Steamboating on the Mississippi

St. Louis' Riverboat Heritage

St. Louis as depicted in a 1872 German publication. While New Orleans
was number one in steamboat traffic, St. Louis was second. In one year,
(1841) according to St. Louis historian William B. Faherty, St. Louis was
reported to have had "186 steamboats land 1,928 times and discharge
263,681 tons of goods".

Note: Background tune is for the historic song, "Steamboat Bill".
For more information, please refer to Song lyrics.

"The river navigation of the West is the most wonderful on the globe, and since the application of steam power to the propulsion of vessels, possesses the essential qualities of open navigation. Speed, distance, cheapness, magnitude of cargoes, are all there, and without the perils of the sea from storms and enemies.  The steamboat is the ship of the river, and finds in the Mississippi and its tributaries the simplest theater for the diffusion and display of its power.  Wonderful river ! Connected with seas by the head and mouth, stretching its arms toward the Atlantic and Pacific, lying in a valley which reaches from the Gulf of Mexico to Hudson's Bay."
--Thomas H. Benton of St. Louis

"Every Steamboat that arrives at our wharves is crowded with passengers. Some of the Louisville boats bringing three hundred at a time...many of these remain with us."

--Missouri Republican 1835

Early Steamboat Days in St. Louis


Historical Tidbits:

On August 2, 1817 the first steamboat, the Zebulon M. Pike, arrived at St. Louis. It was smaller than most keelboats and had a small engine supplemented by a crew using poles to push her along. It made its trip from Louisville in 6 weeks (only travelling during daylight)


1819--The steamboat, Independence, became the first to navigate the Missouri river.


1823--The steamboat, Virginia, was first to navigate the Mississippi from St. Louis to Ft. Snelling (Minneapolis).


By the 1830's Steamboats with larger engines took approximately 12-14 days to go from New Orleans to St. Louis. This was a big improvement over keelboats which made the trip in 90-100 days. Of course it was faster going downstream.


1831-- First steamboat to ascend to the Missouri River headwaters.


1849--The steamboat, White Cloud, was the source of the fire that destroyed twenty-three steamboats, and
twenty blocks of St. Louis.


April 1865--The steamboat, Sultana, passed safety inspection in St. Louis. The ship would proceed to New Orleans before taking on more passingers (Union soldiers) at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Loaded with 2,400 passengers, the ship had an intended its destinations to be: Memphis; Cairo; and lastly, Jefferson Barracks (St. Louis, Mo.). Shortly after leaving Memphis, the Sultana exploded, killing more than 1,800 passengers. This exceeds the number of the lives lost on the Titanic and has become "America's worst maritime disaster".

Click on picture for enlargement of Sultana

Picture of the Sultana disaster published in the Harper's Weekly.
Click on picture for enlargement.

Search the Sultana passenger database


Recollections of a Steamboat Captain

 St. Louis The Fourth City 1764-1909 by Walter B. Stevens;

The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1909.

According to St. Louis steamboat Capt. Joseph Brown, "from 1840 to 1850 emigration was flowing West.  Everything was done in a rush, and steamboats multiplied like locusts. They were also greatly improved in the manner of construction, size and speed, so that, in 1837, there were many large boats running...Owing to the rush of emigration at that time, boats could not be built fast enough. It was said of a certain boat-yard at Freedom, Pennsylvania, that they kept a lot of the straight bodies of boats put up.  When a man wanted a boat, they took him down to the yard and asked him how long he wanted her; then just put two ends onto a body and he had a boat. But a really fast and fine boat cost about $100,000 to $150,000 and took about eight months to build."

"In 1849, when the gold fever was at its height, there were fifty-eight fine steamers plying regularly on the Missouri river; on the Upper Mississippi about seventy-Five; on the Illinois twenty~eight fine steamers;  to New Orleans (lower Mississippi) about one hundred; on the Ohio about one hundred and fifty; on the Tennessee about fifteen."

