Technology: 1800-1820 Steam Power comes to Illinoistown

Before Steam...

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 rafts.

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.