Reflecting on Steamboats From a Plane

As we head into the New Year, many of you have perhaps just returned from visiting family and friends across the country for the holidays. Driving across the flat plains or taking wing from one of the coasts to return home provides us with an opportunity to reflect on past travelers. Unlike today’s modern world, the early pioneers could not pass easily from one coast to another or through the interior of the country.

Though we often hear the settlement stories of covered wagons lumbering across the American west, we forget that many early pioneers traveled instead by steamboat. All across America, cities as diverse as Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco and Minneapolis-St Paul are united in a shared natural heritage grounded in the water features around which they were founded. Even though we don’t use water transportation nearly as much these days, the legacy of these “water highways” can still be seen in the landscape all around us.

Waits in airport lounges through weather delays with crowds of Christmas travelers may seem endless, but most of us can expect to reach home within a day. In comparison, settlers struggled for months to reach new lands, carrying many of the items they would need to build a new life with them. Rivers provided an entryway to carry people and goods from the American coasts into the interior.
1936 Image of Lower Landing, Saint Paul



Steamboat traffic on the Mississippi grew exponentially in the years before the Civil War. During the 1800s Lower Landing, located near modern day Jackson Street in Saint Paul, was one of the busiest steamboat landings in the United States and tens of thousands of immigrants arrived in Minnesota through this port. Saint Paul was the northern port for the Mississippi because rocks and boulders in the river impeded navigation above that point.

A ride aboard a steamboat could be a real adventure. First class accommodations offered fine dining and luxurious rooms. Some had ballrooms for dancing and a few turned into river casinos offering all types of gambling. Author George Merrick describes the excitement of a steamboat ride from his youth in his book Old Times on the Upper Mississippi: Recollections of a Steamboat Pilot from 1854 to 1863:

Saloon of Mississippi River Steamboat "Princess", by M Adrien Persac

“That steamboat ride from Rock Island to Prescott [WI] was one long holiday excursion for us two small and lively boys from Michigan. There was so much to see and in so many different directions at once, that it was impossible to grasp it all, although we scampered over the deck to get different viewing points. We met dozens of boats, going back to St. Louis or Galena after further loads of immigrants and freight…There were boys with fish for sale, fish larger than any inhabiting the waters of Michigan streams, sturgeons only excepted, and this promised well for the fun in store when we should reach our journey’s end."


Life aboard steamboats was not all fun. For passengers who could not afford rich accommodations, the trip could be a crowded and unpleasant affair with few to no amenities. The ships carried several hundred passengers at a time and the people aboard faced dangers from cholera and typhoid to fires and explosions. Boiler explosions and fires killed thousands of passengers and many steamboats were destroyed this way. When Mark Twain’s brother Henry Clemens perished in a steamboat boiler explosion, the author wrote a letter to his brother's wife, “For forty-eight hours I labored at the bedside of my poor burned and bruised but uncomplaining brother...and then the star of my hope went out and left me in the gloom of despair.” Steamboat racing also led to explosions in the days before river regulation as steamboat companies made huge profits by pushing the limits of weight and speed. Ships’ boilers would be stoked beyond their capabilities in an attempt to outrace other ships on the river. Scientific American reported one such disaster this way, “There is no mystery as to the cause of this explosion; the boiler was managed as with an intent to commit suicide.” Races on the river also caused collisions.
Explosion of the Steamboat Helen McGregor, by Scattergood


Ships faced other dangers like snags and rocks, which could dump passengers and cargo into the muddy waters of the Mississippi. An early winter freeze was another hazard that could trap an unsuspecting steamboat captain if he was too late to pilot to his winter quarters.

As the number of steamboats and people grew on the Mississippi, the river was altered more and more. Early steamboats required wood fuel, and the banks of the Mississippi were soon stripped of trees. This caused erosion of soils into the river, creating dangerous, muddy conditions and sandbars. To combat low water levels and soil deposits, parts of the river were dredged and wing dams were installed. It was the job of the roustabouts to push the vessels over sandbars, off snags, and through ice. Locks and dams did not come to the river until the early 1900s, well after the heyday of steamboats had passed.

The great steamboat era ended as rail was installed through the Midwest. Rail provided a cheaper, safer option for moving goods and people. That people could decide where to lay the rails was another obvious advantage over river travel that was dictated by the whims of nature. When the Minneapolis milling industry grew from Saint Anthony Falls, it was the expansion of rail that allowed flour to be transported to market, not the river.

We have more options to travel today than ever before, but much of the infrastructure that was built surrounding the Mississippi still endures. That we have two Twin Cities here stems from the fact that the river was not navigable to steamboats north of Saint Paul. Though now the rail era has passed too, it also left its mark on the land.  Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary was built on an old rail yard. Cars dominate today, but new options for biking and walking are becoming more and more popular as the infrastructure to support these types of travel improve.

Flying back from a recent trip to visit family, I viewed the Mississippi from above as it emerged as a mighty feature of the Twin Cities landscape — one that both entwines and divides the sister cities. Ports along the Mississippi that have long been forgotten once strengthened the community and the economy, and the ingenuity of steam powered engines allowed travelers from around the world reach new lands quicker and more economically.

Nice Ride bikes offer new biking infrastructure in
Minneapolis-St. Paul

In the settlement era, colonizing the west was the challenge of the day – reaching new places, and putting down roots. When we look back, that mission was accomplished using the transportation tools available – steamboats, rail, and horseback. Facing the challenges of the future – like climate change, job security, and growing urban populations, we must build our transportation infrastructure in ways that are consistent with the goals of the future. To move goods and people economically and sustainably from one place to another has always been a challenge for mankind. It would amaze an early pioneer that I flew from Boston to Minneapolis in four hours last Tuesday, yet the people of the future will likely be shocked at how much fuel that jet used. If the legacy of steamboats on the Mississippi River tells us anything, it’s that investments in transportation infrastructure shape the landscape for generations.


Which begs the question, what legacy do you think we should be planning today?