The Development of Western Rivers Watercraft

National Historic Landmark Study

by Kevin Foster, 1989

This article borrowed from this Historic Landmark Study



The Western Rivers system, composed of the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri and other tributary rivers, carried most of the immigrants and freight that settled the Midwest. Starting in the late 1700s, most settlers travelled from the East Coast overland to Pittsburgh, Wheeling or Redstone and then down the Ohio River to points west.[2] Only a small number traveled north from New Orleans and southern regions using the Mississippi and other rivers running from the North.

To reach the new lands of the West, Europeans adapted boat types already in use by Native Americans and on the East Coast. Explorers used birch bark canoes and settlers used larger dugouts to open the west to settlement. As more people moved west, boats with greater capacity were needed, which called for new boat types. A form of enlarged dugout, called a pirogue, was developed first. Pirogues were more capacious than dugouts and were themselves adapted into more useful forms. The first adaptation changed the method of construction, by taking the well-formed hull shape of the pirogue and replacing the hewn multiple-log construction of pirogues with European plank-on-frame construction.[3]

Plank-on-frame construction was also used for another boat type called a bateau. Bateaus had been adapted for frontier use on the eastern seaboard in the early 1700s and were built for use on the Western Rivers later. When more traditional European construction practice was followed with these vessels, they resembled ship's boats but with more substantial timbers. When the best features of pirogues and bateaus were combined, they were given a hull shape that provided little resistance to the water, an external keel to help in steering, and sufficient cargo capacity to pay their way. This new type was called a keelboat.[4]

Keelboats were the most developed form of watercraft on the river and were used for rapid transportation of passengers and high value freight. Keelboats were usually 40-80 feet long and 7-10 feet broad. They possessed a well-modelled form, and could be propelled about 15 miles a day, by either oars at the bow or by poles pushed by the crew walking along a footway at each side. A single steersman stood atop a block at the stern to guide the keelboat using a long steering oar. Some keelboats which sailed an advertised route on a regular schedule came to be known as packets, the deep water term for vessels in such service.[5]

Cheaper transportation was afforded by the use of barges and flatboats. Flatboats were box-shaped variants of the scow hull form used for ferries on shallow Eastern rivers. Flatboats were the cheapest form of transportation on the rivers. Intended to travel only one way and then be broken up for lumber, flatboats could be built, loaded with household goods, and sailed by the settlers themselves.[6]

Barges occupied the middle range of watercraft between keelboats and flatboats. Though similar in construction to keelboats, barges were built wider, more robust, and drew more water. Barges transported heavy freight on the deeper rivers.[7]

Statement of Significance

The sternwheel river steamboat Belle of Louisville, an operating vessel on the Ohio River is one of only two sternwheel river passenger boats operating under steam and is the sole remaining Western Rivers day packet boat.[1] Such boats performed a variety of different tasks to earn a livelihood. When she was built in 1914 as the Idlewild, the boat served primarily as a ferry. In later years she served as a day packet carrying freight and passengers, an excursion boat carrying tourists, a towboat during the Second World War and went tramping on nearly the entire Western Rivers system for excursion business. Today Belle of Louisville works as a goodwill ambassador of the City of Louisville, carrying excursion charters, educational tours, and promotional tour groups on the Ohio River.

The preceding statement of significance is based on the more detailed statements that follow.

Development of the Western Rivers Steamboat

Robert Fulton built the steamboat New Orleans at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1811, and started a revolution which changed the pattern of commerce on the rivers. She proceeded down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to her namesake city attracting publicity and attention along the way. The advent of steam propulsion on the Western Rivers revolutionized river transportation. Steamboats would provide convenient, inexpensive transportation and greatly facilitate the opening of the continent to settlement. New Orleans, and the boats which were built on her pattern, were powered versions of canal boats. Their long, narrow, deep hulls were better suited to deep eastern rivers than the shallow Mississippi, but were needed to support heavy steam machinery. Another sort of boat was required, but several design problems had to be overcome before steamboats could be a success on the Western Rivers.[7]

To navigate on the shallow rivers of the West, steamboat hulls and machinery had to be made as light as possible. Machinery weight problems were solved first. A light weight, high-pressure engine was employed to propel a small boat, called Comet, in 1813. The powerplant was further refined in 1816 by Henry Shreve, who put the boilers on deck and designed a new type of engine to distribute machinery weights out over a large area of hull. Shreve's new engine design used a direct-acting, horizontal, high-pressure engine to drive the paddlewheel propeller. The second design problem was overcome over time. Lightweight hull construction gradually replaced earlier robust "canal boat" construction and a broad, shallow-draft, hull form, using a truss rod system rather than heavy wooden beams, was developed over time.

To succeed in business, these lightly built boats had to carry a large amount of freight and many passengers. In answer to this requirement, sponsons were built over each side of the hull to extend the deck area and the superstructure was extended several decks above the boiler deck to support passenger cabins.

All of the essential elements of the Western Rivers steamboat were present by 1825. Broad, shallow-draft, vessels with boilers and engines on deck, side or sternwheels for propulsion, and cabins built on lightweight decks above the freight and machinery-laden maindeck, soon appeared on every tributary of the Mississippi. The ease and economy of this service caused the value of goods reaching New Orleans to double every ten years from 1820 to 1860.[8]

One feature of cardinal concern in the development of Western Rivers steamboats was safety. Early boats were particularly susceptible to boiler explosions, fires, and sinkings caused by hitting snags. Extraordinary dangers included being damaged in floods, tornadoes, and ice gorges. The lifetime of a steamboat in the 1840s and 1850s was estimated to be below five years. This situation changed very slowly.

