During the 19th century, hundreds of steamboats traversed America’s waterways, carrying passengers faster and more luxuriously than ever before.
“The steamboat was the first American invention of world-shaking importance,” wrote historian James Thomas Flexner in 1944. In fact, he added, it “was one of those crucial inventions that change the whole cultural climate of the human race.”
Defined broadly as any vessel powered by a steam engine, the term “steamboat” is more often used to describe paddle wheel-propelled crafts that roamed the rivers of the United States, particularly the Mississippi, in the 19th century. An early prototype set sail in 1787, but it was only in 1807 that the first commercially successful steamboat made its debut. High-stakes—and sometimes deadly—steamboat races followed soon after.
What made the steamboat revolutionary was its ability to travel on rivers and other waterways regardless of which way they flowed. Prior to steamboats, says Robert Gudmestad, a historian at Colorado State University and the author of Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom, water transportation was largely limited to rectangular, flat-bottomed boats that could only move in one direction. Sailors would load the flatboats “up in Tennessee or Kentucky, … float them down the Mississippi and break them up for scrap once they’d reached their destination,” Gudmestad explains.
Useful as steamboats were, they came with one big problem: They were inherently dangerous. The boilers they used to make steam were prone to exploding and igniting fires. Not only were the boats built mostly out of wood, but their cargos also often included highly flammable cotton bales, along with barrels of turpentine and gunpowder. The waterways themselves presented numerous hazards, including “snags”—large tree limbs and uprooted trees that either floated atop the water or lurked beneath the surface. As rivers became more congested with traffic, steamboats also ran the risk of colliding with other boats, particularly at night when they had to use torches to light their way.
Between 1816 and 1848, boiler explosions alone killed more than 1,800 passengers and crew and injured another 1,000, according to government records. The sinking of the steamboat Sultana in 1865, also the result of a boiler explosion, claimed as many as 1,800 lives—still the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. “Western steamboats usually blow up one or two a week in the season,” Charles Dickens observed after an 1842 tour of the U.S.
One of the most horrific accidents occurred in 1838, when the Moselle, a fast and nearly new Ohio River steamboat, exploded off Cincinnati. “All the boilers, four in number, burst simultaneously,” reported one contemporary author. “The deck was blown into the air, and the human beings who crowded it were doomed to instant destruction. Fragments of the boiler and of human bodies were thrown both to the Kentucky and Ohio shores, although the distance to the former was a quarter of a mile.” At least 120 people died, but the exact death toll remains unknown.
“Western steamboats showed an appalling accident record,” wrote historian Daniel J. Boorstin in 1965. “A voyage on the Mississippi, it was often said, was far more dangerous than a passage across the ocean.”
As if these hazards weren’t enough, steamboats soon began racing each other in what quickly became a nationwide sensation. In some cases, the races were planned and advertised in advance, with spectators lining the riverbanks beforehand to enjoy the spectacle. Others were impromptu affairs, sometimes urged on by thrill-seeking passengers. Steamboat captains competed as a matter of pride and ego, while boat owners believed that establishing a winning record would draw more passengers and sell more tickets. Gamblers also bet on the outcomes; in one celebrated 1870 race, total wagers amounted to more than $1 million (around $23 million today).
In addition to bragging rights, the winning boat was typically awarded a large pair of deer antlers, often painted gold, that could be mounted in a prominent place for all to admire.
“I think that much the most enjoyable of all races is a steamboat race,” wrote Mark Twain in his 1883 memoir, Life on the Mississippi. “Two red-hot steamboats raging along, neck-and-neck, straining every nerve—that is to say, every rivet in the boilers—quaking and shaking and groaning from stem to stern, spouting white steam from the pipes, pouring black smoke from the chimneys, raining down sparks, parting the river into long breaks of hissing foam—this is sport that makes a body’s very liver curl with enjoyment.”
Twain deemed horse races “pretty tame and colorless in comparison,” noting that he’d never seen anybody killed at one. Deaths were all too common in steamboat racing. Passengers and crew were scalded or blown to pieces in boiler explosions; burned alive in fires; or forced to take their chances in the water, where they often drowned. Boiler explosions were even more likely during races, when crews often circumvented safety valves in order to pour on extra speed.
Just as Flexner saw the steamboat as a distinctly American innovation, the 19th-century humorist Charles Godfrey Leland said much the same about steamboat racing. “From the days of the Romans and Norsemen down to the present time, there was never any form of amusement discovered so daring, so dangerous and so exciting as a steamboat race,” he wrote in 1893, “and nobody but Americans could have ever invented or indulged in it.”
