Harvesting the River
Harvest Transport History

Home > Transportation > Boats> Steamboats


the steamboat Missouri
The Steamboat Missouri
Havana Public Library District, Havana, Illinois.
R. B. Hillyer Collection
Boat Photo Museum, Marysville, Illinois<
Zoom in on the steamboat Missouri
Steamboats were the workhorses of the rivers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Steamboats had a paddle wheel that the engine turned from zero to about twenty times a minute. The wheels consisted of two sets of wooden arms (spiders) with planks between them that went through the water at a depth of several inches as the wheel turned. The boats had wooden hulls. Coal powered the engines; there were coal mines around the river town of Liverpool. As of 1850 there were fifty-nine steamboats taking farm produce and immigrant passengers up the Illinois River.

Packet Boats

Packet boats were steamers that carried goods and people up and down the rivers until the 1930s, when trucks and trains took over most of the hauling. Packet boats had four decks. From bottom to top they were: the main deck, which housed the boiler room, engine room and cargo space; the passenger deck; the crew's quarters; and the pilot house.

Packet boats carried cargo, mail, and passengers to the small towns along the Illinois River. Most of the immigrants who settled this area arrived on a packet boat. Steamboat traffic began on the Illinois in 1828 with runs from St. Louis, Missouri, to Pekin, Illinois. The next year they also continued on to Peoria, upriver of which there were no settlements. By 1840, there were ten riverboats regularly running on the Illinois. The packet business spurred other businesses in the towns they served. Hotels such as the Beehive in Havana were built to board packet passengers.

Packet boats on the Illinois River included the Betsy Ann (built 1899), City of Peoria, the Golden Eagle, Go to image of the Golden Eagle the Bald Eagle, Go to image of the Bald Eagle and the Grey Eagle; Go to image of the Grey Eagle the last three were members of the Eagle Packet Company fleet. All were stern wheelers.

Excursion Boats

By the end of the nineteenth century, some stern and side wheelers were excursion boats, traveling the rivers to entertain both the people on board and those in the towns where the boats docked.

As an excursion boat arrived, it played its steam calliope. Go to image of a steam calliope Many older residents on the Illinois River today remember, as children, going to meet the excursion boats at the docks. Excursion boats offered weekend day picnics, dancing to live music, and gambling.

The East Saint Louis, which held 3,200 passengers, was owned by Havana residents Lester and James Robinson from 1915 to 1924. They and two men from Peoria, Oscar Moore and Edward Cody, refurbished it in Havana. It was a stern wheeler that had five names as it changed hands over the years, finally retiring in 1934.

Other excursion boats on the Illinois were the Cape Girardeau, Go to image of the Cape Girardeau the Saint Paul, the Verne Swain, a side wheeler that had been a packet boat in West Virginia before coming to Peoria, and the Majestic, Go to image of the Majestic which burnt to the waterline at Havana. The biggest tragedy on the Illinois River was the sinking of the Columbia Go to image of the Columbia at 2:00 a.m. on July 5, 1918, with a loss of eighty passengers, most residents of Pekin who were on a holiday outing. It may have hit a snag or sandbar and tried to back away, which caused it to break in half. This accident essentially killed the excursion business on the Illinois River.


Showboats Go to image of a showboat were popular until the introduction of silent movies in the 1920s. Musicians and actors performed for passengers and townspeople. There were vaudeville acts and melodramas as well as musical acts. It was the only live entertainment of its kind in many of the small river towns.


the Mary Ellen
The Mary Ellen
Havana Public Library District, Havana, Illinois.
R. B. Hillyer Collection
Boat Photo Museum, Marysville, Illinois.
Zoom in on the Mary Ellen
Stern wheelers were also used as towboats for barges loaded with coal, grain, and other products that moved up and down the river. The Logston family of Beardstown owned a fleet of such boats. Eventually diesel engines replaced the old steam engines. Some of the first diesel-powered stern wheel towboats were the Willie Mayo and the Mary Ellen out of Joliet. By the late 1930s, the stern wheel was being replaced by the screw wheel. Go to image of a small tow boat

Images Videos Audio clips

      Steam Boats
      Small Boats
      Duck Boat
      Kidney Boats
      House Boats
   Plank Roads
      Northern Cross
      Illinois River
   The River

State of Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources Illinois State MuseumSearch