The age of the steamboat introduced an era of unprecedented speed into the American consciousness. Suddenly, travel time was not dependant on river current or straining horses; instead, all rested on the power of the boiling steam engine, and the bravado of those who would stoke it higher and higher and then close the safety valves to ensure the fastest travel time. Not surprisingly, steamboat captains became known as terrible daredevils and raced each other for titles--who would own the route from New Orleans to St. Louis, from Natchez to Louisville. In a time before government inspections and regulations, the public excitement at steamboat races was fraught with danger for the captains, the crews and the passangers of such journeys. Still, that danger did not keep people from laying bets on the winner, nor from turning out in droves to watch races begin and end, nor even from sailing aboard a racing vessel.

A passenger aboard the racing steamboats the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez described a treacherous passage in the race:

"Finally the channel apparently narrowed, and the interval was closed rapidly up, until, with a bump, the two boats collided heavily, almost throwing me from my feet. The guards seemed to groan and tremble, but neither boat gave, and so the two rushed along with rubbing sides. I suddenly found myself standing face to face with a passenger on the other boat, and somewhat apparently to his surprise, extended my hand, and wished him a good morning.

"He shook my hand, remarking that he proposed to leave us; and so on the boats went."

"I think we must have rushed along in this way for several minutes; but, finally, they shouldered us out of the channel, and, giving a triumphant whistle, shot ahead and down the river, leaving us to follow."

It was not until 1852 that government regulations began to be imposed on steamboat boilers, cutting down on the dangers of racing. However, it was not only on racing ventures that steamboat travelers were in peril. Steamboats, mostly constructed of wood, were veritable firetraps; an exploding boiler could quickly lead to a spreading conflagration. Steamboats infrequently collided with each other or smaller boats. An easily torn hull would sink a ship. Hulls were also battered by snags underwater; Henry Miller Shreve's attempts to clear the rivers with his 'snag boats' in the 20's and 30's ameliorated much of this danger, but the first two decades of steamboaters had to fear such things.

Most dangerous, though, were ill-maintained boilers. Rushing captains and inattentive crews that did not release steam from the boilers caused numerous violent explosions. After an explosion on the steamboat Moselle in 1838, a committee of inquiry blamed the haste of the captain in leaving the dock and commented bitterly on the American mindset that had developed:

"Such disasters have their foundation in the present mammoth evil of our country, an inordinate love of gain. We are not satisfied with getting rich, but we must get rich in a day. We are not satisfied with traveling at a speed of ten miles an hour, but we must fly. Such is the effect of competition that everything must be done cheap; boiler iron must be cheap, traveling must be done cheap, freight must be cheap, yet everything must be speedy. A steamboat must establish a reputation of a few minutes 'swifter' in a hundred miles than others, before she can make fortunes fast enough to satisfy the owners. Also this seems to be demanded by the blind tyranny of custom, and the common consent of the community."