The Golden Age of the Steamboat (Economic Development), 1851-1900

by O. Vernon Burton, Troy Smith, and Simon Appleford, University of Illinois


 In order for economic growth to develop, there must be producers, sellers, and buyers –and some way for them all to be connected. This was problematic in the early days of American settlement in the Mississippi River Valley. Agricultural goods could reach eastern markets only with great difficulty: they were usually floated down the Mississippi on rafts, and upon arriving at New Orleans or other port towns they were loaded on ships bound for more settled areas. The pilots who had brought the goods then had to return by foot, often along overland routes such as the Natchez Trace –a route whose inherent dangers earned it the sobriquet “The Devil's Backbone.” Delivering goods inland was even more challenging, and usually impracticable.

This changed in the years after the War of 1812 due to what has since been christened “the Transportation Revolution.” New technologies led to the improvement of roads, the building of canals, and the advent of railroads and steamboats. In the North these new forms of transportation became linked to greater general industrialization; in the South, for the most part, it led to greater distribution for agricultural goods. As this coincided with increased emigration to fertile lands in the Mississippi River Valley and technological improvements such as the cotton gin –and the removal of the Choctaws to Indian Territory, for the most part by steamboat –the production of cotton in the Valley blossomed. With steamboats going up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries, and railroads being built, costs diminished and profits expanded significantly. In addition, farmers could now acquire the goods they needed for their operations with much greater facility. New river ports opened up, and landings appeared all along the rivers; in 1857 there were 81 landings between Yazoo City and Greenwood. Personal travel became far easier, and therefore more common, as well. In addition to cabin passengers, who received board and hotel-quality treatment, steamboats were also open to deck passengers who spent the voyage among the freight. Increased mobility, of course, also led to an increase in accidents. Steamboats sometimes sank due to snags, fires, or sunken logs –or, more spectacularly, due to boiler explosions. In 1838 the steamer Moselle –carrying three hundred passengers to a new life in the West –exploded at the Cincinnati landing and rained metal and body parts a quarter of a mile away.

Steamboat travel and trade were interrupted, obviously, by the Civil War. Union control of the Mississippi effectively shut down most commerce. Some steamboats were chartered by Confederate forces for transporting arms and ammunition; there was also a brief Confederate experiment in outfitting steamers as gunboats, using cotton bales as defense against enemy fire. These “cottonclads” did not prove very effective.

River travel picked up again after the war. Historian Harry Owens has dubbed 1870-1890 the “golden age” of steamboats in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. However, the seeds of decline were sprouting even in the midst of the bustling activity. In the 1870s former Delta swamplands were being transformed –via levee construction –into fertile farmland. Timber companies began to harvest the lucrative forests, with planters close behind to take advantage of the new agricultural opportunities. More railroads entered the area as well. By the end of the nineteenth century, twenty-five times more cotton bales were being transported by rail as by river. Steamboats were still a presence for awhile, but had virtually disappeared by 1920. The age of steamboats on the Mississippi –which has begun only a few years before Mark Twain's birth –ended only a few years after his death.

  • Erik F. Haites and James Mak. “Steamboating on the Mississippi, 1810-1860: A Purely Competitive Industry.” Business History Review, vol. 15 no. 1 (Spring, 1971), pp. 52-78.
  • Lewis Hunter. Steamboats on the Western Rivers (Cambridge, 1949).
  • John Majewski. “Who Financed the Transportation Revolution? Regional Divergence and Internal Improvements in Antebellum Pennsylvania and Virginia.” The Journal of Economic History, vol 56 no. 4 (Dec. 1996), 763-788.
  • Harry P. Owens. Steamboats and the Cotton Economy: River Trade in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. (Jackson, 1990)
  • George Rogers Taylor. The Transportation revolution, 1815-1860 (New York, 1951.