"About the year 1843 the fastest, J.M. White, was built, and made the time from  New Orleans to St. Louis in three days, twenty-three hours and some minutes.  This was the fastest time, everything considered, ever made, though in the race in 1870, between the Natchez and the Robert F. Lee, it was claimed the latter made it in less time."

 "I could stand on the levee any night and tell almost any boat either by the sound of her escapement (exhaust) or the sound of her bell, long before she reached the landing. Indeed, owing to the peculiar construction of the heaters of the engines, the escapement was such that hardly any two were alike, and many of them could be heard for miles. One in particular, I remember, the Boreas, conld be heard scream for twelve or fifteen miles on a  clear night, while others had a heavy, deep sound or growl.  The Hannibal, a big New Orleans boat, being of the latter kind."

"The average life of a boat was about five years. After that they were either torn up to build a more modern boat, or had sunk or blown up.  Need I tell you that in one bend in the river there lie the wrecks of one hundred and three steamboats between St. Louis and Cairo? "

The Great Riverboat Race

Steamboats Robert E. Lee and Natchez race to St. Louis

On June 30, 1870 in New Orleans a crowd of ten thousand watched the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee set off  on a 1,200 miles race up the Mississippi to St. Louis.  The Natchez was Captained by Thomas Paul Leathers (also known as "Old Push"), and the R. E. Lee by John W. Cannon. On July 4th 1870, the R. E. Lee arrived victoriously in St. Louis while a crowd of thousands cheered wildly. In the book, "Tales of the Mississippi", it is reported that the "ovation which the Lee received at
St. Louis was legendary. At 11:33 on the morning of Independence Day, exactly three days, eighteen hours and thirteen
minutes after leaving St. Mary's market (New Orleans), she crosses the finish line". The event also marked the kickoff of the everpopular St. Louis annual Veiled Prophet parade and festivities. The Natchez due to having to stop for coal and having to slow down in the fog around Cairo did not arrive in St. Louis until six hours and 33 minutes after the Lee.

Previously, the speed record was held by the Natchez which had just earlier in the month (June 1870) surpassed
J. M. White's long standing May 8, 1844 record of three days, twenty-three hours, and nine minutes. The Natchez
best record to St. Louis being 3 days, 22 hours and 57 minutes.

St. Louis area artist, Gary R. Lucy, (of Washington, Mo.) has captured the Robert E. Lee in his historically accurate print,
entitled the THE ROBT. E. LEE. Gary's other excellent work can be seen at his main gallery.

Excellent book on the subject:
"Tales of the Mississippi", by Ray Samuel, Leonard V. Huber and Warren C. Ogden;
Pelican Publishing, Gretna, Louisiana; 1992.

Engineering the Mississippi

St. Louis Levee, circa 1850

 St. Louis The Fourth City 1764-1909 by Walter B. Stevens;
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1909.


The Salvation of St. Louis

 St. Louis The Fourth City 1764-1909 by Walter B. Stevens;
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1909.

When John F. Darby was elected mayor in 1835, St. Louis faced the danger of becoming inland.  The channel which Pierre Laclede found had moved.  From a depth of seventy-five feet the water had shoaled.  The bars were showing above the surface. Both were growing and approaching.  Boats could no longer land at the foot of Olive Street.  On the Illinois side, above Bloody Island, the current was cutting eastward into the soft alluvial of the American bottom so rapidly that any flood season might open a channel down the east side of the island. Then the main river would be a mile or more to the eastward of St. Louis. The situation was so serious that real estate values in St. Louis were affected.  Every week seemed to make the conditions worse. The prediction was common, that the river would cut through what is now almost the heart of East St. Louis, and leave St. Louis without any channel.

