ships steamboats ` Ships Steanboats Evolve Ships Steamboats


Copyright 2021 by Richard O. Aichele - email - and Inc.


Steamboat and steam technologies began in 1807, evolved over 150 years becoming a transportation infrastructure built by innovations, shipbuilding skills and business investments that still benefit everyone.


Ships - The Steamboat Evolutions

by Richard O. Aichele

"A film of dark smoke appears above one of those remote river 'points;' ...a drayman ... lifts up the cry, 'S-t-e-a-m-boat a-comin'!' ... and in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving," wrote Mark Twain in 1883 when that steamboat scene had become common. The steamboat era started in 1807 when a 142 feet long riverboat powered by steam named the Clermont travelled on the Hudson River from New York City 150 miles north to Albany, NY in the unbelieveable sailing time of 32 hours. Designed by Robert Fulton and financed by Robert R. Livingston, the Clermont was powered by a steam engine imported from England. That 1807 steamboat was the start of a 150 year era when American steamboats, steam engine technologies and shipbuilding changed the existing transportation infrastructure in the United States forever.

St John and Drew

By 1863, the steamboats had become larger, more oppulent "floating palaces" and faster. The steamboat St. John, and her running mate the steamboat Drew were operated by the People's Evening Line and provided plush overnight service on the Hudson River between New York City and Albany, NY. The St. John was 385 feet long and powered by a massive Walking Beam steam engine with a 76 inch cylinder and 15 foot stroke. Shown above are the two steamboats, one northbound and one southbound, passing the halfway point near Poughkeepsie, New York.


The Combination: Steam + Machinery

wrap text around imageThe engine of a river steamboat using paddle wheels had to meet several points of marine engineering criteria including maximum power for steaming, a quick reversing mechanism and simple but reliable operation. The Walking Beam engine design met those requirements. Additionally, since riverboats required minimal draft the resulting in lack of a deep hull to hold the steam engine, the Walking Beam engine design used space upwards for its machinery and linkages. The prominent feature was the diamond shaped beam structure often above the top deck.





wrap text around imageThe Beam is just aft of the smoke stacks as shown in the 1849 illustration of the steamboat Ocean. The Marine Engines text published by the International Library of Technology in 1897 noted, "The beam engine is still extensively used for paddle wheel river steamers. It has undergone but very slight changes during the last forty years."


              Hudson River Day Line   Robert Fulton

                  Hudson River Day Line   Mary Powell


            Hudson River Day Line   Washington Irving

                  Hudson River Day Line  Albany


               Hudson Navigation Company  Trojan

          Hudson River Line  Alexander Hamilton


The Alexander Hamilton was a sidewheel was built in 1924 and became the last Hudson River Day Line excursion steamboat. The Circle Line purchased the Hudson River Day Line and retired the Alexander Hamilton in 1971. In 1974, while docked at a Navy pier in New Jersey she sank in a storm. Efforts to salvage the steamboat for preservation were not successful. Naval historian Edward O. Clark noted: "The Alexander Hamilton was marked as a Hudson Day Boat by her long pointed bow with three tiers of open decks. Her machinery are inclined engines which required no walking beam because the slanted pistons are connected directly to the wheel shaft."

The Trojan, a 317 foot long sidewheeler night boat built in 1909 was operated between Troy, NY and New York City by the Hudson Navigation Company also known as the Citizens' Line. In 1939, it was the last night boat sailing between Troy and New York City and that also ended the era of night boats on the Hudson River.


         Steamboat C. W. Morse docked at Albany, NY

    Hudson River Day Line docks in Albany, NY


hendrick hudson4bThe typically large numbers of passengers and spectators on the pier in Kingston, New York shown with the Hudson River Day Line's 5,500 passenger steamer Hendrick Hudson making a regular stop on its river journey. Built in 1906 by the T. S. Marvel Shipbuilding Company in Newburgh, New York with an all steel hull and superstructure, the vessel was 400 feet long overall, had a beam of 45.1 feet at the gunwales and 82 feet over the guards and a draft of only 7.5 feet allowed to it to safely navigate the shallower upper portion of the Hudson River. The Hendrick Hudson was equipped with side paddle wheels powered by a 3 cylinder compound direct-actiing steam engine that produced 6,200 horsepower built by W. & A. Fletcher Co. Designed for service between New York City and Albany, New York, the Hendrick Hudson made her maiden voyage at speeds up to 24 milies per hours. The Hendrick Hudson entered Hudson River service in August 1906 and was singularly impressive. Passengers could climb to the top deck, known as the hurricane deck, for views of the passing river scenes. This deck also included two parlor rooms and officers' staterooms. Below was deck number 3, the promenade deck, that included large enclosed observation rooms one forward and the other toward the stern. The second deck's main salon was outfitted with the eras fine decorative appointments. The dining room was located below on the main deck offering guests the maximum cruising stability and smoothness through the river waters.

