Friday, November 6, 2009

Researching Steamboats on the Ohio River


The past few months I have become very interested in steamboating on the Ohio River. I like looking at pictures of steamboats, reading about them and learning about the types of cargo they carried. Steamboating was big business in this area. Evansville, which is practically next door to where I live, was the home base for a number of steamboats back when steamboats were a major source of transportation.

If you are familiar with Jefferson’s Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy by Boynton Merrill, Jr., you will recall that the steamboat New Orleans was launched in March 1811 at Pittsburgh. It is stated in Jefferson’s Nephews that the steamboat had “some features of a sailing craft … was painted the improbable color of sky blue. These odd features, along with her paddle wheel and belching smoke stack, guaranteed that she was the most curious if not the most frightening apparition that had ever come down the Ohio.” You can imagine how suspicious people were of this new mode of transportation.

It wasn’t long, though, before steamboats were common, going up and down the Ohio, carrying cargo and passengers to larger cities, where they disembarked to visit friends, do business or to simply enjoy some leisure time. The steamboat opened up the world to those living in rural areas.

I am fascinated by the number of men in Livingston County, Kentucky who worked on the steamboats as pilots, clerks or general laborers. I had heard people say “I can’t find anything on my ancestor. He worked on the river and there is no information on him.” Don’t believe it. There is some information online, but I have found my best sources to be newspaper items in the Evansville newspaper. Titled “River Intelligence,” the daily paper, the Evansville Journal, began reporting the activities of steamboats as far back as the late 1840s. Willard Library in Evansville has three published volumes of abstracts of “River Intelligence” ending in 1875. After 1875, you need to search the Journal for information. Not only is there information on the activities of the steamboats, but also the crews, marriages and deaths of family members, and the types of cargo carried by the steamboats.

I thought all cities of any size on the river that had a newspaper might have newspaper information on steamboats. The Paducah, Kentucky newspaper had a similar column on river news, but it was not as extensive as in the Evansville Journal. The Henderson, Kentucky newspapers carried very little steamboat news, unless it dealt with a disaster. I suspect the Louisville and Cincinnati newspaper did carry a lot of river news.

The other really great source of information is Way’s Packet Directory, 1848 – 1994, compiled by Frederick Way Jr. I bought my copy through, but your local bookstore might be able to special order it for you or your local library might have a copy. The book is arranged in alphabetical order by name of the steamboat, contains the date and place it was built, years in operation and what happened to end its career. For example, the John L. Lowry was built in Cave in Rock, Ill. 1909, the size of its engines and boilers was listed, states that the owner was Capt. John L. Lowry and the boat ran between Evansville and Paducah. It burned at Hamletsburg, Ill, opposite Smithland, Kentucky in June 1911.

Another entry states that the John L. Lowry was rebuilt in Evansville in 1913, sank in a storm in 1919 and returned to activity in a different capacity the next year.

Willard Library has some photographs of steamboats, and you will find some on, but the best place is the Inland Rivers Library in the Rare Books and Special Collections Department of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Cincinnati, Ohio. This is the largest collection of river books and photos.


LisaTV said...

Thanks for the posts. I have been researching the Freeman, Fleetwood, Scott and related families of Western KY. I am a direct descendant of Aaron and Judith Fleetwood Freeman through their daughter, Jersey, and s-i-l, Nutter Scott.

gloria said...

Do you have links to the Paducah newspapers for researching steamboat tragedies? Or the Evansville Journal? Thanks.

Brenda Joyce Jerome said...

I use Chronicling America at for early Paducah newspapers, but read the Evansville Journal on microfilm at Willard Library in Evansville. The Journal is not online for free. Some subscription sites may include the Journal - I'm not sure.