Steamer Biographies


Str Queen City (Anna L and John F Nash Collection)

Str Queen City (Anna L and John F Nash Collection)


The American inland river steamboat, gleaming with romance, is one of our most valuable heritages.   The light draft vessel was the technological wonder of its day providing access to the western territories decades before the arrival of the railroads.   That many Americans continue to be fascinated by the historical exploits and romantic spirit of steamboats is completely understandable.

The thought of a sternwheel packet churning through the water with its tall stacks spewing local thunderclouds and raining sparks while its whistle warning of its approach puts us on the beam.  By definition, a packet was a vessel that transported both freight and passengers.  Some packets were faster but not so reliable; some were larger but also slower; some were more luxurious, but carried less freight.  They had the grace of swans on a highway which cost nothing to build.


Buckeye State Postcard (F Nash Collection)

Buckeye State Postcard (F Nash Collection)

In the golden age of steamboats, fast boats attracted more passengers and better rates for cargo.  Americans of the time were obsessed with speed, as they are today.  The boat that held the honor of fastest time on a trade route was awarded a mount of gilded antlers which was proudly strung between the tall stacks of the boat or mounted in the pilot house.  In May 1850, the Buckeye State made its fast run on the Cincinnati to Pittsburgh trade route – 468 miles in 43 hours – a record unmatched by any steamboat.


Contrary to popular belief, steamboats carried more troops and freight during the Civil War than their latecomer competitor – railroads.  Railroads were unreliable much of the time near the war fronts.  Rivers could not be blown up.  The demand for steamboats was so great that all available vessels included aged boats were pressed into service.  After the war, the riverboat trade never recovered.  Their glory had passed to the land – steam railroads.



The Management of a Steamboat.


The crew.  Steamboat crews on an average size sternwheeler numbered about 50 persons.  The officers were: one captain, two clerks, two pilots, two engineers, two mates (boatswains), and one steward.  The crew numbered one head cook and two assistants, one hostellier (barkeep), seven cabin boys or 6 chambermaids and one laundress, one porter, one barber, four firemen and 20-30 deckhands.[1] 



Duties of the officers.  The captain often came through the ranks with a record as a mate, clerk, and pilot.  Although the captain was first in command, under some conditions, he was subordinate to the pilot by law.  His attention was directed to the overall management of the boat as a business enterprise.  As an officer, the tasks requiring the greatest skill and knowledge were divided between the pilot and engineer.  The pilot had navigational command while at the wheel and absolute authority.  The engineer was responsible for the operation and safety of the steam engines.  The chief clerk was a human calculator.  The mate directed the deck hands often by dominating the men with curses and brute intimidation. 



Steamboat Design.

The Virginia Postcard (F Nash Collection).

The Virginia Postcard (F Nash Collection).

For the inland rivers, steamboats were designed with extreme length and shallow draft.  When the boilers were installed in the front and the engines in the rear, the boat tended to droop in the bow and stern and rise in the center.  This effect was called “hogging”.  To rectify this condition, the hog chain system was developed.  The system was a series of long iron rods held up by wooden braces attached to the bottom of the hull.  Tension was applied to the chains to straighten the hull with turnbuckles.  Adjustments were made when needed.  The science of packet building had made great progress.


Missouri River Steamboats.


The Missouri River steamers were a breed to themselves.  These vessels were not the nodding slower than an island deep water boats of the lower Mississippi River.  The average Missouri River packet was a sternwheeler 165 feet long not including the wheel.  It was 30 feet wide and its draft was about 4 feet when loaded and 20 inches empty. The weight of the boat was close to 300 tons and its capacity was between 200-300 tons.  Most “mountain boats” had two decks with the pilot house on top although some had a Texas deck with luxurious cabin space. [2]  


One of the finest mountain boats, the Nick Wall, built in 1869, was 180x33x5 and rated at 338 tons. [3]   The Nick Wall also had a Texas deck to accommodate cabin passengers in the style expected of a luxurious packet.



Steamboat Machinery.


Engines.  All steamboats had two engines.  Sidewheelers had one engine to drive each wheel independently.  Sternwheelers had two engines installed on each side of the boat working together to drive the rear wheel.  The single piston engines were rated by the inside diameter of the piston and the length of the stroke.  For example, 18’s by 6 translated to an 18 inch diameter of the piston and a 6 foot length of movement of the piston in the cylinder.  The engines were connected to the crank pin on the wheel by a long arm called a pitman.


Boilers.  The boilers were long, cylindrical, and small in diameter.  Installed in batteries of two, some large boats had up to eight.  The size of a boat was described by the number of boilers installed.  Without reference to the length of breadth of beam, a riverman would described a vessel as “a two boiler boat” or “a four boiler boat”.  Overhead the boilers were connected by a steam drum and underneath by a mud drum.  The fire circulated over the firebox and up the tall stacks.  The engines required high pressure.  If sediment in the water became encrusted in the boiler or if the boilers were pushed to their limit for racing, they could easily blow.  The most frightful danger of a deck passenger was an exploding boiler that would scald or kill everyone nearby. 

