Volume V, No. 2, Winter 1977




FULL STEAM AHEAD

Written by Teresa Maddux and Ruth Massey

Illustrated by Teresa Maddux


The Ohio, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Wabash, the Illinois, the Arkansas and the Red. Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Cairo, Memphis, Natchez and New Orleans. The names roll off the tongue tike water rolling under the bow of a steamboat. And no wonder. Each is rich in the lore and legends of the steamboat.

Rivers were the nation's first highways and lands along navigable waters were the first settled. Once an area was settled, trade soon followed. During the early 1800's river trade used current or muscle powered boats, flatboats and keel-boats. The flatboat had a one-way trip. Early in the spring people up river would build them, load them with produce from the rich river valley farms and float them down to New Orleans where the produce and wood the flatboat was made from were sold. The crews walked back home. Keelboats not only floated downstream, but also attempted the way up river, hauled along the shore by main force. Men in the stern held the boat against the current. Using ropes fastened to trees along the shore, men on shore would pull the boat upstream until the rope ran out, fasten the rope to trees still further upstream, and then repeated the process.

When steam powered boats were introduced on the Mississippi in 1811 with the launching of the New Orleans in Pittsburgh, keelboats rapidly disappeared, a victim of the steam revolution. But flatboats continued on the river until the 1880's when another steam revolution did them in--the steam engine of the railroad.

The summer of 1817 marked the beginning of the steam age for St. Louis with the arrival of the Zebulon M. Pike, its first steamboat. From then the number of steamboat arrivals rapidly increased until in 1859, the heyday of steam boating, 3100 boats arrived.

The big steamboats of the Mississippi River were a luxurious way for tourists to travel. The saloon of the Eclipse was "three hundred feet long and eighteen feet wide. It had imported carpets, magnificent draperies and French glass mirrors, paintings on the walls, sparkling cut-glass chandeliers and a ceiling filled with a honeycomb of Gothic arches painted a glistening white and hung with gilt pendants of oak leaves and acrons." The J. M. White was "the most luxurious of the packets with imported walnut furniture in each spacious cabin, hand-painted china, an enormous silver water urn to which were wisely chained eighteen silved cups, and an elaborate Brussels carpet 300 feet long, woven in one piece."*[*STEAMBOAT'S A-COMIN', A National Geographic Society recording. annotation by James A Cox and Dr. Harry Oster.]

In addition to the regular crew, these boats carried barbers, cooks, bartenders and musicians. Many had ballrooms, elegant saloons and bridal suites. These boats were several stories high, with every inch of the exterior covered with an intricate lace work pattern in wood painted white. But, these floating wedding cakes were more than a luxurious trip down or upstream. They were the life blood of trade in the United States. In 1840 New Orleans was the fourth largest city in the United States. In the next decade, she handled more export trade than New York City and more than fifty percent of the exports of the entire nation. In tonnage, merchandise shipped down the Mississippi River to New Orleans even exceeded that of the British Merchant Marine of the same decade.**[**MARK TWAIN'S MISSISSIPPI, T. H. Walkins (Weathervance Books: New York) 197.4. Pages 70-75.]

Steam boating was extremely profitable and soon after the first introduction of steamboats, daring pilots were not only taking them on the large rivers like the Mississippi, but also on almost all navigable rivers. In the Ozarks the boats had to be smaller and have a shallower draft than the Mississippi River boats, and were not as luxurious, but for small towns along the Osage, the Gasconade, the White, the Black and the St. Francis, the steamboats played just as important a role as their more glamorous sister ships. They brought new immigrants in to settle the Ozarks, then hauled their product out, forming almost the only link with the rest of the country. Even after railroads had replaced steamboats in other parts of the country soon after the Civil War, the rivers remained the sole highway in much of the Ozarks. The Homer C. Wright out of Tuscumbia, Missouri, on the Osage River ran until 1923, when railroads and highways finally reached the towns it served.

