Steamboat Artwork Group 2

‘Moonlight Encounter on the Mississippi’

In the 1800s large log rafts were floated down the Mississippi River from the pine forests in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The first documented raft taken through to St. Louis was in the charge of Henry Merill, who refitted it at the mouth of the Wisconson River, and delivered it to St. Louis in 1839.

Rafts of both logs and lumber were made up of long strings each about sixteen feet wide and about four hundred feet long. The string was composed of rows of logs, close together, side by side and end to end. The rows were held together by poles laid across the string and fastened to each log with hickory or elm lockdowns, or plugs. Strings were similarly secured side by side.

The steering-oars or sweeps used to handle the rafts were usually some twenty-feet long, made from young tamarack poles about twelve inches thick at the river end where a pine blade was inserted measuring about fourteen inches wide by, twelve feet long. A sawed taper narrowed the end of the sweep removing excess wood. The sweeps were positioned in rowlocks, in rows fore and aft. There was a sweep at the end of every string, so that a raft of ten strings had a fore crew of ten men, and the other ten ‘bucking’ oars aft. All were under the direction of the pilot who hired and paid them off, and usually had fair control of them.

The crew lived on the raft as it journeyed downriver, usually constructing small shelters made of rough boards. Larger shelters were discouraged because they would catch wind and cause more work at the sweeps. Rafts generally had a low wide ‘cook-shanty’ in which they sat down to eat; but often the cooking was done with only a cover to keep the rain off the stove, and the grub was served out in the open, the men standing to eat.

In 1857, three thousand men were engaged in lumbering on the Wisconsin. As all the lumber had to be floated out of the Wisconsin and down the Mississippi, rafting grew into a great business, requiring a breed of hardy, rough, but industrious and reliable men, working under raft pilots. When they reached their destination the raftsmen would take passage on a steamboat going upriver.

Until the mid 1860’s, all rafts of both logs and lumber were manned by raftsmen pulling on sweeps, keeping them in the current in the channels, to avoid drifting sideways onto, or ‘saddle-bagging’, sand-bars, the heads of islands, bridge piers and other hazards. After the Civil War, however, sternwheel steamboats took on this work.

In this painting, it appears that the signal lantern tied to the mast has gone out. A raftsmen is frantically signalling the upstreaming boat hoping to avoid a collision that would be disastrous for all. A few logs, at least, may be “bitten off”.

John Stobart is a leading maritime artist, with an extraordinary ability to render realistic lighting, day or night. Prints are available in Limited Editions. Please contact Maritime Heritage Prints for further information about this print.

Giant Steamboats at New Orleans’ ~ 1853

A spectacular antebellum painting of the New Orleans sugar levee, by Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron (1801~1879). The original title of the painting, which was exhibited at the First Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855,  is ‘Bateaux A Vapeur Geants’.

Giant Steamboats at New Orleans conveys the hustle of late afternoon activity on the wharves as workers unload cargo. Sugar barrels, cotton bales and other products stretch as far as the eye can see, amidst workers, drays, mules, and overseers. The large sidewheeler on the left is the Grand Turk, heading upriver with decks of waving passengers, and issuing black smoke – an occasional grandeur reserved for departures and arrivals and resulting from the addition of pitch to the furnaces. The prominent steamer is the Gipsy, resplendent with red chimney stacks and a gilded device mounted between. Noteworthy are the two planters or brokers in the foreground. Sebron’s composition includes the vista upriver, the forecastle of the Gipsy, and the bustling wharves receding to the city of New Orleans, beneath a smokey haze and coloured by the setting sun.
The original oil on canvas painting (48.1/2×72.3/8 inches) is owned by the Tulane University of Louisiana. Sebron’s signature is on the boat lower left.

Back in 1682, the New Orleans area was visited by French explorer, Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle. Villages of the Quinipissa and Tangipahoa Indians were already in the area. Later, in 1699, another French explorer, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, sieur de Bienville arrived, and after being named Governor of the Louisiana Territory, he established a settlement in 1718, naming it Nouvelle Orleans, in honor of Philippe II, Duc d’Orleans, the regent of France under French King Louis XV.