Steamboats burned 20 to 25 cords of wood per day.  That equates to 40 trees per day.  Crews often had to cut their own wood — a dangerous endeavor on the Missouri where Indians took great delight in ambushing wooding parties.  


Tonnage Measurement.  In 1789 Congress passed an act requiring import duties based on vessel tonnage.  The formula developed was:


[(L x 3/5B) x (B ½ D)] / 95


L= length of beam

B= beam on main deck

D= depth of hold


 Cost of operation. 


Expenses.  The cost of operation exclusive of wood was approximately $150 per day.  Burned at a rate of one cord per mile on the Missouri, the average expense for wood was $100 per day.  The total operational cost per day was $250.  To cover the expenses and realize a profit, the freight charges were about ten cents per pound.  The initial construction cost of an average sized steamer was $10,000 to $12,000. [4]


Profits.  A trip from St Louis to Ft Benton was approximately 60 days up river and 15 days on the return.  The total cost of operation at $250 per day was $18,750.  Assuming 200 tons of freight at ten cents per pound, the gross receipts for freight would be $40,000.  The difference was profit.  In 2007 dollars the profits would be between $300,000 and $540,000 depending upon the inflation calculator used. 



Str Big Foot cabin (Photo courtesy of Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin - la Crosse)

Str Big Foot cabin (Photo courtesy of Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin – la Crosse)

In addition to freight, packets carried two classes of passengers.  The most luxurious class was a cabin rate; the other mode of travel was a deck passenger.  The cabin rate between St Louis and Ft Benton in 1869 was $150 and included a berth and meals served in the main hall of the cabin area.  The deck rate of $35 included no food and no berth.  A deck passenger slept on deck with the crew and provided his own nourishment and generally helped when the boat was wooding up, sparring, and doing other manual work.


Str Golden Gate Llicense dated 1854 (Frances and John Finley Collection)

Str Golden Gate Llicense dated 1854 (Frances and John Finley Collection)

License Certification.  The issuance and revocation of steamboat  licenses was controlled by the Steamboat-Inspection Service whichwas established by the Steamboat Act of Aug 30, 1852.  On Aug 30 1852, licenses were required for all steam vessels.  Every vessel was required to post a certificate of inspection valid for 12 months.  The 1871 Act added masters and chief mates to the list of steam vessel officer’s licenses.  After an amendment in 1891, the licenses were issued for five years and renewal was at any time before expiration.








Georgetown Steamer List.


The steamers listed in the table that follows were owned and operated by to Georgetown  rivermen from 1837-1906.   Due to a few inconsistencies, the packets have two build dates from two different sources:  Captain Frederick Ways Jr’s “Packet Directory 1848-1994” and a centennial history of Allegheny County – “Allegheny County’s Hundred Years” by George H Thurston.   I have also identified the majority owner of the boat where possible.  The ownership of most to Georgetown  packets were shared between several parties.  For example the original ownership of the steamer Clara Poe, was divided as follows:


Str Clara Poe – Initial Cert of Enrollment from the Port of Pittsburgh

Owners and Partners Share Vol: 6642
Jacob Poe 1/4 Enroll No : 182
Thomas Poe 1/8 Cert Date: 26 Nov 1859
Martin L Poe 1/8 Cert Type:: Admeasurement  11
George Poe 1/8 Build Locn: California, PA
Build Date: 1859
Jonathan Kinsey 1/8 Master Thomas Poe
George W Ebbert 1/8  


In the steamer table I have declared Thomas W Poe the prime owner of the Clara Poe because he did own a share iequal to his brother  Jacob Poe in later enrollment entries.   But Thomas had more at risk because he was the master of the packet named in honor of his daughter Clarissa.  The initial entry was short 1/8 share.  In the second entry and later entries brother Andrew Poe is listed as a partner with 1/8 ownership.

Most Poe family boats were not large for their day.  The Poe brothers believed that moderately sized boats yielded a better return on their investment.  Costing less and shallow enough in draft because of their size, Poe boats could run, especially on the upper Ohio and Missouri Rivers, when the river level was too low for larger craft to operate.  They could make more paying trips per season than owners of larger boats.    The Poe brothers also favored the sternwheel design for their packets.  In theory, the sternwheel design had much to recommend it notwithstanding their light draft.  Designed for the Missouri River, the Poe light draft “mountain boats”  found abundant opportunities on the Mississippi River when cold weather put an end to navigation on other northern rivers.  When regular packets were out of commision due to the low stage of the Mississippi, freight rates would rise for transporting flour and other merchandise to New Orleans and other southern ports.   This business model made sense and proved its worth by returning good profits over the years.

