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Steamboats on the levee
Life on the Mississippi
Mark Twain ; with an introduction by Justin Kaplan and a new afterword by John Seelye.
New York, N.Y. : Signet Classics, 2009.
Fashioned from the same experiences that would inspire the masterpiece Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi is Mark Twain's most brilliant and most personal nonfiction work. It is at once an affectionate evocation of the vital river life in the steamboat era and a melancholy reminiscence of its passing after the Civil War, a priceless collection of humorous anecdotes and folktales, and a unique glimpse into Twain's life before he began to write. Written in a prose style that has been hailed as among the greatest in English literature, Life on the Mississippi established Twain as not only the most popular humorist of his time but also America's most profound chronicler of the human comedy.
     
Huckleberry finished
Livia J. Washburn.
New York : Kensington ; Godalming : Melia [distributor], 2009.
Delilah Dickinson' literary travel agency is very popular, but the latest tour-a leisurely steamboat trip down Huckleberry Finn's Mississippi-delivers one dead traveler.

Annotation by: St. Louis Public Library staff.

     
The great American steamboat race : the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee and the climax of an era
Benton Rain Patterson.
Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland & Co., c2009.
Running from New Orleans to St. Louis in the summer of 1870, the race between the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez remains the world's most famous steamboat race. This book tells the story of the dramatic contest, which was won by the stripped-down, cargoless Robert E. Lee after three days, 18 hours, and 14 minutes of steaming through day, night and fog. The Natchez finished the race only hours later, having been delayed by carrying her normal load and tying up overnight because of the intense fog. Providing details on not only the race narrative but also on the boats themselves, the book gives an intimate look at the majestic vessels that conquered the country's greatest waterway and defined the bravado of 19th-century America.
     
Tomorrow, the river
by Dianne E. Gray ; [illustrations by Stephanie Cooper].
Boston : Houghton Mifflin Company, c2006.
With a long list of her mother's dos and don'ts swirling in her head, and with a ticket that will get her only halfway home at the end of summer, fourteen-year-old Megan Barnett boards the eastbound train. Her destination, the Mississippi River at Burlington, Iowa, is twenty-four hours and a host of unfamiliar seatmates away. The most pleasant of these characters is Horace, an engineering student whose passion for newspapers, combined with a sharp curve of the tracks, land him nearly in Megan's lap. The parade of interesting strangers--some of whom aren't what they seem--doesn't end with Megan's arrival in Burlington, where she joins her sister's family on the riverboat, the Oh My. River travel, as Megan quickly learns, is fraught with danger, both on the water and off. A keen eye, for seeing beneath the surface of things, can make all the difference. Leaving a trail of discarded rules and newspaper headlines in her wake, Megan takes on the river and reaps its rewards.
     

Before the Arch was built, it was the steamboat, at once gaudy and elegant, that was the recognized symbol of St. Louis. 

In Twain's words

Mark Twain, world-famous author and ex-riverboat pilot, saw St. Louis in its steamboat prime, and looking back, pronounced its glory days dead:

 "A strangely short life for so majestic a creature.  Of course it is not absolutely dead; neither is a crippled octogenarian who could once jump twenty-two feet on level ground; but as contrasted with what it was in its prime vigor, Mississippi steamboating may be called dead."

(More from Mark Twain about steamboats)

Steamboats today

The Delta Queen Steamboat company still provides elegant, memorable river transportation.

The Delta Queen is an Irish-built ex-troop carrier bought at auction and towed from California in 1947. Refurbished as a passenger vessel, its success led in 1976 to the launch of "the largest steamboat the world had ever seen," the Mississippi Queen. The American Queen followed, in 1995.

All three now cruise the Mississippi River. 

(Go steamboating with the Delta Queen)

The steam era began slowly, in 1817, when the Zebulon M. Pike took six days to fight its way up the river from Louisville.  Soon the new technology utterly changed river transportation.

The cobblestone St. Louis levee became crowded with steamboats, packed so tightly that when the White Cloud caught fire in 1849, the blaze wound up destroying more than twenty steamboats and a third of the city. 

The scale of traffic increased so drastically that the explosion of the Sultana in 1865 (bound for Jefferson Barracks) became the greatest maritime disaster in the United States; there were more lives lost than when the Titanic sank. 

Commercial tonnage for the port of St. Louis was exceeded only by New York.  By the 1870s, one could count better than 150 steamboats tied up to the St. Louis riverfront.

The railroads put an end to the steamboat story.  Transportation focused on speed and cheapness and reliability, and the strut and swagger of river traffic became a thing of the past. 

Steamboats remain a significant part of how St. Louis defines itself.  You can still book a steamboat passage from St. Louis to New Orleans, but it is now  a curiosity for those with a historical bent, and plenty of time and money. 

Article by: St. Louis Public Library staff