By 1722, Nouvelle Orleans was made the capital of this French colony. In 1767, Louisiana was divided between England and Spain. At this time, New Orleans became the capital of Spanish Louisiana. In 1800, a secret transaction took place ceding New Orleans to France, with the formal declaration in 1803. However, soon after, the Louisiana Purchase was completed making Louisiana a part of the United States. Louisiana became a state in 1812 with New Orleans as its first capital. (It stayed the capital until 1830 and was again named the capital from 1831 to 1849.) The infamous “Battle of New Orleans” with General Andrew Jackson took place during the “War of 1812.” The battle occurred near the end of the war in 1815 as the city was defended against the British troops.

In 1811, the New Orleans became the first steamboat to navigate down the Mississippi, arriving from Pittsburgh, inaugurating a new era of booming cotton and tobacco river trade that would transform the port of New Orleans into the second wealthiest city (after New York) in the United States, and the country’s third largest city by 1852. New Orleans also grew to dominate the Carribean trade in sugar-cane, tobacco, rum and fruit.

During the Civil War, New Orleans played a part on both the Confederate and the Union sides, beginning as a military center for the Confederacy and ending as a Union stronghold after its capture in 1862, as Union forces sought and gained control of the Mississippi River.

New Orleans has been described as the “inevitable city on an impossible site.” Favorably located at the terminus of the great waterway and within reach of ocean trade, the wider city’s low topography has constantly challenged engineers, requiring a substantial levee system, while the river itself has required regular channel deepening.

‘St. Louis River View’ ~ 1853

Founded in 1764 by French fur traders from New Orleans, lead by Pierre Laclede Liguestand, and named for Louis IX, the King of France, St. Louis was built on a high bluff just 18 miles south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers ~ a perfect site from which to trade with Native Americans in the fur-rich lands to the west.

St. Louis became American when Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, doubling the size of the United States. When Jefferson sent explorers Lewis & Clark from St. Louis to chart the new Louisiana Territory in 1804, more than 1,000 people, mostly French, Spanish, Indian and both free and slave blacks, lived in the city which was already the center of the fur trade in America. Two years later, after the triumphant explorers returned from the Pacific with their Corps of Discovery, St. Louis became the last stop for mountain men and trappers heading to the newly opened frontier.

An early nickname for St. Louis was “Mound City”, derived from the earth mounds left by the Mississippians, the original Indian inhabitants of the valley.

The first steamboat, the Zebulon M. Pike, arrived in St. Louis on July 27, 1817, heralding a new era of commerce and travel along the Mississippi River. Soon it was common to see more than 100 steamboats lining the cobblestone levee during the day. St. Louis grew from a population of 16,000 in 1840 to over ten times this amount in 1860. Annual steamboat arrivals grew from 3 to over 3,600 in the period from 1817 to 1858.  St. Louis’ booming fur trade lasted until 1840, but the westward movement of Americans through St. Louis ~  “the gateway to the west” ~ was to last for many more years. For decades, entrepreneurs would make fortunes in St. Louis outfitting wagon trains, trappers, miners, and traders. In 1849, a deadly fire destroyed one-third of the city when the steamboat White Cloud exploded on the riverfront.

The Dred Scott trials ~ which began at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis ~ led the nation to Civil War when the eventual outcome in the Supreme Court of the United States denied citizenship and rights to slaves.

When the Civil War broke out, St. Louis was the most important city in the West. The war divided the city just as it divided the country. Missouri stayed in the Union as a slave state and abolitionists shared the streets of the city with slaveholders. The cessation of river traffic from the South retarded progress, but the city was not directly involved in conflict.

New immigrants changed the face of St. Louis throughout the 19th century. Joining the French, Spanish, Indians and African descendants were Germans who settled in St. Louis and along the Rhine-like Missouri River valley, Irish who escaped the potato famine, Italians who worked the clay mines and newcomers from many nations who heard about the great city on the Mississippi where fortunes could be made.