hudson steamersThe excursion steamer Hendrick Hudson departing from the Hudson Day Line's river landing at Poughkeepsie, NY heading downriver to New York City in the early 1900s.


robert fultonDuring the first half on the 20th Century, the Hudson River's overnight boats gradually gave way to daytime runs as the competing New York Central Railroad runnning along the river shoreline provided faster and more frequent service between Albany NY and New York City. At the same time, an improving living standard for city residents created a new leisure market. The Hudson River Day Line steamboats such as the Robert Fulton, allowed city dwellers to experience day trips to the Hudson River valley areas such as Poughkeepsie, Bear Mountain and Kingston. While it lasted, the steamboat companies served that thriving, lively daytime excursion businesses. The Depression of the 1930s forced many people to give up their boat trips. For the steamboat companies, the following war years of 1939 to 1945 were worse and some of the steamboats were taken over by the government. The end of the war brought partial relief with some passengers returning but the growth of private automobiles gave the public entirely new leisure travel options.


Steamboat Evolution Expands Westward

Four years later, in 1811, after the success of the Clermont, Fulton built a new steamboat in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with the intent to operate it as far south as New Orleans by sailing the Ohio River and the Mississippi RIver. According to the Enclyclopedia Britannica, "The trip was slow and perilous, river conditions being desperate because of America’s first recorded, and also largest, earthquake, which had destroyed New Madrid just below the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Fulton’s low-powered vessel remained at New Orleans, for it could go no farther upstream than Natchez. He built three boats for Western rivers that were based at New Orleans, but none could conquer the passage to Pittsburgh." However, the number of steamboats larger and more powerful on the Mississippi, the Ohio and their tributaries steadily increased throughout the 1800s.


                  Robert E. Lee and Natchez

                  Belle of the Bends

Typical scenes in earlier days along the mighty Mississippi River. Races between two riverboats such as shown in this Natchez and the Robert E. Lee illustration were common. The first boat to dock at the destination received the most valuable cargo. A more common scene was the Packet Boat Belle of the Bends stopped at the landing in Vicksburg, MS transfering passengers and cargo coming from or destined for other Mississippi River ports.


         Mississippi River Steamboat JM White in 1878.

    Riverboat Delta Queen on the upper Mississippi


The Riverboat Delta Queen

The Delta Queen sailed well into the 1970s and greeted the river towns with the happy music from her Steam Calliope.

wrap text around imageThe Delta Queen was one of America's remaining classic riverboats throughout the early 1980s. Her construction was done over a three year period between 1924 and 1927. Major portions were fabricated overseas such as the propulsion machinery from William Denny & Brothers Ltd., Dumbarton, Scotland and the paddlewheel shaft and the cranks that were forged at the Krupp Stahlwerke AG, Germany. Final construction was completed at the Banner Island Shipyard in Stockton, California.

wrap text around imageReminiscent of the great Misissippi River steamboats of the 1800s, the Delta Queen's gleaming brass, Tiffany style stained glass windows, ornate woodwork, its melodious steam caliope and, down below, surrounded by the aroma of steam and hot oil, the wonderful smoothly working machinery steadily turning the great stern paddle wheel were just some of the features of this grand boat.

The Delta Queen continued sailing into the 1980s on the inland waters of America's heartland calling at the river cities and smaller towns between New Orleans, Louisiana - St. Louis, Missouri -- St. Paul, Minnesota on the Mississippi River and up to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Cincinnati, Ohio the Delta Queen's home port on the Ohio River.

It was a friendly boat for the passengers that enjoyed the leisurely crusing pace of the Delta Queen and the reassuring consistent sound of the big paddle wheel at the stern Unforgetable memories were created.


The Lake Steamers Evolution

Minne-Ha-Ha072819Many large inland lakes have a long history of water transportation that served shoreline towns and even as mailboats serving individual properties. Today one of the steamboats is this stern paddle wheel steamboat Minne-Ha-Ha operated by the Lake George Steamboat Co. that sails lake tours on Lake George, New York.

