The steamboat still evokes fascination, nostalgia


Canoes, keelboats and canoes were first used to sail up the Missouri River. The first steamboat to navigate the dangerous waters of the Missouri River was The Independence. Departing from Saint-Louis in May 1819, it took 13 days to reach Franklin.

Steamboats were designed for different purposes. Some were specially designed to carry cargo with a minimum of passengers while others were used primarily to transport travelers or provide a pleasure boat ride for families.

Travelers heading to the western territories took the steamboats until Independence. There they joined the long train cars following the tracks of Santa Fe and Oregon. It was a main route for western expansion.

The local waters of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers were the main transportation artery for the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804. In his book “The Heritage of Missouri”, Duane Meyer reported that Independence came within sight of the Marion’s colony in County Moniteau and arrived in Franklin on May 28, 1819, with a shipment of whiskey, sugar, iron, and many other commodities in demand.

In addition to being an important mode of transportation for travelers to the west, boating became an important industry in 1838, as supplies were delivered to the trading posts stationed along the way.

Although the steamboat is a profitable business, it is also very dangerous. With the turbulent undercurrents of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, seasoned pilots familiar with the rivers were in great demand.

To maneuver a voyage through the raging waters, it took skill. Some boats sank, while others scratched large snags hidden in the muddy river beds, causing damage to the hulls of the boats.

Sometimes it was necessary to find and cut firewood along the way so that the boilers could be safely maintained. Riverboat historians report that 250-290 boats sank between 1819 and 1860. The average lifespan of a newly christened boat was only two years.

But while many boats have been lost, fortunes have also been made. Freight rates from St. Louis to Independence cost about a cent a pound. The cost of transporting a bag of flour from St. Louis to Fort Benton was approximately $ 10.

It was not unusual for a boat to fetch around $ 10,000 on an interstate round trip, which took about a week to 10 days. But their expenses were high. A round trip to the far west, which typically took 60 to 90 days, cost around $ 50,000 to $ 60,000. And we think the prices are high today.

When river transport for passengers was at its best, the cabin floors were covered with the softest Brussels carpet and the state rooms were furnished with every comfort.

The ladies’ cabin often contained a grand piano. The tables were furnished with the finest silver and porcelain with a menu equal to that of a first class hotel.

After dinner time, the women retired to their dormitories to rest, read or take care of the children. Some husbands joined with other passengers to enjoy a possible after-dinner smoke in the Captain’s Quarters, discussing the day’s events or for a quiet game of cards or dice.

Most passenger ships carried an orchestra and dances were held at night or some sort of entertainment for all. Operating expenses were about $ 300 per day or more for the nicer pleasure craft.

It was reported that when the last steamboat sailed up the Missouri River to Jefferson City before winter suspended river traffic for the season, much of the cargo was barrels of fresh oysters in the shell.

Half a bushel of oysters grilled over hot coals, a few dozen glasses of brandy, a few boxes of pure Havana cigars, a few songs and a fiddle got many citizens to explain to the wife or friend who worked in the office until a very late hour.

Long after the heyday of riverboats, there remained a fascination and nostalgia associated with them. From there arose an interest in riverboat game for Missouri, which was finally approved in the 1990s after much discussion of the pros and cons of the sport.

Not so long ago, a disused riverboat stopped in Jefferson City as it sailed down the river to St. Louis to be sold or salvaged. Such a boat could have been an additional museum attraction for visitors to Jefferson City by providing entertainment and a ride downstream to the mouth of the Osage for a quiet evening at sunset.

It could have felt like traveling down the river like it used to be and enjoying a few hours of Missouri sunshine and hospitality, as depicted in Duane Meyer’s 1963 story classic.

Anna Knaebel is from Jefferson City and a freelance writer. She co-wrote Military Memories with Cindy Joannes.

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