Canoes, keel boats and pirogues were first used for traveling up the Missouri River. The first steamboat to navigate the treacherous waters of the Missouri River was The Independence. Departing from St. Louis in May 1819, it took 13 days to reach Franklin.
Steamboats were designed for different purposes. Some were made specifically to haul freight with a minimum of passengers while others served primarily to haul travelers or to offer a pleasure boat ride for families.
Travelers heading to the western territories took the steamboats as far as Independence. There, they joined the long wagon-trains following the Santa Fe and Oregon trails. It was a primary pathway for the expansion of the west.
The local waters of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers were the main artery of transportation by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804. In his book “The Heritage of Missouri,” Duane Meyer reported The Independence passed within sight of the Marion settlement in Moniteau County and arrived in Franklin on May 28, 1819, with a cargo of whiskey, sugar, iron and many other products in demand.
Beside being an important mode of transportation for westward travelers, riverboating became an important industry by 1838, as supplies were delivered to trading posts stationed along the way.
Although steamboating was a profitable business, it was also very hazardous. With the turbulent undercurrents of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to contend with, seasoned pilots knowledgeable of the rivers were in high demand.
To maneuver a voyage through the raging waters took skill. Some boats sank, while others scraped large hidden snags hidden low in the muddy riverbeds causing damage to the hull of the boats.
Firewood sometimes had to be found and cut along the way so boilers could be maintained safely. Riverboat historians report 250-290 boats sank between 1819-60. The average life span of a newly christened boat was just two years.
But while many boats were lost, fortunes were also made. Rates for freight from St. Louis to Independence cost about one cent a pound. The cost to transport a sack of flour from St. Louis to Fort Benton was about $10.
It was not unusual for a boat to clear about $10,000 on a cross-state round trip, which took about a week to 10 days. But their expenses were high. A round trip to the far west, which usually took 60-90 days, cost about $50,000-60,000. And we think prices are high today.
When river transportation for passengers was at its best, the cabin floors were covered with the softest Brussels carpet and the state rooms were furnished with every convenience.
The ladies cabin often contained a grand piano. The tables were furnished with the finest silver and china with the menu equal to that of a first-class hotel.
After the dinner hour, women retired to their sleeping quarters to rest, read or tend to the children. Some husbands joined other passengers to enjoy an after-dinner smoke possible in the captain’s quarters, conversing about the happenings of the day or for a quiet game of cards or dice.
Most passenger boats carried a band, and dances were held at night or some sort of entertainment for all. Operating expenses ran about $300 a day or more for the finest pleasure boats.
It was reported when the last steamboat came up the Missouri River to Jefferson City before winter weather suspended the river traffic for the season, a large part of the cargo consisted of barrels of fresh oysters in the shell.
A half-bushel of oysters roasted on bright coals, a few dozen glasses of fine brandy, a few boxes of pure Havana cigars, some songs and a violin caused many leading citizens to explain to the wife or lady friend that work at the office ran until a very late hour.
Long after the heyday of the riverboats, there remained a fascination and nostalgia associated with them. Out of this came an interest in riverboat gambling for Missouri, which was finally approved in the 1990s after much arguing about the pros and cons of the sport.
Not too many years ago, a decommissioned riverboat stopped in Jefferson City while making the trip down river to St. Louis to be sold or salvaged. Such a boat could have been an added museum attraction for visitors to Jefferson City by providing entertainment and a ride down stream to the mouth of the Osage for a quiet sunset evening.
One could have gotten the feel of river travel as it had been back in time and enjoyed a few hours of Missouri sunshine and hospitality as described in Duane Meyer’s 1963 history classic.
Anna Knaebel is a Jefferson City native and a freelance writer. She has co-authored Military Memories with Cindy Joannes.