Steamboats appeared on Lake Champlain in Vermont and New York State in 1808 - only one year after Robert Fulton's Clermont first sailed under steam power. The next 63 years witnessed many new steamboats competing on that lake and nearby Lake George in New York State. In 1870, the two companies that survived the commercial competitions were bought by the Delaware & Hudson [D&H] Railroad. That railroad, which operated trains between New York City and Montreal, Canada, realized the opportunity to expand passenger services for the growing number of people travelling from big cities to Vermont and the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. The railroad invested in building and operating lake steamboats which connected with its trains. A profitable business emerged on Lake Champlain and Lake George.

D&H lake boats

The Lake Champlain Transportation Company, one of the D&H Railroad's new subsidiaries had a long history of commercially successful steamboat operations. Two vessels from 1907 shown above.

In 1874, the D&H Railroad built a new connecting track between its northern Lake George port and the southern port on Lake Champlain to speed transfers of passengers. The two lakes although near to each other have an elevation difference of 225 feet.

The Lake George Steamboat Company, the other D&H Railroad's new subsidiaries, began operating a large, fast, side-wheeled steamer 195 feet long with a 30 foot beam powered by a walking beam steam engine giving the vessel a speed of 20 MPH. For the next 75 years, some of the finest lake steamers sailed the two lakes and combined with the railroad's passenger trains offered excellent through passenger services.

Below is a 1907 D&H Railroad timetable showing their coordinated rail and steamboat connections between New York City and Montreal.

D&H train / steamboat schedule 1907

wrap text around imageWith various vessels, the Lake George Steamboat Company subsidiary continued until 1945. It then had one aging steel hulled steam powered vessel called the Mohican II, a small dock and a small shipyard with a marine railway. New owners, that still own the company today, acquired it in 1945 and began a steady effort to rebuild the company and its facilities. Now, with three first class excursion vessels, passenger service in season is again popular on Lake George. The stern wheeler steamboat Minne-Ha-Ha complete with a steam Calliope was the first vessel built by the new management at its shipyard on the lake in 1969. She was later extensively enlarged and improved in 1998. The company's next major ship construction program at its lake front shipyard created the 189.5 foot long diesel powered Lac du Sacrement. It is a remarkably accurate recreation of the old Hudson River passenger steamer Peter Stuyvesant but reduced to a 3/4 scale.

Maintaining vessels is a never ending part of the business and the company's marine railway is a key element. The Mohican II, was originally built in 1908 as a steam powered vessel, later converted to diesel power, has been in continuous service for over 100 years and is the oldest passenger vessel in the United States. In 2000, she was again due for a regular inspection, upgrading and general improvements typical of those performed on every vessel worldwide.

wrap text around imageThe Mohican IIl was sailed to the company's shipyard at the north end of Lake George and taken out of the water using its unique marine railway. Positioning the Mohican II over a submerged cradle riding on submerged railroad tracks was performed flawlessly by the vessel's captain and the divers in the water.High & Dry

The final lift of the Mohican II out of the water and up onto the shipyard's work position took almost three hours. As the cradle and ship moved closer to shore, the ship had to be accurately positioned onto the cradle that rose to contact the hull bottom. The operation continued by pulling the cradle untill it supported the ship's hull then smoothly forward on the railway's tracks until both were completely out of the water and safely positioned high and dry in the shipyard.


The Harbor Tugs

America's harbors and rivers were once crowded with tugboats, ferries and barges to transport people and cargo from one side to the other side. Many of the vessels were built and operated by the railroads where it was not possible for them to build bridges over the waters or tunnel under them.

wrap text around imageNew York Central Number 31 was part of a fleet of tugboats operated by the New York Central Railroad to move barges carrying freight cars to different points in New York Harbor. New York Central Railroad's Tug 31 built as a steam powered tug was still in active service when photographed on the lower Manhattan waterfront in the late 1960s. The active tugs in the mid-1900s included many steam powered tugs and ferries although use of diesel engine power resulted in the rertirement of older steam power vessels.



tugdal2 The Port of New York's towing companies included Moran Towing and Transportation, McAllister Towing and Dalzell Towing with its Dalzellido of New York shown crossing Lower New York Harbor toward New Jersey with the Statue of Liberty in the background about sixty years ago. Tugboats had the important role of not only asssisting in docking ocean going ships but for the railroads by providing the power to smoothly move barges filled with railroad freight cars and in some places passenger cars with passengers on-board.



The growth of container cargo ships in the 1970s and 1980s totally changed operations in New York Harbor and harbors worldwide. No longer were the individual finger piers that could only dock one or two cargo ships at a time where the cargo was loaded and off-loaded by cranes practical or efficient. The photo shows one of the Moran Towing tugboats assisting the soon to be retired U.S. Lines American Farmer cargo ship as it sailed from one of the old Hudson River finger piers in Manhattan, New York City.



