cost steamboat owners about 60 percent less than the more complicated low-pressure engine. It was more easily maintained and repaired, usually requiring no more skilled a mechanic than was the boat’s engineer — a big advantage when mechanical trouble occurred on the river, miles from a machine shop. It was also less susceptible to problems arising from the boats’ use of siltladen river water to make steam.

Steamboat designers soon figured out that longer boats made better boats, and the marked increase in tonnage was a logical result of that conclusion. A longer hull increased the boat’s buoyancy and speed, giving it a shallower draft and making it faster than a boat of similar tonnage but with a shorter hull.

By the late 1830s the design of Mississippi steamboats had become settled and remained standard for years to come, even for boats built in the late twentieth century. They were shallow-draft, flat-bottomed, multi-decked vessels with tall, twin chimneys, or smoke stacks. There was no mistaking them for anything else when they appeared, riding majestically upon the waters of the Mississippi.

Some steamboat owners, out to get as much service as possible from their investment, operated boats smaller than the average Mississippi steamboat, which in 1851 was two hundred and seventy-five tons. Those smaller boats were light enough to run on the Mississippi and Ohio during dry periods when the water was low and on small tributary streams when the water there was high.

A typical Mississippi sternwheeler at that time would be two hundred feet long and thirty feet in the beam and would measure around two hundred tons. Its carrying capacity would be three hundred tons of freight, and its passenger capacity would be about two hundred persons in its staterooms and about one hundred on its main deck. The tables below give an idea of the revenue a typical Mississippi steamboat produced from the freight and passengers it carried. They are the actual rates6 on the upper Mississippi in 1857.7

Freight rates per ton, going upstream —

Less than 30 miles 30 to 60 miles

More than 60 miles 6 cents per mile 5 cents per mile 4 cents per mile

Freight rates per ton, going downstream —

Less than 30 miles 30 to 60 miles

More than 60 miles 5 cents per mile 4 cents per mile 3 cents per mile

Passenger rates, going upstream — Cabin Deck

Dunleith, Illinois, or Galena, Illinois, to: Miles Fare Fare Cassville 30 $ 2.00 $1.25 Prairie du Chien 66 3.50 2.00 La Crosse 150 6.00 3.25 Red Wing 256 10.00 5.00 St. Paul and Stillwater 321 12.00 6.00

Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, to:

St. Paul, Minnesota 255 10.00 5.00

La Crosse, Wisconsin, to:

St. Paul, Minnesota 175 7.00 4.00

Passenger rates, going downstream —

St. Paul or Stillwater to:

Hastings 32 $ 1.50 $1.00

Red Wing 65 2.50 2.00

Winona 146 4.50 2.50

La Crosse 175 5.00 3.00

Prairie du Chien 255 7.00 3.50

Dunleith or Galena 321 8.00 4.00

The average upstream trip produced total receipts estimated at $4,450. Of that total, $3,000 came from freight. An average of a hundred and fifty cabin passengers, paying an average fare of eight dollars each, yielded a total of $1,200, and an average of fifty deck passengers, paying an average fare of five dollars each, yielded $250, for a grand total from passenger fares of $1,450.

Downstream trips were not so profitable, the big reason being that there was less freight to carry. The only significant cargo going downstream from St. Paul was wheat, which was shipped in two-bushel sacks, each weighing one hundred and twenty pounds. Boats going downstream carried an average of five thousand sacks of wheat at an average rate of 12 cents per sack, making their total freight receipts $600. They also carried an average of eighty passengers at an average fare of eight dollars each, making a total of $640 in fare receipts and bringing total receipts for the downstream trip to $1,240.

The round trip therefore produced a total of $5,690 on average. During the five-month season for navigating the upper Mississippi a steamboat would make four round trips a month, earning an average of $22,760 per month. Crew salaries and wages totaled an estimated $5,850 for a month. Food supplies, figured at $75 a day for thirty days, totaled $2,250. Wood for fuel, estimated at twenty-five cords per day at $2.50 per cord for thirty days totaled $2,000, and miscellaneous other expenses were estimated at $1,400

The steamer Imperial arrives at New Orleans on July 16, 1863, reopening the Mississippi River to unimpeded passage during the Civil War. The Imperial left St. Louis on July 8, four days after Union troops had captured the strategic Mississippi River city of Vicksburg and eliminated the last major barrier to free commerce on the river (Library of Congress).

for a month. The monthly total for all expenses, not counting depreciation, was $11,500.

And so for the five months that the average boat operated during the year on the upper Mississippi, it returned to its owner $56,300 in profits. During the middle of the nineteenth century, an average Mississippi River steamboat cost between $20,000 and $50,000 to build or buy, substantially less than a year’s profits from its operation. A boat would more than pay for itself in its first year of service.

On the lower Mississippi cotton was the predominant cargo. A steamboat of three hundred and fifty tons, which might cost as much as $50,000, could carry five hundred tons of freight, or some fifteen hundred bales of cotton, stacked high on its decks. Cotton generally was shipped to New Orleans from the two major ports of the Mississippi valley’s cotton-growing areas — Memphis and Natchez. In 1846 the shipping charge for cotton from Memphis to New Orleans was $2 a bale; from Natchez, $1 a bale. On the return trip, the freight rate from New Orleans to Natchez was 75 cents per one hundred pounds, more to ports more distant, on a steamboat that could carry from the wharves and warehouses of New Orleans five hundred tons of everything needed or wanted by the people of America’s burgeoning interior.8

Doing the arithmetic on those numbers shows just how lucrative Mississippi River steamboating was for boat owners and helps explain the proliferation of steamboats on western waters.

It was the nation’s westward expansion, however, that was the real and irrepressible force driving the demand for transportation and increasing commerce on the big river and its tributaries. The population of the United States grew from 5,306,000 in 1800 to 23,192,000 in 1850, or 33 percent every decade. West of the Alleghenies and Appalachians, in the valleys of the Mississippi’s tributaries, the population increase was even more remarkable. From a total of 560,000 in 1800 the population there swelled to 10,520,000 in 1850, an average increase of 182 percent in every decade in the first half of the nineteenth century, during the same period that steamboats were proliferating on the Mississippi and its tributaries.

The Mississippi steamboat both served and helped cause that population growth. It opened up the middle of the country for settlement and it brought in the new immigrants who would do the settling. The population increase in the major ports along the Ohio and Mississippi gave evidence of the steamboat’s role in the western expansion. In the years between 1820 and 1850 the population of Pittsburgh increased from 4,700 to 46,000. Cincinnati’s population jumped from 9,600 to 115,000, Louisville’s from 4,000 to 43,000, and St. Louis’s from 5,000 to 77,000.

In 1830, New Orleans, yet to experience the full effect wrought by the steamboats that came to its wharves, had a population of 46,000. Ten years later, in 1840, with steamboat commerce surging, New Orleans had become the third city in the nation, after New York and Baltimore, to reach 100,000 population.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, steamboats on the Mississippi had introduced into American history a whole new age. And there was more to come.

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