How did steamboats work in the 1800s along the Mississippi River?

The residents of the small Mississippi riverport heard the distinctive, high-pitched whistle of the brightly-painted steamboat J.M. White long before it sailed majestically into view. It was the summer of 1880, and steamboats were the main means of transport in the American West.

Faster, cheaper and more comfortable than overland stagecoaches, they churned along some 7,000 miles (11,000 kilometers) of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. They were the main link from St. Louis in the north to New Orleans in the south, travelling at a stately rate of about 15 miles per hour (24 km/hr) and calling at centers such as Cairo, Memphis, Natchez and Baton Rouge.


Christened the "ships that walk in the water" by the American Indians, the steamboats had an average working life of four to five years, barring accidents such as collisions or fires.


Measuring up to 350 feet (107 meters) long and 58 feet (18 meters) wide, they had low-lying hulls. Their slender smokestacks stood up to 95 feet (29 meters) tall and were hinged to tilt so that the boats could pass under bridges. The engine room were on the main deck, level with the water line.


On either side of the boat, twin engines were connected to the paddle wheels by thick wooden levers. These turned the wheels as the boilers built up pressure of at least 150 lbs. per sq. inch. Many of the boats had boilers which burnt wood, often using so much that the vessels docked twice a day to take on more logs. Those which were cheaply built and poorly looked after tended to explode.

Mississippi River sidewheel steamboats used two paddle wheels mounted on separate shafts so that they could work independently of each other. This made for great maneuverabillty. By reversing one wheel, for example, and going ahead with the other a steamboat could be turned in its own length.


The captain acted as overall manager of the boat, while river pilots, who worked in shifts, were responsible for safe navigation. The pilots' expert knowledge of the river made the difference between success and disaster, and they navigated both with the aid of landmarks and through consultation with other pilots. They rarely left the pilothouse, which housed the wheel of up to 12 feet (4 meters) across.


Steamboats were the rulers of the Mississippi River for much of the 1800s (19th century), but progress took its toll. With the coming of first the train and then the car and lorry, their days were numbered.

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