Steamboat Travel Was Dirty And Dangerous, Especially On The Missouri River

Jul 14, 2015

The Ben Campbell was a typical steamboat for the 1850s.
Credit CC Library of Congress

Imagine the United States' expansion westward.

Most people picture wagons traversing the trails and railroads chugging towards the coasts.

But before trails were blazed and tracks were laid, mighty steamboats bore hundreds of tons of cargo and passengers through the nation's arteries – its rivers and waterways.

Before the Civil War, St. Louis was the last stop west on the railroad, so anything, or anyone, needing to go to Kansas City went by steamboat. 

The closest place to get a taste of what it was like to travel by steamboat is in Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain's hometown. It's also now the hometown of the Mark Twain riverboat. 

The Mark Twain was built in the 1960s, and comes with a diesel engine instead of steam and doesn’t have a large paddlewheel in the back, unfortunately. But otherwise, it’s a good replica of 19th century steamboats, with its wide decks stacked onto each other, each becoming narrower, like a tiered cake.

Passengers board the boat on the lower deck. It’s enclosed, air conditioned, decorated in deep red and smells like popcorn. Capt. Steve Terry co-owns the boat with his wife. He says that riverboats today are mainly for tourism, but back in the 19th century, they had a very different role.

"This would have been pretty much open because this is where they would have stored the cotton bales, the barrels, the livestock and what not, would have all been on this deck," Terry said. "Back in those days, freight was the number one thing, that’s what paid the bills."

That’s why, according to historian Patrick Dobson at Johnson County Community College, freight took priority over lower-level passengers, the people who only paid $3 or $4 for a ticket west.

"Most steamboat captains loaded cargo and animals first and then passengers took up whatever place they could on the deck," Dobson said. "The deck passengers were just regular people who had to bring their own food, they took their chances with the elements; they basically lived outside."

Historian Paula Rose, who works in education and preservation at the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, describes the journey of deck passengers this way:

"You were riding right alongside the hot boilers, you were riding alongside livestock and other passengers, it was very crowded, sweaty, dirty, smelly – it was not a fun way to travel, but it did get you out west," Rose said. "And you might be able to start a new life."

Meanwhile on the upper decks, the cabin passengers paid double what the deck passengers did, but had their own private room and a very different experience. They ate in stately dining rooms, were served cuisine on par with the finest hotels. They drank in bars with gambling tables, or lounged on the deck and watched the river.

"There were two absolutely different experiences on a steamboat and that also reflected the class structure of the United States at large at that time," Rose said.

But regardless of whether you were rich or poor, the river was dangerous. Carol Lewis grew up in Hannibal, and was raised to respect and fear the river.  

"It's dangerous. My parents ingrained in me, you don't go on the river," Lewis said. "The current is strong and look at all the debris. But I love the river. It's pretty, it's big, it's mighty."

In the early 19th century, this would have been a hazardous trip, particularly when traveling on the Missouri.

"The Missouri River was notorious for eating boats," Capt. Terry said. "The average lifespan of a newly built steamboat back in Sam Clemens’ [Mark Twain's] era was two years. On the Mississippi river, it was four to five years."  

"There were about 289 steamboats that sank or possibly more on the Missouri River in the mid-19th century," Rose said. "The Arabia sank by hitting a tree snag, which was very common, but also boiler explosions were common and people would die in those situations."

Dobson said that if the river and the boat didn’t get you, the other passengers might.

"Most people had to worry about getting their stuff stolen or taken from them," Dobson said.

With gambling and booze on board, riverboats developed a reputation. Even the captains weren’t necessarily trustworthy. Some captains hired professional gamblers to take money from their passengers. Or worse.

"There were instances of captains getting people off of the boat so they could get over a certain kind of impediment, like a sandbar or gravel bar, and then just leaving the passengers and not coming back," Dobson said.

Drifting downstream on the Mississippi River, it's easy to see the river hasn't been completely tamed. There’s life under the surface and in the brush along the bank. Unlike trains or planes, on a riverboat the world slowly passes by, time slows and you can take in the splash of fish, the chirps of birds, the smooth glide of a hawk or eagle. 

As the boat pulls back into the dock, a train whistles — which is apt.

After the Civil War, trains quickly overtook steamboats. Even though steamboats could carry more load in a smaller space, train travel was not confined to waterways and they could head directly west. But Dobson says steamboats and the river still have a place in our collective imagination.

"It was the idea of west and the idea of a new start and the idea of a manifest destiny of the nation to move from one coast to the other," Dobson says. "And steamboat captains became heroes themselves — leaders who could put a crew of people together, and move upstream on a very complex piece of machinery, [and] forwarding the American experiment into places that it hadn't been tried before."

Even with awareness of the steamboat's dangerous and dirty past, there's a natural nostalgia for that slower, wilder time.