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7 Things You Didn’t Know About Steamboats

15th September 2015

Many of our USA river cruises offer the chance to sail in an authentic steamboat that is driven by a paddle wheel, just like people would have done in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s. The American Queen Steamboat Company has two steamboats which ply the Mississippi, Ohio, Columbia and Snake Rivers, including the largest to ever be built – The American Queen. These cruises allow guests to uncover the history in these parts of America and even follow in the footsteps of the great adventurers Lewis and Clark.

Here are a few facts about steamboats to get you in the mood for travelling in this way.

1. After several failed attempts by other inventors, with most of them turning out to not be financially viable, Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston made the first remarkable steamboat journey on the Hudson River in 1807. Their ship Clermont sailed 150 miles from New York City to Albany, proving that steamboat travel was both durable and faster than other methods at the time. This earned Fulton the nickname ‘the Father of steam navigation’.

2. Steamboats were preceded by crafts known as flatboats, which were much less efficient. These flat wooden boats were rowed by boatmen and could only carry goods and passengers upstream. In order to earn more money, the boatmen would dismantle them on arrival, sell the wood for a profit and then walk all the way home.

3. In the early days of steamboat travel, there were many dangers involved. As well as the understandable risk of sinking and fire, passengers were also susceptible to attacks from tribes of Indians. However, far from putting people off, this seemed to make steamboat travel more alluring and captured the imagination of America.

American Empress

4. As well as fabled races between rival steamboat companies that were organised, competitions on the water often broke out spontaneously. As two different steamers met on the river, it sometimes turned into a race to see who could get to the next landing station the quickest. This was important as the first vessel there would pick up all the business. Passengers could be seen cheering their captains on and the captains themselves would often stoke their boilers with highly flammable resins to increase their ship’s speed.

5. The oldest paddle steamer in operation still carries passengers across Lake Mjøsa in Norway. It has been in service since 1856, has sunk twice whilst in storage and is now listed for preservation by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage.

6. The end of the golden era for steamboats came before the turn of the 20th century when locomotives became much more popular as a viable method of transporting goods. Not only were they faster, they were also a lot safer. At their peak, there were over 1200 vessels operating along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers but, by 1910, it is estimated that only 210 steamboats were still in regular operation.

American Queen At Night

7. A handful of steamboats still sail these historic routes today, with the American Queen being the only overnight cruising paddle steamer in existence. American Empress also offers overnight trips but her main propulsion is via a diesel engine.

If you would like to experience an authentic paddle steamer for yourself, we have a variety of Upper and Lower Mississippi cruises available with the American Queen Steamboat Company. Call us today for more details or to book your cruise.

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