logo Click BACK to return to basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

Neda Dispatch

Meet Neda

Neda Archive

Cool Links
Teddy Roosevelt's letter to his children about riding on a steamboat:

Photo and a small bit of history on the Mississippi Queen steamboat



Neda and Irene Tour the Mighty Mississippi

McDonald's on the river
Irene and I recently visited St. Louis, Missouri, and were walking along the bank of the Mississippi River when we saw …a floating McDonald's? You have got to be kidding me! I tend to associate the Mississippi with steamboats, Mark Twain and Huck Finn -- but not with floating fast food! Upon closer examination, we noticed it had been built to look like a sidewheel steamboat. I looked across to the other side of the river and saw the Casino Queen, a gambling establishment also built like a boat. Why have steamboats been replaced by replicas that double as restaurants and casinos? Where have all the real steamboats gone?

The Casino Queen
To answer that question, we should start at the beginning, when steamboats first entered the picture. In fact, let's see what the picture looked like even before steamboats.

Before there were steamboats on the rivers, water transportation was still primitive. Using the river to carrying goods was a slow and uncertain process, and was done mostly by loading wheat, flour or salt pork onto flatboats, a type of raft. Even though it might take a while, a farmer from Illinois, for instance, could get to New Orleans fairly easily. The problem was getting back upstream! Flatboats were no good for going against the current, so the only way back would be to walk through the rough country. How would you feel about having such a long walk home? Luckily there was a solution: STEAM!

In 1807, Robert Fulton installed a powerful steam engine in a vessel, named the North River Steamboat that made the 150-mile journey from New York City to Albany up the Hudson River. Although Fulton did not invent the steamboat, he helped bring it from the experimental to the commercial phase. These early steamboats only moved at about 5 miles per hour, yet people were still excited about their potential. The steamboat craze was on!

Since steamboats could travel well against wind, wave and current, it was like turning the rivers from one-way streets into major highways. Steamboats became very important in transporting goods such as sugar and cotton, and in opening up markets in the West and South. They also carried another precious commodity: people! Some larger boats were turned into luxurious floating palaces, decorated with beautiful rugs, oil paintings and chandeliers. Many of them had famous chefs, orchestras and large staffs of butlers and maids to provide cabin passengers with a pleasant trip. But most passenger steamboats could be very crowded, with as many as 300 passengers at a time having to take shifts eating and sometimes even sleeping.

Neda is excited to get on the river
Steamboats were also a bit dangerous and often led to disaster when their boilers exploded. Despite this, steamboat races between captains became a popular pastime. Captains had to become expert at navigating shallow depths of water and potential obstacles along long stretches of river. Author Mark Twain received his steamboat pilot license at the age of 24, and later wrote a book about his experiences called Life on the Mississippi. In it, he writes, "When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman." The pen name "Mark Twain" was actually taken from a steam boating term. It means "mark two fathoms," shortened to "mark twain" by the people whose job it was to monitor the water's depth and report it to the pilot.

The trusty Tom Sawyer
Irene and I took a little ride down the Mississippi on a riverboat called the Tom Sawyer, named after one of Mark Twain's famous characters. Our journey was only an hour (compared to, say, the 32-hour voyage of Fulton's boat in New York), but we sure had a grand old time. We toured the St. Louis banks, including some great views of the 630-foot stainless steel Gateway Arch, built to commemorate the city's role in westward expansion.

That big arch they've got over in St. Louis
But alas, the vessel we were on was not really a steamboat; it was just built to look like one. I think Irene and I were both happy to be on our safe riverboat -- not racing anyone, but just traveling up the river and relaxing as the sun beat down on us.

But, we still haven't answered the question of what happened to all those darned steamboats. Was it just the safety factor and the fact that 4,000 people died in steamboat accidents between 1810 and 1850? Perhaps that was a consideration, but even with the dangers, steamboats were thriving. The answer has more to do with another mode of transportation: the railroads. As rails were built across the country and proved to be a more efficient mode of transport, the boats started losing their steam. By the 1870s, almost all steamboats had been retired from the river.

Now, though, we were back in the days of steamboat glory. As the Tom Sawyer floated down the river, we could still close our eyes and imagine…the sounds of the steamboats churning through the water, the billows of white smoke, the of the crowds as the captains raced each other. Ah, the wonderful days of steamboats on the Mississippi River!


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - A Toyota Tercel named Turkey on the trail of Lewis & Clark
Irene - Pack 'em in and move on out West!
Neda - The Donner Party: How far would you go if you were starving?
Kevin - The battle that begat the anthem heard 'round the world
MAD - We speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues
Irene - Beware of Free Lunches, Especially When It's Offered by the Government
Irene - Extra! Extra! Hunting for Gold Leads to More Misery Than Happiness!