The Decline


Pittsburgh Cincinnati Packet Line Advertisement (F Nash Collection)

The opening of the 20th Century pointed to continued prosperity for Ohio River commerce.  The years preceding were record breakers as far as tonnage carried.  Tonnages in bulk traffic: coal, lumber, grain, sand and gravel, and steel, improved while regular passenger packets held their own.  In 1905 two million passengers traveled the Ohio. [1]  

Nonetheless the Ohio River transportation system entered a period of decline.  Evidence is abundant.  In 1908 The Pittsburgh and Cincinnati Packet Line was forced into receivership.  It continued to operate until 1912 when its assets were sold to John W Hubbard of Pittsburgh bringing twenty-two thousand two-hundred dollars ─ one-fifth of their appraised value. [2]  After that, one could travel along the upper Ohio for a full day and never see a steamboat. [3]  The Ohio River was as dead as a church on Monday morning.  Not only were steamboat onwers and their crew financially harmed, the entire steamboat building industry was destroyed along with all the businesses located at or near the wharfs and boatyards.


The causes of this decline were numerous and no one of them was powerful enough to cause destruction so complete and so quickly. In those early years of the twentieth century, the permanent characteristics of the US were being hardened.  Giant corporations were growing in power; benign governement regulation was supported by businessmen and Presidents; the wobblies organized.   The fact that European river traffic was increasing to the benefit of railroads there was ignored by those in favor of the total transition to railroads here. [4]  The blame of the decline has largely been fixed to the railroads who owned the river terminal and facilities and refused to cooperate with river lines on prorating freight arrangements as they had in the 1890’s.  In other words a packet could not discharge its freight and passengers at a port without excessive fees: wharfage and way charges which were so prohibitive that landings became unprofitable.  Packet lines making many intermediate stops were effectively taxed out of existence.  Most prorating arrangements were withdrawn around 1900.

Probably the single most effective blow to The Pittsburgh and Cincinnati Packet Line was the formation of United States Steel Corporation (USS) in 1901.  USS was the former Carnegie Steel Company purchased and renamed by JP Morgan.

Str Queen City at Georgetown, PA (possibly) (F Nash Collection)

USS made a decision to ship their products by rail only regardless of the freight rates.  JP Morgan had control of more than twenty railroads and held significant influence over members of the US Congress.  At that time river rates were turned over to the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).  The ICC’s rulings pertaining to fair rates for  freight transfer at railroad junction points were not appplicable to rail and river junction points.  And “inventive genius and the business talent of the country” were drifting toward the railroads according to one Congressional committee.  [5]   A key assumption in this inversion is that railroads deserved government support while river transportation did not.  The deck was stacked doubly against the packet lines.




The Virginia passing under the Wabash Bridge note the stacks (From the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

And so the days of The Pittsburgh and Cincinnati Packet Line were over.  The packets built expressly for the Pittsburgh and Cincinnati Packet Line had been the best of their day.  Style and luxury were their key features:  Katie Stockdale (1877), Keystone State (1890), Iron Queen (1892), Virginia (1895-6), Queen City (1897).   Surviving packet lines generally curtailed operations.

After boasting their ability to supply all transportation needs of the country, railroads continued to fail the country in times of crisis.  In 1917 their breakdown was admitted.  Old steamboats were remodeled and recommissioned.   Barge building became the order of the day.   The Barge Age of river transportation had finally arrived.  Unlike the “good old days” when bells and whistles announced arrivals and departures of packets, the steamboats of the Barge Age moved quietly, unobserved, and unannounced without so much as a hand salute to the river towns passed.


Strange and impossible as these events may seem  The Pittsburgh and Cincinnati Packet Line  is gone. Its  legacy is a gift, and a responsibility.  It is up to us to preserve it and pass it along to future generations.











[1]  Charles Henry Amble,, A History of Transportation in the Ohio Valley, (The Arthur H Clark Co, 1931), p 347.

[2]  Charles Henry Ambler, A History of Transportation in the Ohio Valley, (The Arthur H Clark Co, 1931), p 355.

[3]  Charles Henry Ambler, A History of Transportation in the Ohio Valley, (The Arthur H Clark Co, 1931), p 355.

[4]  Charles Henry Ambler, A History of Transportation in the Ohio Valley, (The Arthur H Clark Co, 1931), p 357.

[5] Charles Henry Ambler, A History of Transportation in the Ohio Valley, (The Arthur H Clark Co, 1931), p 360.

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