Steamboats Revolutionized Early U.S Travel


The steamboat was introduced in 1809 to the American public. Around 1811, the steamboat was in full operation along the western rivers. The steamboat also revolutionized the growth of the United States economy and cut transportation time in half during the infancy of American travel. There were increases in revenue and the building of steamships before the start of the American Civil War. They were mainly used for commercial shipping and leisure.

Before Steamboat Travel

Flatboats, rafts and keelboats were the primary methods of river travel before the steamboat. River transportation via rafts and flatboats was costly. It was also hazardous and difficult. Downstream travel for rafts and keelboats was relatively inexpensive in comparison with horses and being on foot. Most of the communal settlements were based along rivers as well as coastlines. Moreover, the roads were not cleared very often and there was the possibility of being attacked by wild animals, insects and other people. A person could also get lost if he/she was not native to the area. So rafts, flatboats and keelboats were often considered good traveling investments regardless of time-consuming voyages.

Fulton and Livingston Tried To Corner Steamboat Operations

Two developers of the American steamboat, Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston, tried to monopolize the financial rights over steamboat usage in the western rivers region. However, they were not successful in a court of law due to the anti-competitive nature of their business. The court ruling helped to ensure that Livingston and Fulton would not be able to charge outrageous prices for steamboat travel or block out potential competitors.

Accidents with Wagons and Steamboats

People would use river transportation because it was much cheaper than wagons. Also, to get from place to place, the travel time was much longer than with steamboat. When factoring in the dangers of traveling back and forth, people were often risking their lives along wagon trains. Some wagons were attacked by tribes of Native Americans. Wagons would also break down. This could leave people stranded in the middle of nowhere. The next town could be many miles away.

Most accidents aboard steamboats were boiler explosions or fires. As a result, many sunk in murky river waters. There were 411 damaged steamboats due to thick ice, explosions or fire. Occasionally, steamboats would hit snags, which caused them to sink. The snags and rocks caused the destruction of 156 steamboats between St. Louis and the Ohio River. Another cause was human error.

Steamboats Created Jobs

Much Mississippi River trade was dominated by steamboats in the early 19th and 20th centuries. More to the point, with the decrease in freight cost and transportation time, an entire industry was born centering on the steamboat. Now, shipyards housing steamboats required specialized services, maintenance and facilities in order to deal with the huge demands. Steamboat usage generated quick economic growth in port cities due to easy transport to markets carrying commodity products. This happened before the era of automobiles, trains and airplanes.


Haites, Erik F., Mak, James and Walton, Gary M. Western River Transportation: The Era of Early Internal Development, 1810-1860. Baltimore, MD. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.
R. Malster, ” Wherries & Waterways”, Lavenham, 1971, page 61.