Historically speaking, rivers are crucial to most civilizations. From the Tigris and Euphrates to the Nile to the Ganges, people tend to build their inland cities on rivers. Immediately available is a means of transportation, fresh water, irrigation possibilities and a hundred other conveniences that would have to be created without free-flowing water. As in many other countries, the great rivers of America have inspired legend that has shaped the national consciousness; Huck and Jim's float down the Mississippi, Lewis and Clark first sighting of the Great Falls of the Missouri, the rough keelboating days of Mike Fink and company are all stories recognizable in one form or another. Perhaps the grandest stories of river lore in America are those of the steamboating days, when the "floating palaces" cruised the Mississippi and Ohio rivers offering an almost unheard of taste of luxury to the interior of the United States.

As the new country expanded west, the rivers were of course crucial connections between settlements and towns. Along these watery pathways, people, goods and information were carried more easily than by overland routes. However, until the widespread use of the steamboat, the journeys were slow downstream and excruciating--or non-existent--upstream. Until steamboats became more common, the rivers were ruled by canoes, makeshift rafts, flatboats and keelboats. Flatboats were useful for carrying larger amounts of goods than canoes or rafts; flat, as the name suggests, they were built more solidly than rafts with a short raised side. The problem with flatboats in terms of river trade was that they only went downstream. When they reached their point of destination, they were usually broken up and sold for lumber. The crew would have walked or ridden back home.

Flatboat on the Mississippi

The next step, the keelboat, seems a bare improvement. Keelboats were larger than flatboats, usually about seventy feet long and built with a pointed nose and stern. The deck was roofed over, and sported a mast for a sail. What set them apart was that keelboats could go upstream--but only by human muscle power. Hence the legends of the keelboating men, heavy drinking, heavy fighting, and "half-alligator, half-horse." Two methods were employed to move the boats upstream: bushwhacking, also known as poling, and walking along the shore, pulling the keelboat by a rope. The boats moved upstream at about a mile an hour; in decent weather, a fifteen hour day was expected.

Floating a keelboat downstream

Needless to say, anyone involved in river trade or travel were very excited at the thought of harnessing steam power, attaching it to a boat, and moving against the current at five to ten miles an hour. The steamboats ushered in a great boost to interior commerce as well as a new era of travel, introducing Americans to the possibilities of combined speed and comfort.