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The Western River Steamboat: Structure and Machinery, 1811 to 1860. (May 2001)

Adam Isaac Kane, B.A. Millersville University
Chair of Advisory Committee: Dr. Kevin J. Crisman


The western river steamboat contained the technology that transformed the trans-Appalachian West from a wilderness to an economically significant region of the country.  The following study explores the origin and development of this important steamboat type by analyzing archaeological data and historic sources.  This information is used to create a thorough study of steamboat construction and machinery.

The first steamboat on the western rivers was built by Robert Fulton in 1811.  In the next decade many steamboats followed, but these vessels were not well-adapted to the shallow and shift rivers. Typically these steamboats had deep-drafted, stoutly constructed hulls, heavy low-pressure considering engines, and many other features akin to ocean-going watercraft.  In the 1820s, shipwrights began to adapt steamboat hull form and machinery to the river conditions.  By the close of  this decade the high-pressure engine was universally adopted for use on western steamboats because of its power, light weight, low cost, and ease of repair.  Advancements in propulsion machinery were paralleled by the construction of shallow, flat-bottomed hulls and multiple decks rising high above the waterline.  In the late 1830s or early 1840s, the construction of steamboats was materially advanced with the invention of hogging chins.  These long iron rods prevented steamboat hull from hogging or sagging, thereby allowing shipwrights to build vessels with lighter timbers, further reducing vessel draft.

The first section of this thesis introduces the reader to the subject and outlines the sources consulted forth this study, while Sections II and III present the historic context necessary for understanding the western river steamboat’s historic importance.  Sections IV through VI contain a detailed analysis of steamboat structure and machinery divided into chronological periods.  Conclusions are presented in Section VII. Appendices include a table quantifying steamboat construction on western rivers and a table of measurements from steamboats that plied the Ohio River in 1850.

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