‘St. Paul River Scene’ ~ 1853

In April 1823, the Virginia left St. Louis bound for scattered posts up the Mississippi. On board for this historic trip was Captain William Clark of the famed Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1805. Twenty days and 683 miles later, the Virginia docked at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, the first steamboat to make this trip. In 1838, Franklin Steele established a claim at the Falls of St. Anthony in what is today Minneapolis; and Pierre Parrant built a shanty and settled on the present site of the city of St. Paul, then called Pig’s Eye. (The first steamboat to actually land in the re-named settlement of St. Paul was the Claucus, circa 1839.) By 1840, there was heavy river commerce between St. Louis and the head of navigation at St. Anthony’s Falls, in the vicinity of St. Paul. Regular steamboat service began in 1847 with the Galena Packet Company. Steamboat traffic peaked in 1858 with 1,066 arrivals.

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Regular steamboat packet service to St. Paul began in 1847 and grew steadily thereafter (until the peak years of 1857-1858), bringing thousands of immigrants to the new settlement frontier. A treaty signed at Traverse des Sioux on the Minnesota River in 1851 channeled white immigration in that direction, leading to the establishment of the Sioux Agencies and Fort Ridgely in 1853. The rush of settlers along with the government’s need to supply its outposts and provide annuities to the Indians promoted the growth of steamboat and barge traffic on the river. In the drought year 1854, most supplies were poled upstream in keeled barges ranging from 50 to 60 feet long and 10 to 12 feet wide.
Credit: ~ Shipwrecks of Minnesota’s Inland Lakes and Rivers, by Wes Hall, Douglas Birk and Sam Newell.

‘Omaha, Cutting Firewood by Moonlight’ ~ 1856


Early steamboats needed as much space as possible for cargo and passengers. They seldom carried more fuel than could be consumed in 12 hours. About twice a day they would pull up to an island or riverbank, and the deckhands would be sent ashore to cut wood. Deck passengers often helped load the fuel on the boat, receiving a reduction in the price of their passage. When steamboats became more numerous on the Mississippi, many large, permanent wood yards were established. Sometimes a sort of “mid-stream service” was provided, in the form of a flatboat already loaded with wood. The steamboat would tie on to the flatboat and take it upstream, unloading without stopping its engines. When the wood was loaded, the flatboat could be cut loose to drift back down to the wood yard.

Generally, the removal of timber from the riverbanks resulted in erosion and widening of the river, which in turn gradually decreased navigational depth.

Gary R. Lucy is known for his historical accuracy and his eye for detail. Prints are available directly from the artist in Missouri. Please contact the artist at for further information about this print.

‘Rafting on the Missouri’

Small saw-milling operations were established very early in wooded locations along the Missouri River and its tributaries. Most of these used portable saw milling equipment, cutting available timber beside rivers so that it could formed into rafts and transported to markets. When the local market declined or saw logs became scarce sawmills were moved to new locations. More permanent sawmills were usually built with a grist (grain) mill attached, forming the nucleus of settlements.

Even the smallest of tributaries were useful for rafting out timber. Logs, lumber and cut railroad ties all found their way down the Missouri River, to St. Louis and other markets en route.

John Stobart is a leading maritime artist, with an extraordinary ability to render realistic lighting, day or night. Prints are available in Limited Editions. Please contact Maritime Heritage Prints for further information about this print.

‘Omaha, Westward Travels on the Missouri’ ~ 1856

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I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.
Credit: ~ Chapter 9, Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain.Gary R. Lucy is known for his historical accuracy and his eye for detail. Prints are available directly from the artist in Missouri. Please contact the artist at for further information about this print.

‘Jolly Flatboatmen in Port’ ~ 1857

Often said to be Bingham’s most well-known painting, this work in many ways represents the culmination of his river life paintings. Multiple aspects of his talent are realized; the warm, infused lighting, the variety of detail, the mixed vitality and dreaminess, and the sense of space. Note the children on the right, and the two men who seem to be doing business, perhaps confirming the details of a sale worth celebrating at the end of a trip.

