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Steamboats and other rivercraft - general discussion


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Z. BIDDLE - Illinois River Steam Sternwheel Ferry


NARA in Kansas City located the Master Carpenters Certificate for this vessel - August 10, 1878 - James Heywood/Haywood

Pittsfield Public Library - Reference Librarian located this fellow in the 1880 Census. Born in New York, lived in Valley City, Flint Township, Illinois - right near Griggsville Landing where the vessel (the hull at least) was built.

Wreck Report - none have been found.

Inspection Reports - Several were made, but no actual reports/data discovered yet.


Still searching for descriptions/sketches/drawings or photographs.


Abraham Lincoln Library - Springfield - has a very good run of early Griggsville newspapers, but cannot provide scans in large numbers from their microfilm remotely. Hopeful of a relative in the area doing some in-person research at that library.


This morning in an 1891 volume about Pike and Calhoun county luminaries, I learned that there were "old steam barges" working on the Illinois as early as 1831, and there was a newspaper in operation in that area with a steam powered printing press. Some early barges were built from trees (duh) cut with a whipsaw. Later, of course steam saw mills...


Current thinking - given the relatively narrow Illinois at the crossing in question, and the smallish hull dimensions of the Z. BIDDLE that she may have been not much more than a sternwheel barge herself.


Hope others are doing well with their research and building.

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Apologize if this has been covered upstream, but I’m reading a book on Western Americana history and came upon this passage in a section titled “Traders on the Mississippi”. I thought you guys might be interested.


"It was common practice for a merchant who lived in  a community on the Mississippi to float his produce downriver in a flatboat to New Orleans, where both the cargo and the boat could be sold for cash. The flatboat, which was usually built on the riverbank, resembled a big box about three times as long as it was wide; its square ends were slanted upward from the bottom to enable it to glide through the water better, and it was steered by an oar at the stern.


It had to be constructed upside down so the carpenters could fasten the planks on the bottom. The cracks were then caulked with pitch and flax or hemp to make the hull watertight. Next the boat was eased into the water on rollers made of small logs, and then came the “flatboat turning” - an operation in which the whole community took part.


A rope was run to the top of a tree on the riverbank and down to one side of the boat. Rocks and earth were piled on the other side until it sank even with the surface of the water. Then the crowd pulled on the rope and flipped the big box right side up. After a bucket brigade had bailed out the water, the job was completed by nailing planking over the hull to form a deck.


As soon as the boat had dried out it was loaded with grain, flour, pork and other articles of trade. If any livestock or poultry were carried, they were placed in pens on the deck. Once the merchant engaged a crew of two or three boatmen and a pilot to do the navigating, he was ready to go to market.


On the face of it, floating down the Mississippi in a flatboat sounded like an ideal vacation project for adventurous young men, but the account of a trip made by Daniel M. Brush makes it clear that travel by flatboat was far from being a picnic."


- Tales of the Frontier – from Lewis and Clark to the Last Roundup, selected and retold by Everett Dick, University of Nebraska Press, 1963


The date of the trip was December 22, 1834 and the story goes on to recount how the combination of river and weather conditions just about did those boatmen in.

Edited by Balclutha75
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Great description and detail! Those were really common for decades until steamboats finally did them in. They had a long tail of use since it was often still easier and cheaper to slap one together and transport goods yourself than deal with steamboat rates and schedules. They were common on the Missouri, too. Another benefit was that they could be broken up into salable timber in New Orleans, adding to the collective income. 


Here are two versions of a painting by contemporary Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham. The first is from 1847, during the actual flatboat era:




The second is from 1877. Bingham apparently repainted it, changing some details. This was done after the flatboat era had ended.




The second one looks especially like a Missouri River setting.


I was amused at the following description of the painting from the National Gallery of Art:



It depicts a group of men who, after accomplishing the hard work of rowing their flatboat upstream and loading it with cargo, are now relaxing and enjoying music and dancing.


