The American Riverboat

As early as 1811, steamboats began to navigate the inland rivers of the United States. Most notably, the Mississippi River, which ran from Minnesota to New Orleans, and the Missouri River, which intersected with the Mississippi in St. Louis, but covered the distance from Washington State to Missouri. The Missouri was the more treacherous of the two, with its fast currents and shallow waters, so the bulk of the steamboat traffic was on the mighty Mississippi. The first steamboat to offer passage to guests was the New Orleans riverboat, 116 feet long and weighing 371 tons. It promised to take people and belongings from New Orleans to St. Louis in only eighteen days!fullsteam

Technology improved at a rapid pace over the next several decades, and the paddle-wheel boat with its low draft became a standard on the water to haul freight and passengers. Adding steam to these paddle-wheelers began in the 1850s, and was a real boon to the economy since these boats could travel at the breathtaking speed of five miles per hour. For a brief period of time, steam paddle-wheelers ruled the waterways.

During the heyday of river travel, the Mississippi River quickly became an active trading route, attracting men with money. It also attracted professional gamblers, and the iconic image of men with cards in their hands and cigars dangling from their mouths became part of Americana.wum

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, paddle-wheelers became known as “showboats.” These floating palaces were beautifully decorated, opulent and had theaters, ballrooms, shops, galleries and saloons which attracted the wealthy in addition to the riverboat gamblers. They were often very ornate structures with carved wood trim, velvet, plush chairs, gilt ceilings. Think of the splendor of the Titanic, or today’s modern cruise ships and you’ve got the right vibe for these ships. Vaudeville’s introduction as a form of entertainment happened aboard these type of ships.

Saloon_Steam_Boat_Princess_Persac

Saloon of Mississippi River Steamboat “Princess” in 1861, showing elaborate interior of an antebellum Mississippi steamboat.

In the 1810s there were only twenty such boats on the river. By the 1830s, there were 1200. The average life of these ships was only five years, because they were made of wood and fell victim to the ravages of water, boiler explosions and fire.

The emergence of the railroads from coast to coast soon put an end to water travel as an efficient means of transporting goods and people.oldsternwheel-597x418-856x606

http://westernamericana2.blogspot.com/2010/01/riverboat-travel-on-missouri-and.html

https://www.casinotop10.net/history-of-riverboat-gambling

http://www.sam.usace.army.mil/Portals/46/docs/recreation/OP-CO/montgomery/pdfs/10thand11th/ahistoryofsteamboats.pdf

http://www.captainjohn.org/History1.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steamboats_of_the_Mississippi

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Riverboats play a huge role in my newest story, Gambling On Forever, which releases March 1. My hero and heroine meet while boarding the boat headed from St. Louis to New Orleans. He’s a gambler and she’s chasing a stolen saddlebag. While the boat was lovely, spacious and luxurious, the action in the book doesn’t really begin until I pitch both of them overboard. You can read an excerpt of this story on my blog: http://beckylowerauthor.blogspot.com