Safety eventually won out over speed and economy in vessel design when progress was forced by government intervention rather than by economic considerations. In 1838, Congress responded to the need for increased safety aboard steamboats when they passed an act requiring the inspection of steamboats. In 1851, six steamboat disasters took over 700 lives and caused Congress to tighten these safety regulations. This act, the Steamboat Inspection Act of 1852, set standards for both boats and operators, and created a system of Federal inspection to oversee them.[9]

Hazards to navigation did not deter business and new boats were built to replace those lost to various causes. A substantial salvage business grew up in consequence, and parts produced for one steamboat might be reused on a succession of later boats.

As time progressed, steamboat designs began to diversified to meet the needs of various trades and routes. Various features of advantage to a particular trade or route were accentuated in vessels built for them. Passenger vessels required high speed and high-class accommodations. Ferries called for wide stable hulls. Package freighters required dependable engines and robust construction as they carried heavy cargo on deck or in barges alongside. In some services speed came to be of paramount importance even surpassing safety concerns. Faster vessels required fine lines, powerful engines, and multiple boilers to supply plenty of steam.[10]

Shallow tributary rivers such as the Missouri and the upper regions of other rivers required boats with exceptionally shoal draft. Bertrand, sunk in 1865 on the Missouri River, drew only 18 inches when light. To operate in such shallow water steamboats had to sacrifice all unnecessary weight and be satisfied with minimal superstructures.[11]

By 1880, though a depression in river trade had hurt steamboat companies, there continued to be advances in riverboat technology. Several distinct types of steamboats had been developed for work on the Western Rivers. Passengers were carried on riverboats of any kind from time to time but several types were particularly adapted for passenger service. The most elaborate of these were saloon or palace steamers providing luxury passenger transportation in elegant cabins. Such boats usually ran on schedule, and often carried mail to designated ports. These services duplicated those of ocean-going packet companies and these boats were aptly termed packets.[12]

Other passenger vessels were adapted for short day excursions carrying groups and charters to nearby scenic areas and for cruises to nowhere. These excursion boats were usually large sidewheelers operating from large port towns, but smaller boats also made occasional trips on the rivers "tramping" for charters.

More mundane sisters to the packets operated carrying passengers and cargo, wherever it could be found. Such non-scheduled steamboats often pushed one or more barges to increase cargo capacity. These barges were of two general types. The more common type was a long narrow scow hull built of planks and used on one- way trips down river carrying coal. This type was generally developed from the flatboat. When they were unloaded they were broken up and sold as lumber. The other type of barge was used for voyages both up and down stream. These were usually greatly enlarged versions of the barges of the 1820s called "model" barges, for their finely modeled ends. Over time a separate type developed that was adapted just to tow barges.[13]

Towboats were designed to act as floating engines to propel barges. Only the barge was detained while loading or unloading cargo, and not the expensive towboat. Towboats have straight sides and ends to ease tying off to a string of barges. Strings of up to 60 barges were pushed on occasion but 15 barges has been the more usual number because of the limited size of river locks.[14]

Some passenger boats were adapted to carry vehicles and livestock across the river or for short distances up or downstream. These boats were of two general types; ferries and day packets. Ferries were more heavily built than day packets. Western Rivers ferries were unlike ferries in most other regions of the country. Vehicles entered the main deck from the sides rather than the ends of the boat because swift currents forced the ferry to always land with the bow upstream.[15]

Day packets were faster and designed to provide better accommodations than ferries so that they could be used for occasional excursion trips. This adaptability allowed day packets to survive when bridge construction put ordinary ferries out of business.


1. Alan L. Bates, The Western Rivers Steamboat Cyclopoedium (Leonia, New Jersey: Hustle Press, 1968) passim.

2. Frederick Way, Jr., Way's Packet Directory; 1848-1983 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University, 1983) p. 222.

3. Alan L. Bates, "Idlewild - Avalon - Belle Of Louisville" (Blueprint plans, Louisville, Kentucky: Alan L. Bates. N.D.) p.8.

4. Bates, Steamboat Cyclopoedium, pp.22-30.

5. For details of construction when built and appearance of bull rails see Photo No. 1.

6. David Tschiggare, "Belle of Louisville Steams On" Steamboat Bill (No. 102, Summer, 1967) pp. 67-69, and Bates, Steamboat Cyclopoedium, pp.41-44, and United States Coast Guard, Certificate of Inspection (Washington, D.C.: issued April 1, 1987) p. 2.

7. Reports and Documents upon the subject of The Explosions of Steamboat Boilers (Washington, D.C.: Duff Green, 1833) passim.

8. James H. Rees, James Rees & Sons Company, Illustrated Catalog Pittsburgh: N.P., 1913) pp.30-31.

9. Bates, Steamboat Cyclopoedium, pp.92-97.

10. United States Coast Guard, op. cit., p.1.

11. Bates, Steamboat Cyclopoedium, pp.36-39.

12. Bates, "Idlewild - Avalon - Belle Of Louisville".

13. Bates, Steamboat Cyclopoedium, pp. 80-84.

14. For details of rig and ornament see photos and Tschiggfre, op.cit. pp. 67-69.

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