Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Steam Powers a New Economy

A painting of the Steamboats Lee and Natchez.
The invention of the steamboat in the early 1800s changed life along the Mississippi River. Steam-powered shipping turned the river into a major transportation corridor, increased trade, and created a river culture that was distinct to America. 

Since there were few roads and no railways in the lands of the Louisiana Purchase, the Mississippi River and its tributaries were the best routes for travel, trade, and settlement. With the arrival of steam power, those activities increased dramatically. A voyage that once took months could now be done in ten days.

In 1811, the first steamboat to travel the full length of the Mississippi from the Ohio River to New Orleans was the New Orleans. She transported people and goods between New Orleans, Louisiana and Natchez, Mississippi until she hit a stump and sank two years later.

Traffic on the Mississippi River was dominated by steamboats for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The period between 1830 and 1850 was the golden age of steamboats. Steam power made it quicker and cheaper to ship people and cargo by river through New Orleans than to move them by land over the Appalachian Mountains, including cotton, timber, coal, and produce. Because produce and products could be more easily transported to market, steamboats sparked the rapid growth of port cities, farming, trade, and prosperity along the river.

The golden era of steamboats on the Mississippi continued until the 1870s, when railroads began to surpass the river as the major commercial transportation mode for the central United States. Steamboat transport remained a viable industry, in terms of both passengers and freight, until about 1920.

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