The races begin
What Flexner calls “the first steamboat race in American history” occurred in July 1811. It pitted a brand-new steamboat, the Hope, against inventor Robert Fulton’s The North River in what was supposed to be a race down the Hudson River from Albany to New York City. Unfortunately, the two boats, traveling at the then-astonishing speed of about five miles an hour, got too close and collided near the town of Hudson. Neither boat was seriously damaged, but their captains decided to call it a draw.
Steamboat racing soon spread to other rivers, as well as to the Great Lakes.
In 1851, the showman P.T. Barnum arranged a steamboat race on the Ohio River, from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh, to promote local appearances by Jenny Lind, a celebrated songstress known as the Swedish Nightingale. The Messenger No. 2, with Barnum and Lind aboard, took on a rival boat, the Buckeye State. The latter won, but Barnum got his money’s worth and then some in newspaper publicity.
Meanwhile, steamboat racing continued on the Hudson, all too often with catastrophic results. In July 1852, the Henry Clay caught fire off Yonkers, New York, possibly from overheated boilers, resulting in an estimated 80 deaths, many from drowning. “There was a wild panic, the terror-stricken men and women fighting for possession of the life preservers and struggling with one another even after landing in the water,” wrote David Lear Buckman in his 1907 book, Old Steamboat Days on the Hudson River. Though the Clay’s captain and owners denied that the ship had been racing, passengers testified otherwise, identifying the other ship as the Armenia, which had apparently dropped out of the race well before the disaster.
The New-York Daily Tribune denounced the Clay’s recklessness as “wholesale murder,” a sentiment apparently shared by much of the American public. The incident became a major catalyst for the Steamboat Act of 1852, which imposed stricter safety and inspection requirements and called for the licensing of river pilots and engineers.
Not every steamboat race ended in tragedy, of course. In 1847, for example, robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt bet $1,000 that his namesake steamer, the C. Vanderbilt, could beat the steamboat Oregon in a round-trip race between New York City and Ossining, New York. The competition got so intense that the Oregon’s crew began burning the ship’s furnishings to fuel its boilers. “Berths, settees, chairs and doors went into the flames in order to keep up steam,” noted American Heritage magazine in 1989. The Oregon won the race, and Vanderbilt, a man unaccustomed to losing, had to pay up.
In 1870, the steamboats Robert E. Lee and Natchez competed to determine which was the fastest boat on the Mississippi. The much-publicized event, billed as the Great Mississippi Steamboat Race, began in New Orleans and ended in St. Louis, taking nearly four days from start to finish.
Steamboats like the Lee and Natchez used enormous amounts of fuel and had to stop periodically to take on more coal or firewood, as well as freight and passengers, during the course of a race. Newspapers provided frequent updates, telegraphed in by reporters at various points along the route, revealing which boat was ahead and by how many minutes or hours.
Some papers covered the gambling on the race—which produced bets totaling upwards of $1 million—as avidly as the race itself. The Daily Arkansas Gazette, for example, reported that “New Orleans was wild with excitement and betting going on furiously. One enthusiastic admirer of the Natchez in that city has staked all his cash and closed by betting his house and lot against $30,000.”
Nor was the excitement limited to New Orleans. “Betting by telegraph between Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Chicago exceeds anything ever done or heard of,” the Gazette added.
The Lee won the race, but by then, the era of the steamboat was largely past. Historian Gudmestad says it peaked in the 1850s, as railroads became the country’s dominant mode of transportation, facilitated in part by large government subsidies.
The end of the steamboat era also meant the demise of steamboat racing, though the tradition is still celebrated today in the annual Great Steamboat Race on the Ohio River, part of the festivities surrounding the Kentucky Derby. The 14-mile race has been held nearly every year since 1963, with the exception of the pandemic year of 2020. This year, it’s scheduled for May 3.
In a departure from steamboat racers of yore, the Belle of Louisville’s caretakers conduct thorough tests of its safety valves and boilers, and they don’t push the boilers to full pressure when the ship is running, says Eric Frantz, guest and education programs manager for Belle of Louisville Riverboats. “Even when racing,” he explains, the goal is “safety over speed.”
Still, some things never change: If the Belle wins this year, its prize will be a pair of silver antlers.