Why Are Steamboats So Popular on the Mississippi River?

Written by Jennifer Gaeng
Published: December 15, 2022
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Throughout the 19th century, passenger and commercial travel on the Mississippi River as well as other inland U.S. rivers were largely accomplished by steamboats. Their relative speed and lower cost, along with their capacity for travel made them ideal for trade. However, are they still popular today or are there more efficient means of river travel? In this article, we will explore the answer to this along with a brief history of the steamboat era!

steamboat on mississippi river

Paddlewheel riverboat sets sail on the Mississippi River from New Orleans.


Steamboats were a major factor in the 19th-century development of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. These steam-powered boats allowed for the massive upstream and downstream movement of people and cargo. They were also referred to as riverboats and paddle-wheelers. These boats had the ability to move against strong currents and in shallow areas of water. Steamboats kept doing business on the Mississippi River into the early 20th century. However, as railroads were built, more and more passengers began to use this faster form of transportation. A few steamboats are still used for tourist trips in the twenty-first century.

Why Was The Steamboat Important On The Mississippi River?

Steamboats were essential to the successful (and frequently illegal) cotton trade as well as the evacuation of thousands of slaves from Mississippi plantations during wartime activities (including the Vicksburg Campaign). After World War II, Mississippi steamboating reached its peak.

When Were Steamboats Used On The Mississippi River?

riverboats on mississippi river

Riverboats on the Mississippi River received cargo and supplies at the Vicksburg landing in early 1900s.

©Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com

The Virginia was the first steamboat to travel the upper Mississippi River, and that was in 1823. Other vessels, such as Indian canoes, flatboats, keelboats, and pirogues had been navigating the upper river. However, The Virginia heralded the dawn of a new age.

After 1823, steamboat transportation developed rapidly. Most boats operated in the area of Galena, Illinois, during 1823 and 1847, carrying lead. The trade rapidly fell after 1847 as miners exhausted the supply of lead. The upper Mississippi saw growth in steamboat activity despite the decline in lead exports. St. Paul had developed into a thriving port by 1857, with more than 1,000 steamboat visits each year. They had annual visits from almost 100 different steamboats!

Famous Mississippi River Steamboats

The New Orleans

The revolution on the Mississippi happened a few years later, in the 19th century. The New Orleans was the first steamboat to set sail on the Great River’s rough waters in January 1812. She was designed and constructed in Pittsburgh for the astronomical cost of $40,000. A series of unanticipated earth tremors recorded as some of the worst in American history startled the ship’s maiden voyage. She overcame this, nevertheless, and made it to her namesake city by January 12 of that same year.

The Enterprise

The heyday of steamboats was upon the banks of the Mississippi, and the renowned Enterprise was the next notable vessel. The Fulton design underwent a significant evolution, adding a solitary stern paddle wheel and a high-pressure steam engine. Daniel French, a mechanic/engineer, created and developed her expressly for usage on the Mississippi.

The Steamboat Theatre

The creation of showboats was a wonderful notion in a region with a deep appreciation for the arts and a mix of cultures. The original showboat, which was created in 1831 and went by the name of Floating Theater, was the brainchild of British performer William Chapman.

The Chapman family had a brand-new ship by 1837, and they had called their undertaking the Steamboat Theatre. The Civil War undoubtedly had an impact on showboating. However, by 1878, the showboats made a comeback and brought a little excitement and opulent theater to the Mississippi’s commercial milieu.

How Do Steamboats Operate?

steamboat paddlewheel

Steamboats typically have a hull, boilers, a paddle wheel, and a cabin for cargo.

©Bianca Grueneberg/Shutterstock.com

A steamboat has a hull, boilers to produce steam, an engine to turn the paddle wheels, and cabins to house cargo and passengers. Steam was produced by steam engines, which heated water in a huge boiler using coal. A piston rises to the top of the cylinder as a result of the steam pumping into the cylinder. When the steam is released, a valve opens, letting the piston return to the bottom of the cylinder. Rudders were used to steer steamboats, and sidewheel boats used their paddle wheels to change their direction and speed.

