Just how long have steamboats been on the Mississippi River? For twenty-five years in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, individual inventors including John Fitch and James Rumsey labored toward the use of steam power in water transport of goods and people. Until then, goods or cargo made its way down stream on the Mississippi River on flatboats or keelboats. In fact all movement that took place on the river was predominantly one direction with any attempt at upstream transportation completed by costly poling against the current over long periods of time.
While Rumsey and Fitch fought over patent rights of a successful steamboat whose design was put in service between Philadelphia and New Jersey, others were moving ahead in their quests to develop steamboats that could travers the powerful current of the Mississippi. On the heels of Scotland’s successful upstream running on the River Carron of the Charlotte Dundas in 1801, American inventors, among them Oliver Evans and Robert Fulton worked in earnest to put a steamboat in service in America.
Fulton had immense success with his steamboat Clermont in traveling the 150 miles of the Hudson River from New York City to Albany in just over 30 hours. Fulton recognized the economic potential of using steamboats to move people and goods up and down the Mississippi and in 1811 the New Orleans became the first steamboat on the mighty river thus ushering in a new era of river transportation and a romantic period defined by sidewheelers and sternwheelers.
Steamboats on the Mississippi River in those early years were few but notable. A lightweight steamboat, the Comet, completed a similar voyage to the city of New Orleans, and following the War of 1812, more steamboats began to ply the Mississippi’s waters. The Vesuvius, a steamboat also owned by Fulton and similar in design to the New Orleans and the Enterprise were both launched in 1814 and sported design changes that made them better suited to navigate shallow water and strong current. Bringing with it the well known design of multiple decks, the Washington, launched in 1816 was a two deck steamboat allowing the upper deck to be reserved for passengers while the lower deck held cargo.
Mississippi River travel was developing into an economic and travel boon with the presence of a growing number of steamboats and the resulting growth of cities along its route. Memphis, St. Louis and Natchez expanded in population and economic development as they evolved into important port cities. Not surprisingly, with the evolution of port cities came further growth in steamboat development.
In 1814 the city of New Orleans recorded 21 steamboat arrivals, however, over the course of the following 20 years, that number exploded to more than 1200. The steamboat’s place as a transportation necessity was secured.
The theatrical Chapman family recognized the steamboat’s potential as an entertainment vessel and after numerous runs of entertainment productions on existing boats, in 1837 had their own steamboat built. Calling it the Floating Theater, this vessel was the predecessor of the familiar showboat that launched steamboat travel into the glorious era that is well recognized as an essential experience for Mississippi River travelers today.
Interrupted for a time by the Civil War, and by the advent of the automobile, steamboat travel on the Mississippi River experienced an evolution of growth, safety legislation and design change that sealed it’s place in history. The elegantly festooned, multiple decked sternwheelers that grace the river today call up a long and colorful history that helped expand a nation and capture imaginations forever in novel and story.