Old Man River:  History Along the MississippiApril 19-November 2, 2003

River Days

From Early Travel to Steamboatin'!

Bald eagle and alligator crossing sign
The Upper vs. The Lower Mississippi
Seamboatin' section of exhibit
Artwork and artifacts were loaned from many sources, including:
~ Abraham Lincoln Museum, Harrogate TN
~ George M.Verity Riverboat Museum, Keokuk IA
~ Mark Twain Home and Museum, Hannibal MO
~ Mark Twain Papers Project, University of California, Berkeley CA
~ Muscatine Art Center, Muscatine IA
~ Floyd Risvold, Edina MN
~ Bill Street, Muscatine IA

"A steamboat was as beautiful as a wedding cake
without the complications!"
- Mark Twain

Rafts and canoes used by Native Americans and early French explorers were greatly improved throughout the 1700s. Flatboats moved grains, livestock, and lumber to New Orleans' markets. But there the boats were sold for firewood, leaving the men to walk or ride home by land!

The next step in river transportation was the keelboat that floated south but could also return north because of its V-shaped hull slicing through the water's current. Gangs of keelboatmen planted long poles in the river bottom and walked along the cleated deck. Reaching the stern, they would pull up the poles, return to the bow, and start over again. These labor-intensive return trips, however, often took three months or more.

Four years after the invention of the steamboat by Robert Fulton, the sidewheeler New Orleans steamed down the Ohio River to the Mississippi … arriving at the exact moment of the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811! For days, the boat was tossed in a maelstrom of falling trees, geysers and rushing channels. Finally at Natchez, Mississippi, the river calmed and the New Orleans survived its maiden voyage.

The speed of steam travel soon appealed to travelers. In 1817, it took 25 days to go upriver by steamboat, but by 1827, only ten days! Later riverboats and showboats became richly decorated floating places designed for the comfort of up to 1,600 passengers. With their roaring engines, belching smokestacks, splashing paddlewheels, and distinctive whistles, the boats were an awesome power on the river. Dangers awaited, however, from cargo fires and boiler explosions to hitting underwater snags or shallow sandbars, and the constantly changing Mississippi kept steamboat pilots on their toes.

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Did you know … ?
A 19-year-old Abraham Lincoln embarked in 1828 on a flatboat trip to New Orleans' markets. Three years later he again traveled to and from New Orleans before settling in New Salem, Illinois.
And steamboats often had 3 or more whistles, each with distinct sounds and patterns that announced to river towns which specific boat was coming 'round the bend.


The Section "River Days" has the following related pages:
From Early Travel to Steamboatin'!

Continue through exhibit

2 men in a canoe
Early Exploration and Development
You are here!

River Days
view of Bellview, Iowa
Riverfront Property
Civil War enenactors
Man vs. Man
Bald eagle and conservation officer
Man vs. Nature
jazz musician
The Arts Along the River
New Orleans graveyard
Legends and Spirits
View Selected Artifacts
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