Golden Age of Steamboats

The Golden Age of River Steamboats is roughly the period from 1850 – 1870.  Specifically the ten years before the Civil War and the few years afterward were the best commercially for packets on the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers.

Str Virginia 1896 (Courtesy of the Murphy Library at the U of WI La Crosse)

In those days cabin passage on a packet was luxurious.  Cut glass chandeliers in the parlor, oil paintings in every stateroom, gilded mirrors and marble tables, thick carpets, and steaming foods piled high.  Life on the rivers was at its best.  Neither homes nor hotels of the 1850’s could provide such comfort.  Everyone whose life centered on the river was prosperous.  Even the crew walked with a swagger jingling their plentiful silver.


The Civil War changed every aspect of the western rivers.  The Missouri and lower Mississippi Rivers were virtually blockaded by the secessionists.  Boats that had carried passengers in luxury were packed with Union troops and supplies.  These civilian wooden hull warcraft had no protection other than a few iron plates shielding the pilot house.  Often fired upon from the banks of the western rivers, many vessels were captured, looted, and burned.  More fortunate steamers were simply riddled with holes.  Their work was dangerous while their salaries and profits, if any, were reduced to well below the commercial rates before the war.  As civilians, the crew were not entitled to pensions, yet they were subject to the same harsh treatment as prisoners of war if captured.  Many of the independent owner/operators never recovered from the financial hardships caused by the war.  These hardy steamboat men took the hard knocks but without the glory.


The Civil War was the first of two disasters that brought an end to the steamboat days.  The second came creeping from the east on steel rails after the war.  Steamboats fell to progress – victims of the technological advances from which they at one time benefited.  They had done their job of taming a continent, and had done it well with style.  Quite frankly, few people had expected that railroads would make the proud packets a thing of the past.  Their passing left people with a sense of loss.   As railroad locomotives grew more powerful and numerous, steamboats became fewer and disheveled.  First the pineapple tops of the lofty stacks disappeared followed by the stained glass windows and cut glass chandeliers.  Gradually even fresh paint was seen less frequently – irritating the retina and spirit.  The steamboat became the ghost of an era when men believed that anything could be accomplished.

And so the golden days of the packet were over, replaced by railroads on one hand and by the tug boat and barges on the other.


Str Bigfoot (Courtesy of U of W LaCrosse)

Str Bigfoot (Courtesy of U of W LaCrosse)


The threads of the past are woven into the fabric of today.  That is what is meant when we talk about inland river steamboats as a legacy.  The lives of the steamboat captains and their crew and the values that drove them continue to be important today.  Their legacy is a gift, and a responsiblilty.  It is up to us to preserve it and pass it along to future generations.   




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