In the Ozarks steamboats regularly traveled up the Osage to Warsaw, which could dock seven boats at a time, up the Black to Poplar Bluff, the White to Forsyth, the Gasconade to Arlington and all over the St. Francis. When the rivers ran full, free lance pilots would attempt points further upstream. Even the navigable parts of these rivers had to be continually cleared of shoals, rocks, trees and submerged logs. Traffic depended on the season and weather. Usually, unless it was an exceptionally mild winter, or wet or dry spring and fall the steam boating season would run from March to September.

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SOUTHERN MISSOURI RIVERS WITH STEAMBOAT TRAFFIC

Steamboats on Ozark rivers were on the average eighty feet long and could make up to twenty-five miles a day upstream averaging five miles per hour and twice that downstream depending on what kind of paddle wheels the boats had. The stern wheeler (the paddle wheel at the rear) had more power and speed, but the side wheeler (the paddle wheels on the side) could turn the boat easier, making it easier to navigate.

Wood, plentiful and easily obtained, was the major source of fuel in the Ozarks. Until the 1850's there was always a pile of wood scattered every few miles along the riverbank supplied by farmers who sold it to the boat. When the farmer would hear the steamboat's whistle, he would run to the woodpile to load it. on. The number of stops the boat had to make for wood depended on the size of boat and amount of cargo. A heavily laden boat would not have as much room to carry wood, so would have to stop more frequently than a lesser loaded boat.

The hulls of the Ozark steamboats had to be cut down to get over sandbars and submerged trees and to navigate the shallow rivers. They drew about a foot of water while those on the Mississippi drew five to six feet. They also could not be as long as those on the Mississippi River because of the many bends and curves common to Ozark rivers. Don Boyd, a steam boating enthusiast, said that pilots claimed that at night owls would twist their heads off trying to follow the lights of a steamboat winding its way up the Osage.

The hulls were made of elm because of its ability to weather. They were built on land, and then slid into the river when finished. It usually took about a month to complete a hull. The rest of the boat was built while the hull was in the river. It took somebody who knew what he was doing to build the hull, but after that, any good carpenter could finish the boat. It would take close to a year to build a boat and equip all the machinery on it. Boats would last forty-five to fifty years if they were not involved in too many accidents and timbers were replaced every few years.

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Boats were named after everything under the sun. Some were named after the chairman or a director of the company that owned the boat. Others were named after family members, towns or rivers. One of the last steamboats operating in the Ozarks, the Homer C. Wright, was named after Homer Wright. "My dad was the pilot, but my granddad was president of the company. He thought I was a cute little grandson, so he named it after me."

Many of the steamboat landings and wharves in the Ozarks were simple and made of dirt. A landing could be made anywhere a gangplank of two or three boards could be laid down. Since everything was loaded by hand, steep banks were avoided. Each boat had scheduled stops to make, but would make unscheduled stops if a farmer along the river needed some produce hauled.

At first most boats ran only during the days, but as the pilots gained more experience, they began making runs and stops at night. Kerosene lamps were the major source of light. These lamps were actually metal baskets stuffed with kerosene soaked rags set afire. They were extended over the sides of the boat by long metal poles.

Steamboats carried everything from homemade whiskey to cloth. They brought into the Ozarks things the settlers could not produce themselves such as bricks, shingles, cement blocks, lime, iron, mill machinery, drugs, saddles and buggies. Often a farmer would trade something he raised or made for these manufactured goods. A trade might be some homemade whiskey for a machine or a pig for wire or oil. Other items the farmers traded or exported were cotton, corn, hides, cattle, lumber, milled flour, sheep and garden produce.

Steamboats frequently would push barges ahead of them. These barges would hold two or three train car loads of merchandise, so on one trip, a steamboat could move a great deal of material. One page from the log of the steamboat J. R. Wells which ran on the Osage River in 1904 shows twenty-nine different items with a total weight of 37,231 pounds picked up in three stops.

