Steamboats allowed large numbers of people and large quantities of goods to be transported by water regardless of wind conditions. Using paddles driven by an engine, steamboats were quicker than sailing ships and more comfortable for passengers than canal boats or early railroads. Steamboats operated chiefly on rivers and in the Great Lakes in the nineteenth century United States.

Inventors had begun to attempt to use steam as a means of propulsion in ancient times, but it was not until the industrial age that steam power became practical. Scottish inventor James Watt in 1769 developed a steam condenser and a system of wheels that converted up-and-down movement into rotary movement. John Fitch, JohnFitch became the first American to apply the power of steam to water transportation in 1787, when he launched a twelve-paddle steamboat that operated like a mechanized canoe but with many more paddles. Fitch had trouble attracting financial backing, though, and he abandoned his project.Steamboats

Early Steamboats

RobertFulton, RobertFulton, with better financial support than Fitch could muster, created the first successful steamboat in the United States. Fulton built the Clermont, a boat that measured 150 feet long and 13 feet wide, with straight sides and a flat bottom that drew only 18 inches of water. It had two masts fore and aft for carrying square sails. However, it was also equipped with a low-pressure engine based on Watt’s innovations. The engine sat below the deck and attached through a diamond-shaped crank to 15-foot paddle wheels on each side of the boat at the middle. In August of 1807, Fulton sailed the Clermont 150 miles up the Hudson River, from New York City to Albany, New York, in just thirty-two hours of travel time, plus a twenty-hour stop. Observers, frightened by “Fulton’s folly,” fled ashore or dropped to their knees to pray as the boat passed, emitting black smoke, showers of sparks from the pine-wood fuel, and steam from the boiler, as well as thuds from the motion of its crankshaft and piston.

The Clermont’s regular service took twenty-four hours to reach its destination at a speed of four to six knots, which qualified Fulton for a monopoly on steamboat operations on the Hudson River. He had passed sailing ships on the journey as if they had been anchored, underscoring the value of steam-powered boats, especially when moving upstream. Fulton extended his business to the Mississippi River in 1811, when he pioneered steamboat service on that waterway with the New Orleans. Fulton also designed the steamship that made the first steam-powered open-sea voyage, from New York City to Newport, Rhode Island, in 1817. However, American shipbuilders focused on the development of river and lake steamers rather than ocean liners.

Early steamboats traveled an average of fifty miles per day, while keelboats and other hand-poled and pulled vessels could do no better than twenty miles per day–less while proceeding under adverse conditions. Typically, farmers had floated their produce down to New Orleans, sold their flatboats for lumber, and then walked home along the Natchez Trace. Such a trip could take four months. In 1815, a similar trip by steamboat took about a month. Steamboats could ship freight more quickly and cheaply than the competition, while traveling easily in both directions and in all weather conditions. Equipped with more powerful engines and improved hulls, steamboats were capable of averaging one hundred miles per day by the mid-1820’s.

The Peak and Fall

By the 1810’s, western river steamboats had developed a characteristic design: Fitted with compact high-pressure steam engines, they were built with flatter bottoms that enabled them to navigate in as little as three feet of water. By the 1820’s, steamboats had become familiar sights along the rivers of the Northeast, on the Great Lakes, and on the Mississippi River. Ships, such as the 450-ton Vesuvius, were common. This ship could carry 280 tons of merchandise, 700 bales of cotton, and 100 passengers. Most of the Great Lakes ships carried iron ore from the upper end of Lakes Erie and Huron and returned laden with coal. At the end of the summer, much of the cargo consisted of grain. Other ships carried mail and passengers.

By 1830, there were 187 steamboats operating on the Mississippi River, the Ohio River, and their tributaries. By 1850, the number of steamboats reached 536. The rivers became the capillaries of a vast system of water-based transportation. Many steamboats had all the comforts of a hotel yet traveled at a speedy twenty miles per hour. Passenger steamboats had a characteristic, wide overhang of the main deck, which covered the paddle boxes and tapered toward the bow and stern. Rising from this broad, oval platform were the double, triple, or quadruple tiers of enclosed passenger accommodations, as well as a saloon and a promenade area.

Steamboats could be dangerous. On the Mississippi River and its tributaries, large, shallow-draught steamers with immense side or stern paddle wheels were operating by the 1830’s. Rival steamers would race, beam to beam, down narrow channels. Their captains could ignore safety measures and occasionally rammed their competitors to gain an advantage. Boilers, pushed beyond their limits, occasionally blew up and killed passengers.

By the 1850’s, competition from railroads was beginning to eat away at the steamboat business. By this time, steamboats had made an enormous impact. They brought such vast numbers of settlers into the Indian Territory that contemporary observers attributed the colonization of the West to steamboats. Owing mostly to the construction of steamboats, the manufacture of steam engines became one of the earliest and most important industries of Pittsburgh; Wheeling, West Virginia; Cincinnati; and Louisville, Kentucky. As centers of skilled machinists, ironworkers, and carpenters, these river cities became antebellum centers of transportation and industry.

Further Reading

  • Gandy, Joan W., and Thomas H. Gandy. The Mississippi Steamboat Era in Historic Photographs, 1870-1920. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1987. Attractively illustrated history of the last years of steamboating on the Mississippi River.
  • Hunter, Louis C. Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1994. Interesting exploration steamboats designed to meet the challenges of navigating western rivers and their impact on western commerce and development.
  • Kane, Adam I. The Western River Steamboat. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2004. Written by a nautical archaeologist, this volume examines how steamboats were built and how they evolved. Of special interest is Kane’s discussion of modern archaeological work on steamboat remains. Richly illustrated with photographs and charts.
  • Ross, David. The Willing Servant: A History of the Steam Engine. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Tempus, 2004. History of the steam engine and its impact on both British and American society. Ross begins his chronicle with the invention of the first steam engine during the early nineteenth century.
  • Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream. New York: Free Press, 2001. Well-written and balanced biography that describes how Fulton’s steamboat transformed nineteenth century America.
  • Shagena, Jack L. Who Really Invented the Steamboat? Fulton’s Clermont Coup: A History of the Steamboat Contributions of William Henry, James Rumsey, John Fitch, Oliver Evans, Nathan Read, Samuel Morey, Robert Fulton, John Stevens, and Others. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 2004. Shagena, a retired aerospace engineer, traces the technological contributions of the many inventors, including Fulton, who helped create the steamboat.
  • Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. 1883. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Facsimile reprint of the first edition of Mark Twain’s classic account of steamboating. Twain himself was a pilot on the Lower Mississippi during the late 1850’s. His book includes a poignant memoir of his training during the golden age of steamboats and an account of his return to the river in 1882, by which time competition from railroads had changed steamboating almost beyond recognition.


Erie Canal

American Industrial Revolution

Mississippi and Missouri Rivers

U.S. Postal Service


Shipping industry

Transatlantic steamer service

Woodworking industry