When the city took up the consideration of this problem through the new municpal administration in the spring of 1835, every alderman had his remedy. General William H. Ashley was the member of Congress from the St. Louis district. He had gone to Washington with the reputation of great achievements as an explorer and fur trader in the Rocky Mountains; he had accumulated what was much wealth for that period.  He gave entertainments which were the talk of Washington.  Although he was no orator he obtained great influence in the House, though which he was enabled to obtain an appropriation for the improvement of the harbor of St. Louis, the first of its kind. At that time Thomas H. Benton was in the senate but belonged to the democratic party which denounced internal improvements by the Federal government. To be consistent Mr. Benton could not exert himself in behalf of the St. Louis appropriation.  Two sessions of earnest work by General Ashley and his friends secured $15,000. There was no telegraphing in those days. When a letter brought the news to Mayor Darby, there was general rejoicing in St. Louis.

General Charles Gratiot was chief of the engineer corps. As a boy born in St. Louis, he witnessed the transfer to the United States (Lousiana Purchase). He was one of the four yound men of the Louisiana Territory honored by President Jefferson with appointments as cadets to West Point.  He served with honor in the war of 1812, received the vote of thanks of Congress, and rose to the highest position in the engineer corps. As soon as the appropriation for the harbor was made, General Gratiot came to St. Louis to see what must be done to save his native city.  He was a straightforward, unpretending man, although he had reached the head of the corps. The engineering profession considered him one of its most accomplished members.  Coming to St. Louis, General Gratiot spent weeks making a careful examination of conditions.  When he went back to Washington he promised to send a competent member of the corps to take charge of the work. Very soon the officer arrived with a letter commending him to Mayor Darby. He was Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, afterwards the Confederate General. From the theories of Gratiot and the practical experiments of Lee came the scientific knowledge upon the improvement of the Mississippi from that time to this has been based.  It is impossible to divide the honor. Gratiot and Lee together mastered the Mississippi.  They evolved the plan of dyke and revetment control. They sent the current  back to scour the St. Louis front. They made the river itself dig out the bars it had formed and restore the old channel.

The method is old now. It looks simple and easy. Seventy years ago it was a great discovery. The civilian associate with Lieutenant Lee was Henry Kayser, then just of age. The Kaysers, Henry and Alexander, had come up the river on a chlorea-stricken boat a few years before. They were German youth, well educated, seeking homes in a new world. Both were to take high rank in widely different professions. Alexander Kayser became a leading lawyer of St. Louis. Henry Kayser was the foremost civil engineer in St. Louis before the Civil War.

The study which the army Lieutenant and his young assistant gave to the problem was exhaustive.  Far into the nights the twon worked over the plans.  Lieutenant Lee went daily with Mr. Kayser to the Illinois shore, where the work was being done. He was often there at sunrise. He ate the rations. He slepton the boat when the construction was at critical stages. Every survey Lietenant Lee supervised. He watched the driving of piles and laying of stone and brush.  Two years the young Virginian applied himself with a devotion which caused those who saw it to marvel. The river was saved to St. Louis. The government appropriation was expended.  But before he went back, Lieutenant Lee prepared the plans to complete the improvement of the harbor of St. Louis. Further appeals to Congress for some years went unheeded. At the expense of the city and under efficient direction of Henry Kayser, St. Louis maintained the control of the Channel.


Additional Information:

As would be expected the State of Illinois was not very pleased to see this engineering project that kept the river from moving to their advantage, especially since so much of the work was conducted on the Illinois side of the river. Apparently the State of Illinois sent an officer to arrest some of those involved, as the following entry was discovered in the Illinois Executive Record, 1837-1843, p. 233:

Gov Carlin this day made demand on the State of Missouri for the apprehension and delivery of Edward W. Thomas, John Lowery, Robert E. Lee, Elliott Lee, Edward Gay, William C. Lane, Isaac A. Letcher, and ARCHIBALD CARR, charged with "obstructing a navigable river"; "resisting an officer in the discharge of his duty" and of "an unlawful assembly" to be delivered to Andrew Miller Sheriff of Madison Co.

