Steamboats on the Mississippi

Transportation | FIND Iowa
Apr 18, 2024 | 00:04:39

How might steamboats have helped settlers establish a new life in Iowa?

Steamboats transported goods to and from Iowa before railroads were built. 


(Abby Brown, host of FIND Iowa, is standing on the shores of a river. There is an interstate bridge spanning the width of the river behind her.)

[Abby Brown] Did you know that Iowa is the only state with four border rivers? Pretty cool, right? 

They are the Mississippi River, the Big Sioux River, the Des Moines River, and the Missouri River.

(A map of Iowa appears on screen. The map shows the outline of the state of Iowa. At the top of the map, it reads “Iowa’s Border Rivers.” The Big Sioux River is designated at the top northwest corner of the state. The Big Sioux River creates the top of Iowa’s western border. The Big Sioux River flows into the Missouri River just above the midpoint of the state. The Missouri River creates the rest of the western border of the state.  The Des Moines River runs through the center of the state flowing south and east. At Iowa’s southern border where Van Buren and Lee Counties meet, the Des Moines River begins to form 31 miles of Iowa’s western border with Missouri before it  flows into the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River creates the entire  eastern border of the state.)

(Aerial footage of a river with green forests on each side of the river.)

[Abby] The Mississippi River is the biggest of Iowa's border waterways. And since it starts way up in northern Minnesota and flows all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, people figured out pretty early and pretty quickly that the Mississippi River was an awesome way to transport people and goods, especially before trains and trucks and airplanes were around.

[Abby] But relying on the flow of the river's current to transport people and goods from one place to another could take boats a long time. Plus, going downstream with the current was easy. Going upstream against the current could be impossible. Until the invention of the steamboat.

(Black and white photograph of a steamboat. The steamboat has five levels, one stacked on top of each other like a house. As the levels go up, the decks get smaller and smaller. The steamboat has two black smoke stacks at the front with smoke coming out of the top with a smaller, smoking stacks at the back in front of the paddle wheel.)

[Abby] Steamboats can travel much faster and push through the river's currents. Plus, they were built to navigate shallow areas in the river easier. As Iowa just entered statehood, steamboats traveled the Mississippi River to bring people, food and equipment to our growing young communities.

(A paddle wheel of a steamboat turns, propelling the boat through the water. The paddle wheel is made up of long planks of wood like long park benches attached to a ferris wheel. The planks move in and out of the water as the wheel turns.)

[Abby] So, Kirk, tell me, what year were steamboats the major mode of transportation in Iowa?

[Kirk Brandenberger, Keokuk Area Convention & Tourism Bureau] Well, early on we talked about the 1830s, 20s, up to the 50s and 60s through the Civil War. And, you know, on up into around 1900.

[Abby] And what sort of cargo was being carried on those steamboats?

[Kirk] Well, a lot of people. It was the interstate highway of the day.

[Abby] Oh, interesting!

[Kirk] A lot of people traveled by steamboat and they came up the river systems. And so they would get to a certain state wherever the river hit that state.

[Abby] Okay. And what was that boat ride like for them?

[Kirk] It was long.

[Abby] Yeah. Pretty slow moving.

[Kirk] Slow. And it was somewhat dangerous, you know. They were steamboats  and so and they were wooden, they were made out of wood. So, you know, you had the embers coming out of the smokestacks, going back to the back. Sometimes they'd land on the boat and it would cause a fire. So it was somewhat of an adventure.

(Model of a single level, simple steamboat with a red smokestack in the front and the paddle wheel in the back.)

(Model of the Robert E. Lee steamboat. The model has three levels with internal levels on the first and second levels. It has three small smokestacks in the front with two curved balconies. It has two larger smokestacks on either side of the boat at the back of the boat. The paddle wheel has a cover over it which reads “ROBT. E. LEE.” You can see the paddles sticking out just below the white cover.)

(Model of a wood varnished steamboat. The paddle wheel is in the center of the steamboat. The smokestacks are just in front of the paddle wheel. There is a small lifeboat attached to a hoist system in the front and back.)

[Abby] And what about the water on the Mississippi? What was that like for travelers?

[Kirk] Most places the river was much narrower up here at the time. There was a rapids between Keokuk and Montrose, 10 miles.

[Kirk] And so the big boats couldn't get through the rapids. They had to stop in Keokuk, pack up their goods ten miles around to put it on a boat going north. Or the northern boats had to do the opposite, put it on a boat, going south. And so the travel was somewhat limited.

[Abby] So why did we eventually stop using steamboats?

[Kirk] Well, cars came along. Around the turn of the century, cars started to become a mode of transportation. 

[Kirk] And because of that, roads were built. People were able to travel within the states.

(A man stands on a plank of wood on a machine to flatten the ground to make a road  as another man drives a truck to pull the machine.)

[Abby] Sure, they weren't just limited to the river.

[Kirk] Not so much on the boundaries. And so that started it.

[Abby] Are there still steamboats on the Mississippi River?

[Kirk] For recreational purposes only. There are some steamboats that are used for dinner cruises in the big cities. 

[Kirk] But for the most part, the steamboats are gone.

(On the shore of the Mississippi River.)

[Abby] Next time you see the mighty Mississippi River, imagine what a steamboat would have looked like chugging along way back then. Thanks for having fun investigating new discoveries in Iowa.

[Announcer] Funding for FIND Iowa has been provided by The Coons Foundation, Pella and the Gilchrist Foundation.