Railroad Ferrries

The ferry operations were a valuable part of the railroads' infrastructure. At one time, New York Harbor ferry operatrions were done seven days a week by six railroads each with their own ferry fleets linking their passenger trains with their passengers final destinations and two New York City municipal ferry operations linking Staten Island with Manhattan and Brooklyn. The New York - New Jersey Hudson River and lower New York bay municipal and railroad ferries carried hundreds or thousands of commuters daily on their ferries. The Erie Railroad's passenger and vehicle ferry Youngstown shown sailing up the Hudson River from the Barclay Street ferry terminal in Manhattan to its Jersey City ferry terminal on the New Jersey side.


The ferry Elizabeth was one vessel of the Central Railroad of New Jersey's fleet of ferries carrying passengers and vehicles across the Hudson River between New York City and the railroad's massive Communipaw Terminal in Jersey City, NJ. The ferries from Manhattan dockimg at the terminal offered direct connection passenger train service locally in New Jersey, to destinations such as Baltimore, Maryland; Washington D.C. and throughout Pennsylvania.


The New York area railroad ferries and tug boats are now gone and with with a few exceptions, the railroads' river front terminals are just fading history. However, in their prime, the crews of the railroad tugboats and ferries were a vital part of the railroads' overall daily operations.


On the West Coast, the railroad operated ferry services were built to carry hundreds or thousands of commuters daily. One example were the ferries operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Fransicco Bay. The Eureka was once the largest double ended ferry in service sailing much of its life between San Francisco and Sausalito, California under railroad operation. The 299 ft. long boat with a 78 ft. beam could carry 2,300 passengers and 120 cars per trip. Built with a wooden hull, she was powered by a walking beam steam engine. Today the Eureka survives and rests at San Francisco's Maritime Museum. Aboard the Eureka the banks of benches inside provided comfortable seating on those days of foggy mornings when being outside might have been too cool.


The waters of San Francisco Bay were home to many large ferry boats carrying passengers and vehicles for most of the 20th Century from 1928 to 1957. For commuters and travellers to towns around the bay, the pilot house on the Eureka was a familiar sight as they glanced upward while boarding the boat.


Ships - Great Lakes Steamboats

Maritime traffic using sailing ships the early 1800s was primarily cargo ships from midwestern lake ports often to the eastern end inland lake ports such as Buffalo, NY where the cargo was transferred to railroads. The success of Fulton's passenger steamboat Clermont in 1807 led to construction of Lake Erie's first passenger carrying steamboat in 1819. By 1830, the increasing waves of immigrants from Europe heading for the open lands of the north western states created a opportunity for passenger vessels.

The 401 ton, 172 ft. long S.S. Milwaukie was built in 1837 at Grand Island, NY. The ship's operating career was short when she was wrecked in 1842 while sailing on Lake Michigan.


westernworldThe railroads also benefitted from lake passenger vessels at times. When the New York Central Railroad from New York City still only went west to the eastern end of Lake Erie in Buffalo, NY and its associated Michigan Central Railroad going east ended at the western end of Lake Erie, the transportation void at Lake Erie was filled by lake steamers. One of the passenger steamers was the S.S. Western World built in 1854. The 337 ft. long, 2,002 ton was described as "the finest steamer the Lakes would have for decades to come" but the initial intended service lasted only three years. Once the New York Central Railroad finished its new tracks along Lake Erie's shoreline and connected with the Michigan Central Railroad, the S.S. Western World and her sister ships were laid up and later scrapped. The railroads also operated their own Great Lakes steamship companies to serve hotels and summer resorts in remote areas far from their neareast lakefront rail terminals.

christopher columbusThe fast growing shipbuilding industry on the Great Lakes often creatively evolved ship designs for the unique challenges of the lakes. "The whaleback is a distinctive type which has been evolved by the lake ship builders and a large fleet of them has already been turned out of the Duluth yards. The S.S. Christopher Columbus a passenger whaleback was familiar to visitors to the World's Fair. The ship is a beautifully modeled vessel, 362 feet in length, with a beam of 42 feet and a high speed," according to a period maritime publication.

The passenger vessels were described by many as floating palaces. They were built specially for the Great Lakes provided city to city service in the 1800s and the early 1900s. Eventually beginning in the 1920s increasingly better highways and cars reduced the number of ship passengers. Many vessels were scrapped. Other ships lived on for years as their owners switched over to the concept of multi-day cruises on the Great Lakes. Unfortunately, that market also declined and by the late 1950s those ships became history. In recent years, passenger vessels on the Great Lakes has experienced a small renaissance including visits by smaller ocean going cruise ships that can pass through the St. Lawrence Seaway locks.