The str Horizon was another Georgetown “family boat”.  Her owners were John N Mc Curdy (1/3), Thomas S Calhoon (1/3), Richard Calhoon (1/4), and William White (1/12).   The Horizon officers were Richard Calhoon (master), Thomas Calhoon (clerk), Joseph Calhoon (steward), William H Briggs who had married JT Stockdale’s sister (engineer), and James Mackall (mate).

The ownership of other Poe boats and Stockdale and Calhoon partnerships was equally complex.  In the table blow the “Initial Owner” column, the named riverman, controlled a major share of the packet and/or was the driver of the boat.



Georgetown Steamer Table

Date:  31 Mar 2012


Packet Name Build Date Way’s Directory Original Primary Owner
Admiral 1853 Jackman T Stockdale
Aleonia 1851 Jackman T Stockdale
Ambassador 1851
Amelia Poe 1865 Thomas W Poe
American 1845
America 1846
Annie Robert
Argyle 1853 Adam Poe
Australia 1869 Jackman T Stockdale
Barranquilla 1869 Jackman T Stockdale
Beacon No 2 1842
Belfast 1843  George W Ebert
Belfast No 2 1857
Belmont 1842  Jacob Poe
Belmont 1856 George W Ebert
Big Foot 1875 Adam Poe
Bridgewater 1843 George W Eber
Buckeye State 1850  Standish Peppard, clerk
Caledonia 1848  Richard Calhoon
Caledonia 1853 Richard Calhoon
Caroline 1853  James H Clarke
Carrie Brooks 1866
Cinderella 1847  Andrew Poe
Citizen 1860 Richard Calhoon
City of Chartiers 1886 Jackman T Stockdale
Clara Poe 1859 Thomas W Poe
Clifton 1855
Coquette 1864
CW Batchelor 1879
Delaware 1852
Ella 1854 Adam Poe
Emma Graham 1861 Jackman T Stockdale
Euphrates 1844  Joseph MC Calhoon
Fallston 1843  Jacob Poe
Federal Arch  1850  GW Bowman
Financier 1845 Adam Poe
Financier* 1850 Adam Poe
GenChasHTompkins 1878 Jacob Poe
Georgetown 1852 Thomas W Poe
Glaucus 1849  George W Ebert
Glaucus 1870 Thomas S Calhoon
Golden State 1852 Joseph MC Calhoon
Hibernia 1844
Hibernia* 1847
Horizon 1854 Thomas S Calhoon
Hudson 1846 George W Ebert
Iron Queen 1892 Thomas S Calhoon
Ida Stockdale 1867 Jackman T Stockdale
JT Stockdale 1863 Jackman T Stockdale
Jacob Poe 1855 Jacob Poe
John B Gordon 1848  Adam Jacobs
John B Gordon #2 1849  Adam Jacobs
JohnCFrmnt/Horizon 1854 Jackman T Stockdale
John S McCombs Thomas S Calhoon
Katie Stockdale 1878 Jackman T Stockdale
Kenton 1860 George W Ebert
Keystone State 1890
Leonora 1848 Thomas S Calhoon
Lizzie Martin 1857 Thomas S Calhoon
Mary E Poe 1871 Thomas W Poe
Melnotte 1856 George W Ebert
Metroplolis 1855
Mollie Ebert 1869 George W Ebert
Neptune 1857 Adam Poe
New Castle 1837
Nick Wall 1869 Jackman T Stockdale
Parthenia 1854 Richard Calhoon
Queen City 1894 Thomas S Calhoon
Rhode Island 1844 Amos Dawson
Rob Roy Thomas S Calhoon
Robert Burns 1864
Royal Arch 1852 Adam Poe
SC Bricker
Sallie 1868 Thomas S Calhoon
Tuscarora 1849 Jacob Poe
Virginia 1895 Thomas S Calhoon
Washington City 1852 George W Ebert
Yorktown 1853 George W Ebert
Yorktown  * 1864 Jacob Poe



Steamboats were admired for their luxury, their comfort, their ornamentation – in a word – their style. 



[1] John G Lepley, Packets to Paradise Steamboating to Fort Benton, (River & Plains Society, 2001), p 80.

[2]  John G Lepley, Packets to Paradise Steamboating to Fort Benton, (River & Plains Society, 2001), p 81.

[3]  Frederick Way, Jr.,Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1994, (Ohio University Press, Athens 1994), p. 347-348.

[4]  [4]  John G Lepley, Packets to Paradise Steamboating to Fort Benton, (River & Plains Society, 2001), p 80.







Copyright © 2011 Francis W Nash
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