The stage for steam transportation was set in the 1760s by James Watt, a Scottish inventor, who developed a successful steam engine for removing water from mines. This event is regarded by many as the opening of the Industrial Revolution.
Applying steam power to boats was an important idea to many. Flatboats could float down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in about six weeks; the return trip, however, took four to five months of strenuous labor.
American John Fitch adapted steam engines to boats and demonstrated a working model on the Delaware River during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Fitch proved to be a successful boat builder, but never mastered the business side of his endeavor. It would be a later figure, Robert Fulton, who became known as the “father of the steamboat.”
In 1807, Fulton teamed with promoter Robert Livingston to attract public attention to the voyage of the Clermont, which steamed up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany. Later, Livingston and Nicholas J. Roosevelt powered the New Orleans from Pittsburgh to the Crescent City at an amazing eight miles per hour. Steam-driven paddlewheelers were soon making the downstream trip in seven days and the return tip in a little more than two weeks.
In 1817, there were about one dozen steamboats on the western rivers of the United States. That number exploded to 60 within two years and over 200 by 1830. These were mostly built in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Steamships dominated traffic on America’s inland waters for much of the 19th century, but failed to capture traffic on the high seas. The superior speeds of the "clipper ships" assured the prominence of these wind-driven vessels until the 1880s.
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Steamboats of Gloucester and the North Shore by John Lester Sutherland.
This accessible history and memoir focuses on the various working vessels that plied the waters between Boston and Gloucester during the glory days of...
When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes by Jay Feldman.
On December 15, 1811, two of Thomas Jefferson's nephews murdered a slave in cold blood and put his body parts into a roaring fire. The evidence would ...
Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum by Edward T. ODonnell.
There were few experienced swimmers among over 1,300 Lower East Side residents who boarded the General Slocum on June 15, 1904. It shouldn’t have mat...
Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain.
Life on the Mississippi is a memoir by Mark Twain detailing his days as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River before and after the American Civil...