Tuesday, September 5, 2017

History Through Postcards: Steamboats On the Rivers

Steamboat's A-Coming!!
Steamboat's A-Coming!!

For those who lived along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, that cry was exciting. Steamboats in many ways were the only link our ancestors had to the outside world.
During the 1810s there were 20 boats on the Mississippi River. By the 1830s there were more than 1200. But, it wasn't just the Mississippi River that handled steamboat travel. We know that in the 1880s and possibly earlier, steamboats moved up and down the Pemiscot Bayou north of Dell, as well Big Lake, Little River, and the St. Francis River. In this part of the country, a boat was about the only way to travel through the swampland. . .until the railroad arrived around 1902 (in Dell). . .

If the steamboat happened to be a Showboat or a Passenger Boat,  the festive songs of the calliope filled the air miles before it's destination, calling everyone to the river.

The Liberty Belle

Inside a Passenger Steamboat

A showboat was a form "Floating Theater" that went from town to town along the waterways.  Plays, musicians, singers, melodrama and vaudeville were featured. . .

Riverboats, Memphis, TN

As late as the 1950s, a type of showboat often tied up at Barfield Landing outside of Blytheville, Arkansas. For a night on the town, these boats were popular. There was a huge dance floor, a live band, drinks and food. I was small but remember Mom dressing in beautiful evening wear  and Daddy looking so handsome in his suit and tie. They often went with other couples and had to leave home early to ensure a place on the boat. I could hardly sleep knowing that the next day I would hear all the details.  My imagination ran wild. By the time I was old enough to experience it myself, the 'dance' boats were gone.

Passenger Steamboats were very popular before the 20th century. . .Southern farm roads and railways were almost non-existent. . .but on a steamboat, a person could travel from Memphis to New Orleans, for instance, in Southern Style. . .

Belle of Memphis Dining Room

Steamboats were also the 18-wheelers of our century, carrying barrels of food, lumber, lumber products, tobacco, general goods for the household. . .anything that could be shipped.

More important to the many farms and plantations along the way, steamboats carried our bales of cotton to the markets. . .or to a port city such as Memphis. . .or St. Louis.

Memphis, TN ca 1870

Memphis was a major port on the Mississippi River for decades. . .

Memphis Levee 1909


While the passengers traveled lavishly,  the boat workers had a life of sweat and toil for very little pay. . .The hazards of the river never let up. . .


"You and me
We sweat and strain
Body all aching
And wracked with pain
Tote that barge
Lift that bale
Get a little drunk
And you land in jail. . .

I get weary
Sick of trying
I'm tired of living
Feared of dying
But ol' man river
He just keeps rolling along."
from the musical Showboat

The Delta Queen, ca. 1970s

Eventually, the steamboats were forced off the River, due to the safety hazard of their wooden hulls--with one exception. In the 1970s the Delta Queen was granted the opportunity to again travel on the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee Rivers. Joining its sister stern-wheeler were the Mississippi Queen and the American Queen, both built with a steel hull.  I was fortunate in my adult life to experience river travel on the Delta Queen four times. . .and the Mississippi Queen twice. . .Wonderful experiences. . .Nowadays, the only steamer with overnight accommodations is the new Queen of the Mississippi, which is based in Memphis. . .

Only a few steamboats still move along the Mississippi River in New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis and other river cities. . .offering short trips on the paddle-wheelers. . .The sight of these historic riverboats convey a powerful reminder of steam-boating during the antebellum days of the past. . .days that are gone now and only spoken of in river folk lore. . .

The Robert E. Lee

. . .yet one truth remains. . .
that OL' MAN RIVER. . .He just keeps rolling along. . .

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