This was written by someone with no knowledge of river transportation. These men certainly did NOT row this craft upstream. There aren't even oars in the normal sense. The long pole sitting lengthwise is a sweep, used for navigation and gentle propulsion, but in no way capable of fighting the current of the Missouri or Mississippi Rivers to any meaningful degree. They're clearly floating downstream, as shown by the man at the steering oar at the center back of the flatboat.

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Maybe I'm wrong and a victim of misinformation and legend.   I remember reading that oars were never on those boats but long poles instead.   They used the poles to navigate and propel the boat down river. Going up river would probably be darn near impossible on such boats.  Keelboats or poleboats as I recall.

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Very useful post re construction of flatboats. The upside down building method also popular with some for San Francisco Bay scow schooners. Especially those constructed using fore and aft chine logs (ALMA, 1906) rather than framed like my Gaslight, 1874. 


The post gives me insight as to how the Z. BIDDLE may have been built as her proportions are more barge or scow-like.  



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This has been an interesting thread. Now I'm interested in river boats. Thanks.


Here's another story from that book I'm reading about general Western American History. I hope it's appropriate to post here. There didn't seem to be much online information about this particular event, but I suspect some of you guys know about it. It goes on for three enjoyable pages in the book. This is an abridged version which hopefully captures the spirit. The chapter title is "Fasten Down The Safety Valve".


Traveling by river steamboat was relatively comfortable compared to traveling by stagecoach or train. But what the steamboat contributed in comfort it lacked in safety, and steamboat wrecks were a regular occurrence, often costing scores of lives.


A good number of these accidents occurred during the course of steamboat races. It was a custom during a close race to burn lard, fat hams, or anything else in the cargo that would make a hot fire; frequently, too, the engineer would tie down the safety valve, which otherwise operated automatically to allow the boiler to blow off steam when the pressure rose to a dangerously high level. Although steamboat racing was widely denounced, the racing instinct was ineradicable in true rivermen.


One of the most famous races on the upper Mississippi was that which took place in 1854 between the Dr. Franklin and the Nominee. At the wheel of the Franklin was Stephen Hanks, a cousin of Abraham Lincoln and one of the most skilled and courageous pilots on the river.


For mile after mile the boats were almost side by side. The passengers who crowded their decks preferred to miss meals rather than a moment of the contest. The rivals were close enough that the passengers could shout back and forth. At Guttenberg the Franklin had to stop and take on wood. The passengers feared that the enforced halt would allow their rival to pass them, but Captain Smith left them no time to stand around and worry. The wood was on a flatboat, which he hitched alongside, almost without stopping. "Now you fellows come and do a little honest work," the mate yelled to the passengers, and the words were scarcely out of his mouth before the air was full of flying cordwood.


The Franklin was carrying a plentiful supply of resin in barrels, and this was now fed into the furnaces with pitch, oil, and anything else that could make a hot fire. By the time the Franklin reached Dubuque the boiler breechings and smokestacks were redhot, and crew members were standing by with a fire hose.


At Dubuque the Franklin was ahead. There was a wild scene on the levee while freight was being put ashore and loaded aboard, the mate exhorting the roustabouts with a rigamarole of slashing sarcasm and hide-searing profanity that would have made even a bullwhacker prick up his ears. The Franklin was first away and at half-past three that afternoon she steamed into Galena, having made the run from St. Paul in a bit under twenty-two hours. Except for the stop at Dubuque, never once during this record run did Stephen Hanks take his hands from the wheel.


- Tales of the Frontier - From Lewis and Clark to the Last Roundup, selected and retold by Everett Dick, University of Nebraska Press, 1963

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In Nineteenth Century America boiler explosions were a major cause of accidental death, and steamboats were a major contributor to this toll.  Late in the century Congress finally acted to do something about the problem and delegated design of boilers to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).


The society responded by writing a Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code, commonly known as the ASME Code.  Application of the code dramatically reduced deaths from boiler explosions, although it could not stop operators from taking risks like those described.


