Society: 1820-1870The Riverboat Life

By the late nineteenth century steamboats had been traveling the Mississippi for more than sixty years.  They were as common to people then as jets are to us today.  Rivers like the Mississippi had long been important means of transporting goods and people, but with the establishment of steam power, they became the central way around America.  Operating a steamboat was a competitive business.  During the height of steamboat use, there were more than a thousand plying the waters of the Mississippi.  Early on, living conditions on board most boats was spartan for crew and passengers alike.  Ports often had a bustling, rough and tumble environment.  Along the Mississippi places like East St. Louis became crowded with travelers and during the nineteenth century, many of the people who worked and traveled on steamboats were slaves.  The presence of slaves in such an unregulated, busy and open environment often resulted in conflicts.  Stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, the Mississippi was a popular route for fugitive slaves.

Branching Out... 

Harry Dyer

Follow this link for a unique perspective into life on board a steam boat in the later part of the nineteenth century -- Harry Dyer recorded his experience as a crew member and also wrote about the technical operations of a steamboat: 
- Harry Dyer's diary 
- Bell and Whistle Signals of Mississippi River Rafting Steamboats

Over time engineers and riverboat captains improved steamboats.  Engines became much more powerful than that of the New Orleans, the first steamboat to travel the length of the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers.  Boats grew in size and luxury.  Steam power continued to be used into the twentieth century.  Oil and coal replaced wood for fuel and later diesel engines would replace steam.  Before diesel engines however, steam boat life changed very little even as steam boat technology improved.

The Steamboat Life

More than simple transportation, pleasure steamboats offered a traveler every accommodation.  A trip on a fancy steamer was an adventure in itself.  Passengers in First Class enjoyed luxurious rooms and fine dining.  A few boats offered entertainment in their grand ballrooms and a very few offered gambling - a feature that contributed to the popular image of steamboats as fancy and daring places to be.  Travelers not in first class fared much worse, with cramped quarters and few amenities.  Along with luxurious accouterments, steamboats acquired powerful engines and with them competition developed among various crews to see which boats were the fastest.
Beadle's Half Dime Library Cover from July 24, 1879.

A Steamboat Race

The most famous race began on June 30, 1870 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Two of the most famous and fancy steam boats, the Rob't E. Lee and the Natchez prepared to race from New Orleans to St. Louis, Missouri.  Thousands of people gathered to watch the race.  It was a tremendous event. People throughout the United States and Europe anticipated the outcome.  Thousands of dollars changed hands on various bets ranging from guessing arrival times to which boat would win.

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