A History of Steamboating in the Ohio Valley

The successful transit of the steamboat New Orleans down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in the fall and early winter of 1811 signaled a new era in American history—the age of the steamboat.

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The changes that steam-propelled river craft brought to America’s interior waterways were as seismic as the tremors experienced by the New Orleans during the New Madrid earthquake. Virtually every part of society felt those changes in some way. The advent of steamboats on western waters impacted transportation, industry, business, communication, and culture.

Ohio Valley residents quickly embraced its advantages and accepted and bore its dangers. The steamboat era was off and paddling and did not flag until the coming of the railroad and automobile combined to bring about its demise. The letters, diaries, business records, books, maps, photographs, prints, paintings, and artifacts in The Filson’s collection provide a record of the steamboat era in the Ohio Valley, from the famous voyage of the New Orleans to the period’s final years, when the few remaining paddle wheelers were used for entertainment and leisure travel. 

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This exhibit has been adapted from the article "The Engine is Working Away Like Mad": Documenting the Steamboat Era in the Filson's Collection, by Filson Curator of Collections Jim Holmberg, published in Ohio Valley History, Vol. 11 No. 3, Fall 2011