Steamy times: Great old photographs of steamboats

by | Feb 16, 2023 | Photography, Shipping

Old photos of steamboats are not likely to evoke feelings of nostalgia among environmentalists. Steamboats polluted the air and ruined riverbank ecosystems. Even so, they were vital to trade, commerce and tourism. Apart from their economic significance, steamboats exuded a certain charm. They inspired Mark Twain to write Life in the Mississippi, a memoir of the steamboat era on the Mississippi before the American Civil War.

In one chapter, Twain describes the energy and excitement that usually attended the docking of a steamboat:

…the crew are grouped on the forecastlethe broad stage is run far out over the port bow, and an envied deck-hand stands picturesquely on the end of it with a coil of rope in his hand; the pent steam is screaming through the gauge-cocks; the captain lifts his hand, a bell rings, the wheels stop; then they turn back, churning the water to foam, and the steamer is at rest. Then such a scramble as there is to get aboard, and to get ashore, and to take in freight and to discharge freight, all at one and the same time; and such a yelling and cursing as the mates facilitate it all with!

Click here to download Mark Twain’s Life in the Mississippi

Like Twain’s book, the following photos bring back to life the wonderful age of steamboats:

The Manly ferry ‘Brighton’ at Wharf 1, Circular Quay, Sydney Cove, c.1890
Photo by Henry King (Engish-born Australian,1855–1923)
Courtesy of Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Albany: boats on the Hudson River (the Jacob H. Tremper and the Fort Grange), July 1926
Photo by Eugene L. Armbruster (American,1865-1943)
Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library
Digital image shared Marine Café Blog for educational purposes

Tourists crowd the dock around the McPherson steamboat on Conesus Lake, c.1880s
Photographer unidentified
Courtesy of Livingston County Historian’s Office, New York

U.S. Mail steamboat Chesapeake, 1887
Photographer unidentified
Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

River Steamboat “Okeehumkee” by Landing — Silver Springs, Florida, 1886
Photographer unidentified
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

A steamboat caught in the rapids of Saint-Laurent (Canada), 1878
Photo by Notman & Sandham (Canadian, founded 1877, dissolved 1882)
Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum

Crossing the Detroit River in winter, c. 1905
Detroit Publishing Co., publisher
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

~ Barista Uno

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