Unlike canals and roads, steamboats were entirely a private business at the outset. British and American inventors had been laboring from the 1780's to attach steam power to boats, allowing them to move against a river current. It was obvious that in the American west, along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, such a boat would revolutionize the way of life. A means of transportation that could move people and goods upstream would create a new economy and new towns, and would bring unimagined luxuries to the settlers. Before the steamboat, settlers on the other side of the Appalachian mountains slowly floated their products on flatboats and keelboats down the Mississippi River, and only at great expense poled them up. Thus, the spread of goods and information was almost completely a one-way route, governed by the currents of the great river.

First Voyage of the Clermont

The first attempts at steamboat building were by Americans John Fitch and James Rumsey in the 1790's. Fitch's numerous designs did not catch hold. In 1805, Oliver Evans attached a steam engine to a boat, mounted it on wheels, and drove it through the streets of Philadelphia to the Schuylkill River, proving publically that steam could be used to propel even large objects. Robert Fulton's North River (also known as the Clermont) took another two years-- until 1807-- to make its famous trial on the Hudson, steaming from New York to Albany and back in an unheard of five days as it moved against the current at five miles an hour. In 1811, the first steamboat in the west sailed down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.

Steamboats were employed along the east coast by the time of the War of 1812, and Fulton held a legal monopoly on design. After three years, the legal battles died down and steamboats, designed primarily by Henry Miller Shreve, began appearing up and down the western rivers. It was in 1815 that Shreve's Enterprise made the first upriver voyage on the Mississippi from New Orleans to Pittsburgh. From then on, steamboats came to dominate the rivers. Builders and boatmen vied for shorter and shorter running times; while in 1817, a twenty-five day trip from New Orleans to Louisville amazed the nation, ten years later, the same trip was made in eight days. The Niles Weekly Register mused after another record was set, "what a progress is this against the currents of the rivers of the west--what a field does it present to the speculative mind, disposed to anticipate the future condition of things."

The "future condition of things" was bright, and at times, terrible. Steamboat disasters from explosions to torn hulls were not uncommon. Nevertheless, profit was a given. As Herbert Quick wrote in Mississippi Steamboatin', "The owners in their counting houses nodded satisfactorily at the large profits and knew that though their craft might snag, blow up, collide with another or catch fire, there was more than enough money to buy new boats, which the shipyards along the Ohio were busily making day and night."

The palatial setting of later steamboats attracted pleasure-seekers and wealthy travelers: "To midwesterners in those days cabin passage on a packet was a luxurious orgy. More comfortable than their 'settin' rooms,' more ornate than their prim and uncomfortable parlors-- which they entered only on ceremonial occasions--they saw the steamboat's cabin as a bewilderingly beautiful palace. The wooden filigrees that stretched down the long aisle in a tapering vista illuminated by the glistening cut-glass chandeliers; the soft oil paintings on every stateroom door; the thick carpets that transformed walking into a royal march; the steaming foods piled high on the long linen cloth in the dining room, with attentive waiters standing at the traveler's elbow, waiting with more food, and gaily colored desserts in the offing--neither homes nor hotels of the fifties were ever like this."

The steamboat activated trade along the Mississippi; it brought new towns, new industry, new jobs. As Americans continued on their heady plunge in to the western territories, the steamboat proved invaluable.