The steamboat played an important role in Arkansas from the earliest days of the Arkansas Territory. Before being superseded by the railroad in the post–Civil War era, steamboats were the primary means of passenger transport, as well as moving raw materials out of Arkansas and consumer goods into the state.
The inland rivers steamboat, invented in the Mississippi River Valley in the first half of the nineteenth century, eventually connected every person on or near a stream to the larger world. The first major historian of the steamboat, Louis Hunter, saw the steamboat as the “most notable achievement of the industrial infancy” of the United States, not to mention the chief technological means by which the frontier advanced and by which steam power was introduced and spread in the United States. Building and supplying steamboats with hulls and machinery provided the infrastructure that pushed the United States’ transition from the “wood age” to the “iron age.”
In 1820, the steamboat Comet made it to Arkansas Post (Arkansas County); two years later, the Eagle was the first to visit Little Rock (Pulaski County) on its way to what is now Russellville (Pope County) with a load of supplies for Dwight Mission. The Arkansas Gazette reported numerous steamboats operating regularly on Arkansas waters even in the 1820s, including the Robert Thompson, Allegheny, Spartan, Industry, and Catawba. By 1831, even Batesville (Independence County) on the upper White River had been reached by the Waverly, and that same year, the now-extinct town of Davidsonville (Randolph County) on the Black River was reached by the Bob Handy. The Ouachita River had its Dime, and even the Red River Raft was breached by the late 1830s. By about 1875, steamboats had reached everywhere in the state, up the Little Red River, into the Fourche La Fave River, up the St. Francis River and Bayou Bartholomew, and eventually up the Buffalo River as far as Rush (Marion County). The keelboats that had once supplied these towns were supplanted by these vessels that could reach almost anywhere in the state with cargoes of factory goods and foodstuffs, along with emigrants and travelers, and then go downstream with cotton or subsistence staples.
It is difficult to find details on most of these steamboats. After the mid-nineteenth century, boats were required to be registered and their boilers certified, but even these requirements documented only such details as name, length, width, depth of hull, sometimes the number of boilers and the diameter of cylinders in the engines, and something called “tonnage,” which was calculated in different ways at different times. The earlier boats are especially poorly known, partly because the inland rivers steamboat had to be created to deal with unique conditions on inland rivers, a process that was poorly recorded. Rapid progress involved numerous false steps, hand labor, and experiment tempered by experience. Rapid development also took place in building and controlling steam engines to make them more reliable and safe, with the concurrent development of all the associated regulations and legal protections.
The form of the steamboat itself came into being particularly in the 1820s and 1830s. A steamboat is different from the deep-water, deep-draft vessel that has cargo, quarters, and everything else deep in the hull. The new form was simply a long, narrow, shallow pontoon upon which cargo was stacked and cabins were built higher and higher. Some cargo could be placed in the hull, but the engines and boilers sat on the main deck; passengers’ cabins and the salon were on the second or “boiler” deck with perhaps a “Texas” deck above that for the crew; and the pilot house perched at the front of the stack for visibility. The hull, much like a bridge, had to be reinforced with an extensive truss system, known as “hog chain” and consisting of long runs of wrought-iron rods over stout “sampson” posts, both along the length, as much as 350 feet, and across the width, up to forty feet plus overhanging “guards” that made the main deck even wider than the hull. The wrought-iron rods were fitted with enormous turnbuckles, and by tightening or loosening these turnbuckles, the flexible hull could even be “walked” over shallow sand bars.
There were variations in placement of the paddlewheels. Putting them on each side of the hull, as in those boats known as “sidewheelers,” made for smoother passenger travel and a bit easier steering, but the paddlewheels were outside the lines of the hull, leaving them vulnerable and making the vessel much wider. The sternwheeler put the paddlewheel at the back, creating a narrower vessel as well as protecting the fragile paddlewheel by hiding it at the rear of the hull. The sternwheeler eventually proved more efficient at pushing barges, and it was the sternwheeler form that survived the loss of the passenger trade brought on by the spread of railroads after the 1870s; in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sternwheelers were used for towboats.
These wooden-hulled steamboats were vulnerable, and their lives were often short. The most frightening losses were from boiler explosions due to abuse, clogging by muddy river water, or design weaknesses. One of the most famous boiler explosions occurred on the sidewheel steamboat Sultana. The only photograph of the Sultana was taken during a short stop at the waterfront at Helena (Phillips County) on April 26, 1865. The photograph shows that the boat was astonishingly overloaded—in a vessel 260 feet long and forty-two feet wide, built in 1863 for 300 or so passengers, thousands of people could be seen, nearly all of them Union soldiers recently released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps. Not long after the boat stopped briefly at Memphis, the boilers of the Sultana exploded near Mound City (Crittenden County) in the middle of the night on April 27. Approximately 2,000 to 2,300 people were killed. This remains the worst maritime disaster in North America. Many times the disaster was less spectacular, the result of accidentally holing the hull by ramming into submerged log, but the result was still loss of the vessel; most of the time, at least some of the cargo and steamboat machinery was salvaged.