"GASCONADE RIVER STEAM BOATING AT ITS BEST. The shoals of the Gasconade presented serious problem to the little boats. But the crafty skippers of those boats learned fast. They built their boats for extreme shallow draft, and then built barges that drew only a few inches of water when light. Up the Gasconade they would go, load up, and make the trip back over the shoals. Maneuvering beautifully, they would shape up, then float over with only an inch or two to spare. Years ago, while fishing on a dike, I saw a tow just like this picture coming down over the Woodpecker shoals. It was perfection." Dr. E. B. Trail. Courtesy State Historical society of Missouri

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Courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri The J. R. Wells, the first steamboat owned by the Anchor Milling Company of Tuscumbia, operated on the Osage River between Osage City and Linn Creek.

The summary for the same year shows 140 passengers and everything else from wheat and corn to sewer pipes moved by the steamboat.

Homer Wright remembers that in addition to their regular runs, "Often they would run excursions. Maybe some Sunday, maybe some moonlight evening here, we'd just go up and down the river. They would put the Tuscumbia Concert Band on the steamboat and lots of soda pop and they would go for a boat ride."

On most of the smaller boats in the Ozarks the crew usually was ten men, the captain, the pilot, engineer, cook, fireman and around five or six deckhands. Robert Zang, a present day river boat pilot on the Mississippi, said, "I call the captains caretakers of the company's property. But they stood one watch and they would get out to make the landings and tell the boat to come in slow or this or that. They didn't do nothing much of the time."

The pilot ran the boat. He had to have the river memorized, all its turns, bends, sandbars, landmarks and tricks. The responsibility for the safety of the boat, crew and cargo depended on his knowledge of the river. A pilot had to be licensed for each different section of the river he worked on. He was the highest paid crew member, earning as much as $1,000 or $1,500 a month on the Mississippi River. In the Ozarks they earned less.

The engineer's job was to stop and start the boat and to run the engine. Frequently he was studying to be a pilot. His was about the easiest job aboard. The fireman fed the boilers to keep the fires going.

Deckhands, or roustabouts, loaded and unloaded the boat. They were the lowest paid crew members and got a dollar a day and board on the Homer C. Wright in the early 1900's. "And a day was whenever they had work to do," Homer Wright explained. "It wasn't start at eight and quit at five. Might start sooner and load something at a landing here and may be an hour or so just coasting down the river and then be some more loading and unloading." Earlier deckhands, who were often blacks, received twenty-five cents a day.

On the Mississippi River before the Civil war deckhands were slaves. Usually Irish employees had the much more dangerous job of Stoking the furnace. That way, if a boiler exploded, the easily replaceable wage earners were the ones killed. The more valuable slaves were not in as much danger.

Steamboats were dangerous crafts. On the Mississippi, Robert Zang said, "The old records show from St. Louis to Cairo was 180 miles. And there's a steamboat sunk for every mile of river." And on the Mississippi, between 1831 and 1833 one out of every eight boats was destroyed, all by human error. The most common cause of accidents was racing, but accidental fires, collisions and inferior boiler construction also took their toll.

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On the smaller, shallower Ozark rivers most accidents were running aground or getting hung on a sandbar. "I don't know of any tale that I heard of any explosions here on the Osage." Homer Wright said. When boats did run aground, they would try to pull them off. But sometimes Wright said, "They couldn't get off the grounding and had to wait till the river came up. They left a watchman aboard and went back to town."

Steam boating died out later on the smaller Ozark rivers than it did on the Mississippi but many of the causes of its demise were the same. Insurance rates became so high many owners couldn't afford it. But the development of railroads and highways were the main causes of steam boating stopping in the Ozarks. Railroads could offer faster service and reach inland away from the river. Better highways were built and where the railroads did not go, trucks did.

In 1923 the Homer C. Wright, the last steamer on the Osage, was sold to union Electric in St. Louis to be used as a ferry. Homer Wright explained, "They just ran out of business here on the Osage. When Union Electric finished with it, it was tied out in the river. They didn't sell it because no one would want a boat like that. She sunk one winter during an ice storm--that's the word we had."

Like the keelboat it replaced, the steamboat in turn became a victim of another revolution in transportation.

