Sunday, August 9, 2009

Steamboat Notes

Did you know that Mark Twain [Samuel L. Clemens (1835-1910)], who wrote about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, was a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi in his younger days? Yes, Mr. Twain in his early 20's was a "cub" (an apprentice) riverboat pilot in and around Hannibal, Missouri, in the years just prior to the Civil War. By the time he wrote the book Life on the Mississippi in 1883 the days of the steam boat were coming to an end. The railroads had taken over both passenger and freight traffic in the US. Life on the Mississippi is a great look into life on the Mississippi prior to the Civil War.
During that time prior to the Civil War, there were roughly 11,000 steamboats in service. Many of those were paddle wheelers like the River Shark. There are still stern-wheel paddle boats in service today. Most are along the west coast of the US and near the Mississippi delta. Two boats are the Belle of Louisville owned by the City of Louisville, KY, and the Delta Queen moored at Chattanooga,TN. The Delta Queen is a mostly wooden ship and is not allowed by law to carry passengers for fire safety reasons. These two ships often race one another just prior to the Kentucky Derby each year.
The worst maritime disaster in the US occurred just after the Civil War when the paddle wheel steamship the Sultana exploded while carrying Union soldiers home from prison camps in the South. Most of the 2400 passengers and crew on board were killed on April 27, 1865.