In spite of their vulnerability, hundreds of sternwheelers and sidewheelers of various dimensions were an integral part of daily life in Arkansas for most of the 1800s, certainly from 1830s into the 1880s, when the network of railroads finally reached maturity. Any factory goods from ceramic tablewares to pianos traveled at least part of the way by steamboat, and even for isolated farmsteads, the wagon journey at the end was only a few miles from the riverside landing to the house. Cotton, corn, livestock, wool, bricks, lumber, staves, logs, and other products traveled only a short way to the docks.
Steamboats played a role in tumultuous events as well, beginning with carrying troops and supplies in the early 1800s to Fort Smith (Sebastian County). In the 1830s, tens of thousands of Native Americans passed through Arkansas as part of Indian Removal, and many traveled on steamboats such as the Smelter, Thomas Yeatman, Reindeer, Little Rock, Tecumseh, and Cavalier, or on the keelboats often towed by these vessels. Moreover, much of the crew on antebellum steamboats were slaves.
During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate forces exploited steamboats for rapid communication and transport of troops, horses, and supplies on Arkansas waters. Little Rock, Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), DeValls Bluff (Prairie County), and Helena became major re-supply centers and shipping points, first by the Confederacy, then by the Union. Civilian vessels were chartered; in the case of the Homer, the Confederacy made use of it until its capture by the Union and scuttling in the Ouachita River in April 1864 at Camden (Ouachita County). Bombardment of Confederate positions on land by Union gunboats was an important factor in the capture of St. Charles (Arkansas County) on the White River in June 1862, the destruction of Arkansas Post (Arkansas County) in January 1863, and the defense of Helena in July 1863. The Engagement at St. Charles included the scuttling of three steamboats by Confederates in a vain attempt to block the upstream advance of the Union fleet. The capture of Little Rock in September 1863 saw the sinking of more Confederate vessels, including the gunboat Pontchartrain. Throughout the war, Union-chartered steamers and specially built tin-clad and iron-clad warships were fired on regularly from the shore, and Confederates even managed to capture and burn the tin-clad Queen City at Clarendon (Monroe County) in June 1864.
After the Civil War, some of the biggest-ever sidewheel steamboats were built for use on the Mississippi, but by the 1890s, passenger travel had largely ended. Indeed, passage on many rivers was made more difficult simply by the construction of many bridges for the trains. However, improvements in sternwheel maneuverability and increases in power—combined with increasing improvement of the waterways by dredging, snag removal, and electric light channel marking—made the larger rivers such as the Arkansas, the lower White, and Red efficient for the transport of bulk cargoes such as iron, grain, construction materials, chemicals, gravel, sand, and coal. Water transport is still common today, when a diesel-powered all-steel towboat can push twelve to thirty-six steel barges, and just one steel barge can carry the equivalent of fifteen large hopper-type railroad cars or fifty-eight semi-trailers. Even a modern sternwheel passenger steamboat sometimes plies the Arkansas River, such as the Delta Queen, built in 1924–1927 for excursions on the Sacramento River in California and rebuilt for the Mississippi River system in 1947.
For additional information:
“As Much as the Water: How Steamboats Shaped Arkansas.” Center for Arkansas History and Culture, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. https://ualrexhibits.org/steamboats/ (accessed January 7, 2022).
Baldwin, Leland Dewitt. The Keelboat Age on Western Waters. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1941.
Bates, Alan L. The Western Rivers Engine Room Encyclopoedium. Louisville, KY: Cyclopoedium Press, 1996.
———. The Western Rivers Steamboat Cyclopoedium, or, American Riverboat Structure and Detail, Salted with Lore. Leonia, NJ: Hustle Press, 1968.
Branam, Chris. “A Database of Steamboat Wrecks on the Arkansas River, Arkansas, Between 1830–1900.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 2003.
Brown, Mattie. “A History of River Transportation in Arkansas from 1819–1880.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 1933.
Dethloff, Henry C. “Paddlewheels and Pioneers on Red River, 1815–1915, and the Reminiscences of Captain M. L. Scovell.” Louisiana Studies 6 (Summer 1967): 91–134.
Fitzjarrald, Sarah. “Steamboating the Arkansas.” Journal of the Forth Smith Historical Society 6 (September 1982): 2–30.
Gandy, Joan W., and Thomas H. Gandy. The Mississippi Steamboat Era in Historic Photographs: Natchez to New Orleans, 1870–1920. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1987.
Haites, Erik F., James Mak, and Gary M. Walton. Western Rivers Transportation: The Era of Early Internal Development, 1810–1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.
Huddleston, Duane, Sammie Rose, and Pat Wood. Steamboats and Ferries on White River: A Heritage Revisited. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1995.
Hunter, Louis C. Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949.
McCague, James. Flatboat Days on Frontier Rivers. Champaign, IL: Garrard Publishing Co., 1968.
Stewart-Abernathy, Leslie C. “Ghost Boats at West Memphis.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 67 (Winter 2008): 398–413.
Stewart-Abernathy, Leslie C., ed. Ghost Boats on the Mississippi: Discovering Our Working Past. Popular Series No. 4. Fayetteville: Arkansas Archeological Survey, 2002.
Way, Frederick, Jr. Way’s Packet Directory, 1848–1994. Rev. ed. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994.
Way, Frederick, Jr., compiler, and Joseph W. Rutter. Way’s Steam Towboat Directory. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990.
Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy
Arkansas Archeological Survey
Last Updated: 01/16/2019