Stormy times in the early days of steamboats

The Examiner

The first steamboat on the Western rivers – the rivers that comprised the Central Basin of the United States – was designed and built in Pittsburg in 1810. 

Steamboats didn't come to Missouri until shortly before statehood.

Descriptions of the boat vary somewhat, but it was most likely 148 feet long by 32 feet wide. She was a schooner-rigged with two masts and a bowsprit plus the steam engine. Apparently, her designer, Robert Fulton, thought it prudent to include sails in case the steam apparatus failed. A helmsman steered the vessel by means of a tiller at the stern; the pilot positioned himself at the bow and directed the helmsman with hand signals.

Ted Stillwell

Although constructed in Pittsburg, where the only inland facilities for boat and engine building were located, Fulton and his financial backer, Robert Livingston, never intended for that first steamboat to operate on the Ohio River. They had in mind the much deeper waters of the Mississippi between New Orleans and Natchez. To make that point clear, she was Christened “The New Orleans.” Only 1,500 miles of river stood in their way. They sent their junior partner down the Ohio and the Mississippi in a flatboat to survey the possible difficulties for the first steamboat trip from Pittsburg down to New Orleans. His name was Nicholas Roosevelt, and he would be the captain of the first steamboat.

After the New Orleans was completed, the first voyage began on Oct. 20, 1811 at Pittsburg, with 15 people on board, including Roosevelt’s pregnant wife. Along the way they endured low water, a fire, an Indian attack and the New Madrid earthquakes. To top that off, they witnessed the birth of the Roosevelt’s baby boy and the wedding of the boat’s engineer and the chambermaid. All in all, it was a rather eventful 10-week voyage and a fitting introduction to the robust days of river steam boating. A transportation revolution that began with that first trip and lasted into the better part of the 19th century.

Although that new revolution may have brought about a change, the change itself was neither immediate nor perfect. One legal battle after another dragged on for six years. The legal drama and intrigue served only to delay the expansion and development of steamboat navigation. A mere 18 steamboats had been built by 1817 – the year that the first steamboat reached St. Louis. These early boats were dangerous, unreliable and inefficient. The same statement would hold true for the entire steam boating era.

That first steamboat to reach St. Louis was named the Zebulon Pike, a rickety affair, but nevertheless considered an unqualified success. Her captain, Jacob Reed, was not about to embarrass himself by offering excursion rides to spectators along the riverfront, because he was afraid she might break down, so he just offered tours of his boat while she stood at the wharf. Admission was a whooping one dollar, and there were plenty of takers. The following year, another boat, the St. Louis, arrived at the wharf and did indeed offer excursion rides up to the mouth of the Missouri River, just to look at it.

The first steamboat to chance a trip up the Big Muddy was named the Independence and entered the river in May 1819, going as far as Franklin in the future Howard County. The second steamer on the river was the Western Engineer and was headed for Yellowstone. The Western Engineer reached Fort Osage on Aug. 1 and passed the future site of Fort Leavenworth on August 18. After a week’s layover in the vicinity, she went on up to Fort Lisa, five miles below Council Bluffs on Sept. 17 to camp until spring.

Reference: “Wild River, Wooden Boats,” by Michael Gillespie.

To reach Ted W. Stillwell send an e-mail to or call him at 816-896-3592.