Famous Laker Steamships

    S.S. Put In Bay                               S.S. Theodore Roosevelt                               S.S.City of Cleveland

"Two other famous passenger steamships are the S.S. North Land and the S.S. North West of 4,344 gross tonnage, 7,000 horse power, and a speed of 21 miles an hour. They ply between Buffalo, New York and Duluth, Minnesota and carry their passengers at a speed and amid luxurious accommodations that rival those of the great Atlantic liners," according to the Scientific American.


Chicago, Duluth & Georgian Bay Line's Steamships


The Chicago, Duluth & Georgian Bay Transit Company ordered two large passenger ships designed for cruising on the Great Lakes built at the Great Lakes Engineering Works at Ecorse, Michigan. The S.S. North American was launched on January 16, 1913 followed by the S.S. South American on February 21, 1914.

The two ships were equipped with three coal-fired Scotch marine boilers that powered the quadruple expansion engine producing 2,200 horsepower and turned the single propeller. They were later converted to oil-fired in the 1920s and a second funnel was added possibly to enhance and streamline the ships' appearance or for techical reasons including adding space to house additional ventilation equipment. That work and other periodic upgrades were done during winter lay ups and maintenance periods. After the 1924 upgrades to oil-fired from coal-fired, the company was able to advertise its two steamships were burning oil - No smoke - No soot - No dirt. By the 1960s, the Great Lakes cruise travel market had declined substantially. Both the S.S. South American and the S.S. North American advertising had promoted the ships and their operation as: The only exclusively passenger ship on the Great Lakes. As time went on, the lack of any supplemental income such as package express affected the operation's overall profitability.

S.S. North American

The S.S. North American was 259 feet long, had a beam of 47 feet, a draft of 17 feet 6 inches and was listed as 2,317 gross tons

wrap text around image The ship sailed for the original owners until 1963 when she was sold to a to a company that operated her for one year for cross lake sailing between Erie, Pennsylvania, USA and Port Dover, Ontario, Canada. The ship was retired in 1964. Several attempts to secure a new a operator failed. At auction, she was acquired by the Seafarers International Union for use as a training ship. While under tow from the Great Lakes to Maryland the ship suddenly sank in the Atlantic Ocean in the area of Nantucket ending her 54 year long career.

Interest in the S.S. North American continued and in 2006, a search effort by Quest Marine successfully located the wreck. According to Quest Marine: "The Great Lakes passenger ship S.S. North American which sank in September of 1967 while on a voyage from Erie PA. to Newport News VA has been found. A research team, this past July aboard Quest Marine's R/V Quest located the ship close to the edge of the continental shelf approximately 140 miles off the New England coast in 250 feet of water…The ship was being towed by the tug Michael McAllister to a shipyard for conversion to a training ship when it sank suddenly on the night of September 13th, 1967. Swells from approaching Hurricane Doria proved too much for the aging ship and contributed to her loss. No one was injured in the sinking and the tug reached port safely.

Quest Marine's research team led by Captain Eric Takakjian conducted three days of survey diving operations at the wreck site over the period 15-17 July 2006. Three dive teams of two divers each accomplished photographic and physical measurement documentation of the wreck. The divers included Takakjian, Patrick Rooney, Steven Gatto, Tom Packer, Heather Knowles and David Caldwell. Due to the depth all dive teams breathed custom blended helium based gas mixtures. Decompression was accomplished with the use of multiple oxygen-enriched gases."

S.S. South American

wrap text around imageThe S.S. South American was slightly larger than her sister ship at 290 feet long, had a beam of 47 feet and was listed as 2,662 gross tons. Otherwise she had the same technical and construction features as her sister ship the S.S. North American..

During the winter lay-up in 1924, the ship suffered a fire requiring some reconstruction of her superstructure. The remainder of her career was successful with her last voyages carrying passengers to the World's Fair in Montreal, Canada in 1967 and she was then retired from Great Lakes service.

The S.S. South American was acquired by the Seafarers International Union based in Maryland to replace the S.S. North American that sank before it could converted for use as a training ship. However, after being moved from the Great Lakes to the mid-Atlantic coast, the S.S. South American failed a U.S. Coast Guard inspection and was docked in Camden, New Jersey in 1968. Time and the elements gradually took their toll and the ship was scrapped in 1992 ending her 78 year long career afloat.


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