The wharf at Tuscumbia on the Osage River was unusual because it was concrete and built on a steep bank. Homer Wright explains how cargo was moved up or down the bank in carts running on the iron rail and then loaded by hand. (both by Diana Foreman)

Below -- PAGE 3 FROM LOG OF J. R. WELLS, operating on the Osage River from Tuscumbia wharf.
Embarkment Destination Articles Weight Amount Charges Paid

 
Tuscumbia Linn Creek Flour 17,800 17.80 17.80
Linn Creek Flour 8,000 8.00 8.00
Zebra Flour 1,200 1.20 1.20
Bagnell Zebra 10 pac. groc. 341 .51 1.40 1.91
Zebra 2 pac. tobacco 60 .15 .31 .46
Zebra 3 box. drugs 80 .19 1.45 1.60
Zebra Feed mill, knocked down 680 1.33 5.17 6.50
Linn Creek 10 pac. groc. 431 .78 1.52 2.30
Linn Creek 33 pac. boxed material 1,468 2.50 5.14 7.64
Linn Creek 9 pac. groc. 942 1.60 3.08 4.60
Linn Creek 3 boxes crackers 125 .25 .25
Linn Creek 1 barrel oil 400 .68 .68
Linn Creek 2 box clox 55 .14 .26 .40
Linn Creek 5 pac. groc. 144 .75 1.44 2.19
Linn Creek 5 box crackers 180 .36 .36
Linn Creek 5 barrels coffee 1,075 1.83 3.33 5.16
Linn Creek 6 pac. saddlery 290 .50 2.99 3.49
Linn Creek 1 cart buggy top & 2 wheels 130 .25 .25
Linn Creek 2 pac. dry goods 460 .92 2.39 3.31
Linn Creek 1 case clothing 380 .76 1.98 2.79
Linn Creek 2 box meat 1,170 1.99 3.63 5.62
Linn Creek 1 sack garden seed 51 .15 .25 .40
Linn Creek 1 wagon wheel 50 .14 .26 .40
Linn Creek 6 bundles reed chairs 150 .50 5.37 5.80
Linn Creek 8 bars Iron 475 .81 1.47 2.28
Linn Creek 12 bars Iron and 4 bells 695 1.18 2.15 3.33
Hooker Linn Creek 4 ropes 400 .50 .50
Linn Creek 2 passengers
Totals 46.47 43.60 90.09




STEAMER J. R. WELLS - Summary of coasting trade business done during year 1904. Navigation opened properly March 18th and closed September 10th. This represents 24 trips from Tuscumbia to Osage and Linn Creek.

ARTICLESTOTALS
Wheat sax - number5,337
Corn in ear - sacks756
Corn Shelled - bushels620
Hay - tons2
Cattle - head305
Railroad ties1,439
Sheep - head405
Hogs - head2,587
Potatoes - bushels10
Wine and Whiskey - gallons280
Eggs - cases956
Poultry - coops134
Produce - pounds14,122
Farm Machinery - pounds215,122
Cotton seed meal - sax101
Flour - sax2,859
Bacon - pounds8,200
   
ARTICLESTOTALS
Salt - barrels or blocks961
Iron - pounds16,484
Coal - tons33
Oil - barrels75
Wire - pounds128,403
Groceries - pounds120,029
Miscellaneous - pounds281,641
Oak Lumber - feet41,760
Mill Machinery - pounds20,000
Pine Lumber - Feet123,177
Shingles - bunches1,852
Sewer pipe - pounds34,460
Lime - pounds6
Cement blocks or barrels124
Brick - number150
Clay or chalk - pounds150,000

 

Courtesy of the Missouri State Historical Society

The Homer C. Wright was the last steamer to work on the Osage River. After its years of usefulness were over it eventually sank during a winter ice storm.

PARTS OF A BOAT

1. Escape pipe (scape pipe) were pipes on the old time boats located above the boilers through which steam was wasted.

2. Yawl or rowboat.

3.Skylight found on fancier boat, was used for ventilation.

4. Whistle.

5. Pilot house.

6. Smokestack.

7.Texas deck--the long narrow cabins occupied by the officers.

  8.King post.

9. Main deck--where cargo was kept.

10. Curtain--used as a shade and protection from bad weather.

11. Hull

12. Boilers

13. Kitchen

14. Paddle wheel

15. Outhouse

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Copyright 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


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