Steam Power comes to Illinoistown
For years before the 1820s farmers and merchants used the Mississippi to
send material down river on flatboats and rafts. Raft pilots built
their vessels from northern lumber. Upon reaching their southern
destination they often dismantled the rafts and sold the lumber, leaving
nothing to waste before returning north by land. This system of shipping
was a fairly reliable and cost effective means of moving goods from the
north to the south. The journey was not without risks as the Mississippi
River could be dangerous. Debris, mostly trees and branches could
snag or sink a flatboat. The river was filled with detritus from
the shore. After heavy thunderstorms and other bad weather portions
of the river could become impassable. It was not until after steamboats
became a reliable means of transportation that the federal government made
a standing effort to keep major rivers navigable. Storms and heavy
rain posed a threat to flatboatmen too. Rising flood waters meant
unpredictable, fast currents could run a boat into rocks, the riverbank,
or unseen snags. Usually equipped with only two oars for propulsion,
flatboats could do little against strong currents.
The Advent of the Steam era...
Flatboats, pirogues, and other human powered vessels did not disappear
with the arrival of steamboats. Many farmers, lumberjacks, and merchants,
still built rafts and flatboats, allowing the current to move their goods
south. However, steam power had significant advantages. After
their initial development steamboats quickly grew in size and power.
They had shallow drafts that were well suited for the many different conditions
of river sailing. Most importantly for Illinoistown and its ferry
services, steamboats were a new, faster way to carry more people and cargo
across the Mississippi to St. Louis.
The development of steamboats as reliable transportation made inexpensive
travel upstream possible. River workers could ride their rafts to
New Orleans and board a steamboat for the return trip. So rather
than replacing rafts and flatboats, steamboats enhanced the usefulness
and economy of the older technology. However, between 1820 and 1860
the number of steamboats increased a hundredfold and more goods were delivered
via steamboats traveling north and south than were floated downstream on
Steamboats brought Illinoistown and St. Louis a variety of new ventures.
Steamboats needed fueling stations and a means of transporting their goods
once ashore. The local ferry operations were a natural fit, developing
shore facilities for steamboats and already possessing the ability to quickly
move goods across the river at low cost. By 1828 the Wiggins operation
had converted its ferries to steam, taking advantage of its renovated facilities
and the fairly low cost of constructing a steamboat.