It’s no secret how much I love riverboats. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen a few hints at my love. Some of my first posts on this blog were me sharing images steamboats and packets. I find them to be a fascinating piece of history, a mode of transportation that, like airships, have faded away from practical use but still retain a sense of wonder and freedom.

“It is a strange study, — a singular phenomenon, if you please, that the only real, independent and genuine gentlemen in the world go quietly up and down the Mississippi river, asking no homage of any one, seeking no popularity, no notoriety, and not caring a damn whether school keeps or not.”

—Mark Twain, Letter to Will Bowen, August 25, 1866

I like riverboats so much, I’m writing Coal Belly, a western fantasy set in a world covered in twisting rivers. It’s a place where riverboats are ubiquitous and necessary, and I have been having a blast writing it. It’s allowed me to do a ton of fascinating research. Along with extensive reading, I’ve been exploring the vaults of the Library of Congress looking for images. Within, I have found quite a few old photos, and I figured it’d be fun to share a few with you.

There’s a lot out there, so I am going to pick a theme. Today’s theme focuses on steamboats alongside the levees where cargo and passengers were loaded and unloaded. You can click on any image to view it larger.

If everyone enjoys this post, I’ll be sure to share more going forward. All images were acquired from the Library of Congress’s website. In some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. While my knowledge is not as extensive as others, I’d be happy to answer any questions folks have about any of these images.


    1. There’s no real definitive answer, at least not in any of the material I have. There is a ton of speculation. And, of course, I have some thoughts:

      – Some of it could have been style. Hudson River boats, in particular, tended to be single stacked in the beginning. However as river trade became more prominent, double stacks (and higher) were seen. When boats had single stacks, they were usually located behind the pilothouse. See: (a lot of ocean-going steamers adopted this style.)
      – On larger boats, stacks would have emerged fore of the pilot house. Double stacks allow the pilot to see straight forward without obstruction along the boat’s keel vs. a single stack which would have been in the way. This is an assumption on my part, stacks tended to rise from the front of a boiler system.
      – On many boats, boilers were separated into batteries. So half could be under repair/maintenance while the others ran the boat. I could see the benefits of pipes of either side in that instance. One stack for each battery.
      – Initially, stacks were large (36″ to 42″ in diameter) which helped prevent buildup (but also lost the energy of the heat) more stacks less buildup? Perhaps.
      – Two was common but there were boats with more. I found one, the Francis Skiddy of 1853, that had FOUR.

      So there’s a really long-winded non-answer. :)


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