Why are Steamboats Not Used As Much Anymore?

For steamboats attempting to navigate the river, rocks and rapids presented a bigger challenge. The river drops more than 100 feet during the 15 river miles from St. Anthony Falls to St. Paul. This steep incline, along with a narrow gap and limestone rocks left behind after the falls withdrew, made it hard for steamboats to be navigated safely through this stretch. The boats would occasionally sink due to debris and obstructions in the river, such as logs or boulders. Because of this, steamboats only had an average lifespan of four to five years. This made them less economical than other types of transportation.

Steamboats on the Mississippi also experienced catastrophic boiler explosions from 1811 and 1853, resulting in an estimated 7,000 deaths. Steamboat explosions were common due to a combination of subpar boiler design and dangerous operating. When there was too much pressure, the boilers frequently exploded.

Steamboats on the Mississippi River Today

steamboat mississippi river new orleans

Paddle-wheelers can still be seen on the Mississippi river, particularly in New Orleans. They even offer tours!


There are still some steamboats around today on the Mississippi River, despite the fact that they are no longer utilized for important trade or lengthy voyages! The Mississippi River, a potent life force and the fourth-longest river on Earth, has historically been used for trade, transportation, and even as a place of residence for some. Even though the steamboat was invented elsewhere and is still in use today, the Great River is famous for having these amazing boats to this day.

There are excursions offered for individuals who might be intrigued by the nostalgia or vintage vibe of this kind of sizable and spectacular vessel. Of course, taking a cruise along the Mississippi river is a picturesque, once-in-a-lifetime experience that everyone in the region should take advantage of. While there are a variety of modern vessels that can be used to achieve this, a classic steamboat is truly the most authentic and entertaining way to do so! It will also help you learn about the fascinating region that was created from the Great River. Below are just a few riverboat cruises that the Mississippi River has to offer!

New Orleans Steamboat Natchez and Sister Vessel

The Mississippi River and the history of American steamboats predate the New Orleans Steamboat Company. This company takes great delight in introducing one of our nation’s oldest and finest traditions to millions of people. Their steamboat excursions on the Natchez and Riverboat City of New Orleans are one method they accomplish this. This involves taking a two-hour leisurely sail down the Mississippi River. You can experience classic live jazz, handcrafted cocktails, and all the breathtaking New Orleans sights on one of these amazing vessels!

Memphis Riverboats

Paddle-wheeler on the Mississippi river in Memphis, Tennessee

Paddle-wheeler on the Mississippi river in Memphis in the autumn


To satisfy every need, Memphis Riverboats in Tennessee provides a variety of different riverboat tours. Although they have four riverboats, not all of them are always fully functional. To find out what kinds of cruises they are currently offering, and which riverboats are available, it is best to visit their website. However, it appears that they always have options accessible, such as dinner and music cruises or sightseeing tours. They even have holiday-themed cruise parties!

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © Kevin Ruck/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Jennifer Gaeng is a writer at A-Z-Animals focused on animals, lakes, and fishing. With over 15 years of collective experience in writing and researching, Jennifer has honed her skills in various niches, including nature, animals, family care, and self-care. Hailing from Missouri, Jennifer finds inspiration in spending quality time with her loved ones. Her creative spirit extends beyond her writing endeavors, as she finds joy in the art of drawing and immersing herself in the beauty of nature.

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  1. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steamboats_of_the_Mississippi
  2. Mississippi Encyclopedia, Available here: https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/steamboats/
  3. NPS.gov, Available here: https://www.nps.gov/miss/learn/historyculture/river-of-history-chapter-4.htm
  4. Scenic Pathways, Available here: https://www.scenicpathways.com/mississippi-river-steamboats/
  5. American Queen Voyages, Available here: https://www.aqvoyages.com/blog/how-does-a-steamboat-work/