Before the arrival of trains, cars, trucks, and airplanes, people from the early United States and its first thirteen colonies had to travel on foot, on a horse, or on the water to further discover the western frontier. Boats and waterways became the most preferred and faster means of transportation as long as they followed the flow of river currents.
Traversing back was a daunting task, given that early boats only depended on sails to propel them as the wind blew or on manpower manually row the boats. Everything changed with the invention of steamboats, which revolutionized transportation by eradicating the need for people to power the vessels themselves and rather giving them greater speed and ability to travel.
Steamboats soon dominated the rivers, helping people transport manufactured products and agricultural goods, establish trade, and reach new places. Thus, aiding heavily in the Westward Expansion. With such massive importance, you might be wondering if steamboats are still manufactured today? Well, let’s delve deeper into that. Continue reading below to find the answer!
Steamboats’ Early History
Before knowing the current status of steamboats, it’s interesting to see where it all began. Steamboats’ invention stems in the late 1700s after Scottish inventor James Watt devised an improved version of the steam engine.
After observing some flaws, he modified the apparatus by adding a separate condenser and employing rotary motion that radically improved its efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and power. Watt’s steam engineer heralded the Industrial Revolution, sparking other inventors to explore the use of steam technology in powering ships.
Various names were associated with the steamboat industry such as John Fitch, who was the first to build a steamboat in the U.S. On August 22, 1787, his 45-foot vessel successfully traveled through the Delaware River. Four years later, he was granted a patent for the steamboat but not without the controversial battle with James Rumsey, his rival inventor who also invented a scientifically successful steamboat. Meanwhile, John Stevens also conducted his own early experiments in steam power and devised his own watercraft.
The First Successful Steamboat
While all these men had their own successes, it was Robert Fulton who transformed steamboats into commercially-viable vessels by integrating the steam engine into an improved hull design.
In 1807, a century before the history of Hershey’s kisses started, “Clermont” was launched and became the world’s first steamboat service. It took a 150-mile trip from New York to Albany at an average speed of five miles hours. The whole voyage took 32 hours to complete, which regular ships and boats usually require about four days to finish. In 1811, Fulton and his friend Robert Livingston created “New Orleans,” which traveled the lower Mississippi River, functioning both as freight and passenger vessel.
Three years later, the two, along with the latter’s brother, Edward, were already offering regular passenger and freight steamboat service between Natchez, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana. With further improvements, the steamboats were already traveling at an average speed of eight miles an hour downstream, and five less upstream.
The Steamboat Era
With the success of Fulton’s steamboats, other entrepreneurs followed suit, signaling the start of the Steamboat Era. The majority of the earliest steamboats were manufactured in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, often regarded as the steamboat center of America, and in Wheeling, West Virginia. Later on, Cincinnati, Ohio also had its own shipyards and became a significant part of the steamboat industry.
Steamboats were propelled by a steam engine that burned coal to heat the water placed in a large boiler. It then creates the steam that is channeled into a cylinder, leading to the upward motion of a piston to the top-end of the cylinder. A valve is situated at the top, causing the release of steam, which then allows the piston to settle back at its original position on the bottom of the cylinder.
It’s a repetitive process but the piston’s movement is what powers the paddlewheel or propeller to push the boat forward. Most steamboats were sternwheelers, having a single impeller at the boat’s rear, while others were sidewheelers, dual paddlewheels on the boat’s sides.
By the 1850s, America’s rivers and waterways were being traveled by thousands of steamboats, continuing to successfully transport passengers and goods like cotton, sugar, and lumber even quicker than before. By 1853, it only required four and a half days to travel from New Orleans to Louisville, given the further advancements in steamboat designs. With that, steamboats became the bloodline of the economy and played a significant role in the Westward Expansion.
Yet, it doesn’t mean that the steamboats didn’t have their downfalls. While it fundamentally changed transportation, their dangers were exposed, as they also rose into popularity. Boilers exploded on the poorly-designed steamboats leading to many deaths. Shifting channels, log jams, sandbars, fog, and weather all affected navigation. Traveling upstream was still slower. Plus, steamboats also became susceptible to attacks from Native Americans. Not to mention that there were also intense competitions between captains engaging in steamboat racing, often overworking their ships and creating perilous conditions on the waters.
By the 1870s, the United States saw the advent of steam-powered railroads. Being more efficient at transporting passengers and commodities in any direction, from north, south, west, to east, rail transport quickly snatched the role as the primary means of transportation. Steamboats were relegated as the second choice and their numbers started decreasing by the early 20th century. Their popularity even further dwindled as cars and airplanes also began to arrive, causing many steamboats to become obsolete or forced to be retired.
So, Are Steamboats Still Manufactured Today?
Steamboats are no longer manufactured today as they have been rendered ineffective by bigger freight ships, modern bridges, and other modes of transportation. Yet, some of the remaining ones found their purpose and continue to cross rivers and lakes for leisure tours and cruises. While they are no longer in their heyday and no longer traverse the county’s waterways as they widely did before, there’s no doubt about their deep legacy and dramatic contribution to United States technology and history.