The Clearing of Snags from the River

 Snags were a major hazard on the river, causing the sinking of many ships. Capt. Henry Miller Shreve, Superintendent of Western River Improvements invented a boat to pull large snags from the river. With his invention, the Heliopolis, a "double hulled snagboat" he not only cleared the Mississippi but also the Ohio and Red Rivers. The Red River had been completely shut down to steamboat traffic, due to a 150 mile  log jam. In appreciation of Capt. Shreve's accomplishments St. Louis has a street named, Shreve Avenue. Henry Miller Shreve spent his last days in St. Louis, dying at the home of his son-in-law, Walker Randolph Carter (his daughter being Rebecca). Shreve's grandson, Maj. Frank Carter, served in Confederate Army and later worked as a steamboat agent in St. Louis. The Shreve family is buried at Bellefontaine cemetery of St. Louis. [Note: Shreveport, Louisiana is named in honor of Capt. Shreve.] View image of a snagboat of  Shreve's design.

The Re-Opening of the Mississippi

In order for ships to enter the Mississippi river from the Gulf of Mexico, they must travel through a narrow channel known as the South Pass. It is here that the currents would deposit sediments that would form sand bars, which eventually blocked the channel completely to river traffic.  Capt. James B. Eads of St. Louis offered a solution to the problem. He could open the river  by constructing a series of parallel jetties. (to be continued)

See also: "St. Louis Ships of Iron" (Eads' Ironclad ships made in St. Louis)


St. Louis Steamboat Pictures

The City of St. Louis (built 1883) She was in operation between St. Louis and New Orleans until 1898.
In 1903 she served as an excusion boat from Carondelet, Mo. Image Source: St. Louis The Fourth City 1764-1909 by Walter B. Stevens; The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1909.
The St. Louis Levee from the Eads Bridge Image Source: St. Louis The Fourth City 1764-1909
by Walter B. Stevens; The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1909.


"Steamboat Bill"

[Note: If the music has stopped playing, Refresh or Reload Page to replay the music]

(Nov. 17, 1910)

Words by Ren. Shields, 1868-1913. Music by Leighton Bros.
[Bert Leighton, 1877-1964; other brother's info unknown]
Midi File courtesy of Benjamin Tubb
Down the Missippi steamed the Whipperwill,
commanded by that pilot, Mister Steamboat Bill.
The owners gave him orders on the strick Q. T.,
to try and beat the record of the "Robert E. Lee."
Just feed up you fires, let the old smoke roll,
Burn up all your cargo if you run out of coal.
If we don't beat that record, Billy told the mate,
"send mail in care of Peter to the Golden gate."

Steamboat Bill, steaming down the Mississippi,
Steamboat Bill, a mighty man was he.
Steamboat Bill, steaming down the Mississippi,
going to beat the record of the "Robert E. Lee."

Up then stepped a gambling man from Louisville,
who tried to get a bet against the Whipperwill.
Billy flashed a roll that surely was a bear,
the boiler, it exploded, blew them up in the air.
The gambler said to Billy as they left the wreck,
"I don't know where we're going, but we're neck in neck."
Says Bill to the gambler, "I'll tell you what I'll do,
I will bet another thousand I'll go higher than you."

Steamboat Bill, he tore up the Mississippi,
Steamboat Bill, the tide it made him swear.
Steamboat Bill, he tore up the Mississippi,
the explosion of the boiler got him up in the air.

River's all in mourning now for Steamboat Bill,
no more you'll hear the puffing of the Whipperwill,
There's crape on ev'ry steamboat that plows those streams,
from Memphis right to Natchez down to New Orleans.
The wife of Mister William was at home in bed,
When she got the telegram that Steamboat's dead.
Says she to the children, "Bless each honey lamb,
the next papa that you will have will be a railroad man."

Steamboat Bill, missing on the Mississippi,
Steamboat Bill, is with an angel band,
Steamboat Bill, missing on the Mississippi,
he's a pilot on the ferry in that Promised Land.

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