Bingham’s genre scenes sometimes contained as many as fifty people. He carefully planned the position and pose of every character, and before starting the final painting would make detailed sketches of each one, often using his friends as models and altering their features to attain the right “river” look.

Jolly Flatboatmen in Port is an extraordinary record of a way of life already passing when it was completed.

‘Mississippi River Landing’ ~ 1857

This boat is taking on Cypress lumber by moonlight at the Caruthersville Landing in south-east Missouri. Cypress was favored for boat building because of its resistance to insects, and its naturally moist, long-lasting qualities. It was also preferred for home building by those who could afford it. Many larger homes and mansions along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers were framed with Cypress. In this scene, a flatboat drifts by as men carry the lumber aboard the steamboat, while the pilot watches from above.

The full title of this work is: ‘Mississippi River Landing: Loading Cypres Lumber at Caruthersville Landing, 1857’

Gary R. Lucy is known for his historical accuracy and his eye for detail. Prints are available directly from the artist in Missouri. Please contact the artist at for further information about this print.

‘View On The Mississippi’ ~ 1858

Born and educated in Denmark, Ferdinand Richardt (1819-1895) achieved early success as a painter of Scandinavian castles and landscapes. Combining superb drafting skills with a topographical, realistic technique, he was able to capture the spirit of the landscape being depicted. His technique remained remarkably consistent throughout his life.

When 36-years-old, Richardt sojourned in America (1855-1859), reputedly at the invitation of William Vanderbilt who may have paid him $14,000 to paint Niagara Falls. During this period, Richardt produced over 100 diverse landscapes. The phenomenon of tourism, then expanding at a terrific rate in America, attracted Richardt to the country’s rivers, mountains, spas, and resort hotels, and to the people who gathered there, as well as to America’s cities and new architecture.

In 1873, he immigrated with his family to the United States, stopping at Niagara, and arriving in San Francisco in 1875. In 1876, he moved to Oakland and maintained a vigorous teaching schedule on both sides of the Bay through the 1880s.

The hundreds of on-site drawings he made during his travels from New York City to Kentucky, Minnesota, Canada and points in between remain almost totally unknown. These drawings are valuable examples of 19th-century draftsmanship notable for the quality of their execution and the historical detail they provide about pre-Civil War America.

The full title of this work is: ‘A View on the Mississippi Fifty-Seven-Miles Below St. Anthony Falls, Minneapolis’.  He painted more than one version of this particular scene.

‘A Steamboat Race on the Mississippi’ ~ 1858

This dramatic nighttime scene, of a steamboat race that actually occurred in March of 1858, was painted by George F. Fuller (1822-1884), a well-known American portrait painter. It shows the Baltic and Diana running neck and neck, encouraged by raftsmen making a more leisurely passage down the river. Leaving New Orleans within two minutes of each other, the paddle-wheelers were within sight of each other for most of the 1,382 miles to Louisville, running neck and neck at times and even once “locking horns,” before the Baltic won the race.

It was one of the closest and most exciting steamboat races during the steamboating era. The fascination with speed records began as early as 1817, when the steamer General Washington made the trip from New Orleans to Louisville in 21 days, setting off great celebrations. Boats were constantly improved, with the Tecumseh making the same journey in eight days, seventeen hours in 1828, and the Sultana in four days and twenty-two hours in 1843. Most new boats aimed to break speed records, and head-to-head races were staged regularly before an enthralled public.

The racing era culminated with the celebrated race between the Robt. E. Lee and the Natchez in 1870.