The Code still is used today, and has been expanded to apply to piping, and even some miniature boilers used in live steam model railroads. With nuclear power on the horizon, ASME added a section on nuclear reactors and piping.  Today the code has been implemented by a network of state boiler laws and in the case of nuclear power, Federal law.  


The code is kept current by a system of interpretations, code cases, and revisions.  While Code administration is handled by professionals,  the technical content is under control of engineer volunteers from the various organizations including businesses that use it.   Back in my day these volunteers met once a month in New York to conduct business.  Business was by consensus.  All members had to agree.  Meetings were open and while visitors could not vote, they could participate in discussions and their concerns were given a full hearing.  It is a remarkable example of an industry controlling itself for the benefit of everyone.



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11 hours ago, Windships said:

Anyone know where you can find the actual report from a steamboat inspection rather than just the mention that an inspection took place?





One place to possibly start might be the Gateway Arch Museum in St. Louis.   Here's their website:  https://www.archpark.org/visit/points-of-interest/museum-at-the-gateway-arch 

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Maybe here?



the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, has thousands of items available for research.  Among them are historic photographs, books, blueprints, original documents, and other reference materials. The collection also includes materials related to National Rivers Hall of Fame inductees and important river people.


Not sure how much is online but the have a research request form.


I found that yesterday while researching from that passage I posted, Stephen Hanks turned up.




Edited by Balclutha75
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  • 2 weeks later...

Catching up... I have not been successful in locating useful materials from the places offered in the posts above.

But I thank all of you nonetheless.


Grafton, Illinois


Near the confluence of the Illinois and the Mississippi, and just above St Louis.

This place had a very active boat and shipbuilding industry from 1874 until 1982, including Vietnam War riverine assault vessels.

I am in touch with the local historian there (87 years-young) and hope to learn more.

Just today they are opening a new museum at the visitor center.

A collection of glass plate negatives came to them when the shipyards shut down, but few have been printed due to high cost.


I learned from the 1870 US Census (my wife's research) that the Master Carpenter (James Heywood / Haywood / Harwood) who built the Z. Biddle in 1878 at Griggsville Landing, was also living and working at Grafton.


Speaking with the historian, I learned that Grafton was perfectly capable of completing the hull of the ferry (boiler, engine, stern paddlewheel).

So, my new working theory is that she went from Griggsville Landing, downriver to Grafton, had that work done, thence to St Louis to be registered.

From there, back upriver on her own power to Valley City/Phillips Ferry on the Illinois.


All that said, still no description or photos!!




ADDITIONAL REFERENCES - thanks to Kurt for leading me to the second one, which in turn helped me find the first one.



Records of the Eagle Packet Company



Summary of the Collections of the St Louis Mercantile Library


The National Park Service report on the History of Grafton, Illinois (located with help from my wife) is remarkable.

I had no idea they created such useful materials



Grafton Illinois - NPS Survey - History of Grafton.pdf

Edited by Windships
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Have you tried to find anything at the  Mercantile Library at the Univ of MO - St. Louis?  They have many records that might help.

If you are ever nearby this is a great place to visit.  I was given a tour behind the scenes just before they opened the new state off art building - very impressive.  At the time they had the absolute state of art fire protection especially for their rare documents.  But the library was originally started by the merchants of St Louis for business records so many shiping related records were saved for posterity.


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  • 7 months later...

I'm resurrecting this thread to let interested parties know about an online steamboat talk coming up on Tuesday, February 8, at 7:00 pm US Central Time: Steamboat Disasters of the Lower Missouri River. This is hosted by Missouri River Relief, the same organization that hosted my own steamboat talk last March. It's free and open to everyone. MRR does good work in the region and I hope some of you will find the talk interesting.



Edited by Cathead
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I just chanced again upon the posts on the Missouri- and Missisipi-Flatboats. Somehow they sparked my imagination as a boy, but I don't remember in what context. Perhaps based on an account of the Lewis and Clark expedition. I remeber making a drawing of one at school.


