Steamboats Impractical in an Age of Railroads

Steamboat Red Cloud, 1873-1882. NSHS RG4997-69

The “Golden Age” of steamboating on the Missouri River was between 1850 and 1860. The outbreak of the Civil War slowed steamboat traffic on the lower Missouri. Although it resumed after the war, it was becoming clear by the 1880s that the days of the steamboat were numbered due partly to competition from the expanding rail network. In 1890 high railroad freight rates caused some to propose a revival of steamboat traffic. The Omaha Bee on April 24, 1890, interviewed several men who had been associated with early steamboating on the Missouri. Most expressed the opinion that steamboats could not compete with railroads in freight rates. The Bee said:

“Charles B. Rustin, Captain Marsh, G. W. Copeland, [and] Harry Deuel, who were in the early days engaged in this packet business on the raging Missouri, tell great stories of the troublesome times they had. They think that the changed condition of things would make it [moving freight by steamer] much more difficult sailing now.” Copeland believed “there is no use talking of river navigation nowadays above St. Louis. You can’t make it pay. . . . Missouri river navigation is very dangerous, and expensive. The channel is there for light traffic, but I have seen the best boats we had get badly stuck trying to pull two barges up stream Very often we were compelled to go ashore and tie up for three and four hours at a time.”

This steamboat has run aground and broken up. From Hiram Martin Chittenden, History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River (New York, 1903). NSHS RG2593.PHO

Rustin also believed that restoring steamboat traffic to compete with railroads would be prohibitively expensive. Harry Deuel considered it a “reckless undertaking” and said: “I ran on the river six years and know something about its condition. There might be three months in the year that it would be navigable.Then, what are you going to do the balance of the time? Boats can’t go up or down when there is ice to contend with and there is no use trying to make it appear that there are no sand bars. Get stuck on them as often as I have been and you’l[l] find out.”

The veteran steamboat men nevertheless had some favorable memories of their glory days. Copeland recalled the “enormous rates” received for moving freight and passengers, with pilots paid from $800 to $1,000 a month.

More recollections of life on the Missouri, by steamboat captain David L. Keiser, who began his career in 1856, are online at the Nebraska State Historical Society’s website, along with other articles from past issues of Nebraska History magazine. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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