STEAMBOAT ERA

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THE STEAMBOAT ERA

 

By the second decade of the 19th century, the continental expanse of the United States had dictated that the waterways would provide the chief means of transportation of goods from the west to the markets at New Orleans and the Northeast. The bulk of the products were floated downstream on rafts and flatboats. However, because these vessels were too clumsy to navigate upriver, they were usually broken up for lumber at the end of the haul. From New Orleans, these upriver products were sent either to Europe and the West Indies, or they were shipped around the coast to the Atlantic ports, namely New York, Boston and Philadelphia. The final act of this transportation circle was completed by the routes across the Appalachian Mountains from Philadelphia and Boston. By this overland conveyance, the West received the manufactured goods (textiles, hardware, ceramics, books, tea, etc.) that at this time were not being produced locally and could not be economically shipped northward from New Orleans (Taylor 1966:159).

Steam power had already been proven to be a potentially feasible means of water transportation at the end of the 18th century. However, it was not until the technology had sufficiently developed in the first decade of the 19th century that steamboats were commercially viable on the Mississippi River. By 1817, steamboats had demonstrated their feasibility in successful trips from Pittsburgh to New Orleans and by 1820, the number of steamboats in the West had risen to 69. After a slight setback during the overall economic decline in the early 1820s steamboat growth became phenomenal, increasing a hundredfold between 1820 and 1860 (Taylor 1966: 63-64).

The advent of the steamboat meant for St. Louis an expansion of the growing fur and lead industries as well as establishment of an economical means to exploit the timber and grain resources in the Mississippi Valley hinterland (Wade 1959:202). For the Wiggin's Company and Illinoistown, as well as Kerr's territory at Brooklyn, the steamboat meant an enormous increase in the demand for ferry services to transport goods and to fuel and supply steamboats. However, more than anything the steamboats provided an inexpensive means to move goods, thus making possible commercial venture at a lower capital investment (Taylor 1966 :56-63).

The advantages of the steamboat over the traditional flatboat were its speed and upstream navigational ability. Yet, paradoxically, the steamboat served to stimulate operation of the flatboat in the mid-19th century. "Rivermen no longer had to walk back across country or laboriously pole their keelboats upriver ... Farmers on small streams inaccessible to steamboats ... found it advantageous to (flatboat) all the way to New Orleans" (Taylor 1966:64, 65). In this way, the steamboat and the flatboat complimented each other since the bulk of the downriver freight exceeded the finer goods brought upriver for consumption (Taylor 1966:65).

One of the most notable aspects of the steamboat industry was the relatively low capital needed to go into the business. Since the waterways provided free highways and the cost of construction of a medium-size boat was within the reach of groups of people with only moderate wealth, half the steamboats on the Mississippi were owned by from one to four men, and funded with local capital. This meant that steamboat companies were chartered by various parties including mercantile interests, manufacturers, farmers, as well as those corporations engaged in canal and turnpike construction. In addition, steamboat service-oriented business grew up to insure, build, fuel, repair, and supply the steamboat industry all along the major navigation routes and docking points (Taylor 1966:69, 70). The success of the steamboat prompted ferry conversion to steampower by the Wiggin's Ferry Company in 1828 and by the Kerr Ferry Company in Venice somewhat later (East St. Louis Gazette 1903; Brink 1882:521).

 

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