These kind of one-way craft occurred also on various European rivers that originated in wood-rich areas, most notably the Danube. The city of Ulm was one place at which they were built in large numbers and used for transporting goods and passangers down-river, sometimes reaching the Danube Delta. Most, however, only went as far as Vienna and Budapest, where they were broken up and sold as construction material. The ones built in Ulm were called 'Ulm Box' in the 19th century and painted in the city colours black and white with a kind of zebra-pattern outside:



Historical image from Wikipedia



From https://deutsche-gemeinschaft.eu/de/geschichte/#iLightbox[bf3bdc6c58c6d1ab60e]/0


At times they also transported groups of German emigrants that settled in areas de-peopled during the Osman expansion into Europe after they had been retaken. These German groups retained their cultural traditions and language in modern Hungary and Romania for instance, but also migrated further east into what is now Ukraine and Russia.


The boats were steered downriver with two pairs of long sweeps, similar to the timber-rafts with which they shared the river und which also transported goods and passengers. The crews of both, the Ulm Boxes and the rafts walked back to Germany from Vienna and the Balkans in the days before there was a steamboat service. The Ulm Boxes actually followed a regular weekly schedule until steam took over.

Edited by wefalck
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So I'm sad to say that I was underwhelmed by the recent talk. It was probably fine for an audience that was new to steamboats, but the presenter's knowledge base was pretty shallow and he made a number of mistakes during the presentation. The following Q&A made it even clearer that he didn't really understand the topic. I've read his book, and found it disappointing as well. I was hoping the talk would at least share some new information, insights, or imagery, but it was pretty bland and rambling. If others felt the same, I'm sorry for wasting your time by bringing it up.

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3 hours ago, Cathead said:

I'm sorry for wasting your time by bringing it up.


Don't worry about it.  I agree with both Randy and you.  But I don't consider my time wasted at all.  I know I will need to take things he said with a bit of skepticism but I found several things I found interesting and will do some checking into them as time permits. 


Those who had little to no knowledge might have been inspired to check things out further and the stuff he got wrong will be discovered if they check things out further.  And for those who just enjoyed it as alternative to the Olympics on TV they were better entertained.

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One type of River boat I haven’t yet seen. The Insect class gunboats were designed for a projected assault up the Danube in 1915. Most ended up on either the Yangtze or Yalu Rivers in the 1920s and 1930s. Some were used during WW2 for coastal bombardment in the Mediterranean. This model is HMS Scarab as she looked in 1931 on the Yangste River. 


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  • 4 months later...

One historic steamboat lost, another found


I just learned that the historic Mary White II, a steamboat preserved at Jacksonport State Park, in Arkansas, sank in 2016 and is considered unrecoverable. I'd never made it down to see it and we were considering going down there this fall, but obviously hadn't kept up with the news since the loss was new to us. Here's a really nice article from Arkansas State Parks about the vessel, her various brushes with death, and the ultimate loss (read to the very end).




I also just learned from a friend who does research and mapping along the Missouri River that another steamboat wreck has been discovered. They asked me  not to share any details yet as several government agencies are involved and they want to do things right, but hopefully soon I'll be able to share some imagery and details. What I have seen is pretty cool. Stay tuned!

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So I've been given permission to share this image and say the newly found wreck is near Boonville, MO, but I can't give the vessel's name (though they're quite confident they know) or anything else. More info will be coming out eventually but this is image is pretty cool. It was taken with sidescan sonar used to map the river bottom for fish habitat studies, and comes from a former colleague of my wife, who used to be involved in such work. This is also the person who was, behind the scene, instrumental in arranging for me to give this steamboat talk last year. The scientists in question were doing routine scanning work and were startled to see this steamboat framing appear on the river bottom! It's in a relatively protected area, and there appear to be plans to map it more thoroughly in the future. The long axis shown here measures about 40'.



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