In Louisiana in the early 1800s, travel on the Mississippi River wasn’t easy.
The river’s strong currents could carry simple wooden vessels, called flatboats, downriver with travelers and trade goods, but made the return trip so arduous that many were sold for scrap lumber upon arrival in New Orleans or other points south. Slightly more sophisticated boats, called keelboats, could be poled upriver with constant manual effort, but often traveled at speeds as slow as one mile per hour.
All that began to change rapidly when steamboat pioneer Robert Fulton and financial backer Robert Livingston, who had successfully used steam-powered vessels to traverse New York’s Hudson River, turned their attention to the Mississippi. In late 1811, their steamboat dubbed the New Orleans set sail from Pittsburgh, down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to its namesake city, where it would arrive in early 1812.
Steamboats burn fuel like wood or coal in order to boil water and generate steam that’s forced into a chamber that drives a piston. The piston, in turn, powers a paddlewheel immersed in the water, driving the boat forward. The wheels on the New Orleans, as well as on later, more powerful models, turned with enough force to drive the boats down or up the river at a reasonable clip.
The New Orleans would soon be making regular journeys back and forth from the Crescent City to Natchez, Mississippi, until sinking in 1814.
Within a couple of decades of that first boat’s arrival, steamboats were regularly carrying passengers and trade goods up and down the Mississippi. The boats helped speed settlement along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, which were the Western outskirts of the United States at the time, though not without conflict with Native Americans. Tow boats pulled barges laden with cargo, specialized steamboats delivered additional fuel to other vessels, and boats known as snagboats helped clear debris from the river that could stall or even sink an unsuspecting boat.
Steamboat pilots had to have an acute knowledge of the rivers they traveled in order to steer their boats around potentially deadly obstacles. Probably the most famous steamboat pilot was Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, the pen name he adopted from a nautical term referring to a two-fathom line that indicates the minimum depth safe for navigation.
Twain reminisced about his boyhood longing to set sail and his time on the river in his 1883 classic Life on the Mississippi, though he lost his brother Henry to an explosion onboard the steamboat Pennsylvania in 1858, as it sailed from New Orleans to Memphis. Boiler explosions and fires were commonplace aboard the steamboats of that era, claiming thousands of lives. In 1859, as the Princess carried hundreds of passengers on a route from Vicksburg, Mississippi, to New Orleans, with many on their way to celebrate Mardi Gras, a boiler explosion set the boat on fire just past Baton Rouge, ultimately killing dozens. And in 1865, the steamboat Sultana exploded and sank near Memphis, killing more than 1,000 passengers, many of them Union soldiers returning north.
But despite such tragedies, steamboats were high technology for the era and continued to be vital for transportation and to capture the interest of Americans. An 1870 race between boats called the Natchez (the sixth boat by that name) and the Robert E. Lee drew crowds to the docks to see the vessels depart from New Orleans. While many thought the Natchez was the technically superior boat, the Lee’s captain carried little cargo, made few stops, and pushed on through fog to arrive more than six hours before his rival. The race was captured in a famous print by 19th-century lithographers Currier & Ives and even became the subject of multiple songs.
With the growth of the railroad industry, steamboats gradually became less significant for cargo transportation, but still presented a luxurious way to travel from New Orleans up the Mississippi River. Extravagant food, drink, and entertainment awaited passengers, and gambling was far from unheard of. So-called showboats brought music and theater to cities and towns along the river. They were memorialized by the 1927 musical Show Boat, often said to be the first modern musical. The calliope, a kind of steam-powered organ, was audible for miles around. (The instrument featured heavily in MacArthur “genius grant”-winning artist Kara Walker’s piece The Katastwof Karavan, which was exhibited this winter in Algiers Point as part of the Prospect.4 art festival.)
Steamboats, in general, would ultimately be mostly replaced by diesel-powered barges along the river, railroads and trucking for land-based cargo and cars, and planes and trains for passenger travel. While riverboat casinos still exist along the Mississippi and other rivers as a kind of nostalgic exemption to gambling restrictions, many remain docked and seldom, if ever, actually set sail.
But in New Orleans, the ninth Natchez has, since 1975, taken passengers on cruises along the Mississippi, entertaining locals and visitors with onboard jazz, food, and drink while delighting and sometimes confusing those on land with its own calliope. Upriver in Kentucky, the century-old steamship Belle of Louisville sets sail on its own, similar excursions. The local steamboat the Creole Queen offers daily trips to the Chalmette battlefield as well as dinner cruises. And there are also a few riverboat-cruise lines that offer week-long cruises up and down the Mississippi River aboard steamboats such as the American Queen. Modern boilers, navigation technology, and fire safety, as well as the skill of the boats’ crew members, make their trips a far cry from the sometimes-perilous journeys of the 19th century.