‘Spread Eagle at the St. Louis Levee’

Quote: ~
With the gold strikes in 1863, Captain Joseph LaBarge went into opposition to the American Fur Company and his firm of LaBarge, Harkness and Company advertised passage to “the mountains”, which drew heavy loads of passengers, bound for the gold fields. The Emilie and Shreveport, LaBarge boats, with 400 tons of cargo and 300 passengers, the first wave of emigrants which came to settle Montana, raced up the flood swollen river that spring, against the American Fur Company steamers, Key West and Spread Eagle, beating them by three days. …Missouri pilots were a hot-blooded breed and engaged in races, partly because fast boats won lucrative freight contracts and while mostly on a friendly basis, some became a no-holds-barred, imperiling steamboat hulls and passengers lives.Twenty-nine-year-old Samuel Hauser, prospector, heading for the Montana gold fields experienced such a duel. June 6, 1862, this race began as the Emilie and the Spread Eagle left Ft. Berthold, heading for Fort Benton. Hauser was aboard the Emilie. Gathering steam to the last notch, the quaking boat passed the Spread Eagle. (There was poor regulation of steam power and some of the pilots did not regard the danger.) With much applause from the deck, the Spread Eagle built a new head of steam and charged to the lead. Emilie’s pilot encouraged his engingeer to put on more power and soon she drew abreast and they held this pace for more than an hour. On reaching a point where the river split by a towhead (an island submerged by high spring water), Spread Eagle veered to starboard, following the wide-looping main channel. Emilie’s pilot chose the narrow chute to port-side, in hopes the high water level would make the short cut passable.Spread Eagle’s pilot suddenly saw the short route ahead of Emilie was navagable. Rather than let her take the lead, he threw the wheel over and rammed Spread Eagle’s bow into Emilie, deliberately trying to disable her. The impact was dangerously near Emilie’s boilers, but she recieved only light damage, however the two boats were locked together. Emilie’s pilot was so enraged that he let go the wheel and snatched his gun and would have shot Spread Eagle’s pilot had not his son stopped him. The boats drifted, while passengers and crews exchanged threats and curses. Fortunately, the two boats separated on their own accord, as related by Hauser, and Emilie’s engineer turned on the last pound of steam causing her to glide by and Emilie reached Fort Benton on June 17th, four days ahead of her rival. This race proved the fleetness of Emilie and earned her owner a big share of the river trade which more than compensated for the damage done in the race.
Credit: ~ Missouri River Steamboats, by Marie Zahn.

‘City of Cairo’

This well drafted lithograph of the City of Cairo, is the center piece on the cover of a sheet-music publication.

Owned by the Memphis and St. Louis Packet Company, she was launched in 1864, operating between St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, where she was destroyed by fire on July 7, 1873.

The “Schottish” music, composed for piano, is dedicated to Captain Robert K. Riley, who captained the City of Cairo from 1864. The boat eventually attracted the attention of its creditors, and on June 23, 1873, was sold in New Orleans at a U.S. Marshal’s sale for $2,100.

There were three boats with this name. An earlier sternwheeler, and a later Anchor Line packet running between St. Louis and Vicksburg from 1882 until 1896, when she was destroyed by the “great St. Louis tornado” on May 27th.

‘Louisville, the People’s Line Packet’ ~ 1868

In this scene, the Louisville packet Wild Wagoner is approaching the People’s Line wharfboat in mid-morning.

Louisville was founded by General George Rogers Clark in 1778. Impressed by the spectacular Falls of the Ohio, he had returned there with a small group of families to settle after the Revolutionary War. The initial settlement comprised a stockade with blockhouses and log cabins, on Corn Island where the river is over a mile wide (on the right in this painting). By 1782, the small town covered some ten blocks of riverfront, and in 1789 the first brick house was built with bricks carried downriver by flatboat from Pittsburgh.

With abundant river trade along the Ohio, and fertile land nearby, producing tobacco and wheat, and supplying a disterllery as early as 1816, Louisville’s future was assured.

The full title of this painting is: ‘Louisville ~The People’s Line Packet Wild Wagoner Arriving at the Levee in 1868’

John Stobart is a leading maritime artist, with an extraordinary ability to render realistic lighting, day or night. Prints are available in Limited Editions. Please contact Maritime Heritage Prints for further information about this print.

‘Robert E. Lee’  ~ 1870 

The first Robt. E. Lee, built in 1866, was perhaps the most famous steamboat to ply the Mississippi. She participated in the “race of the century” in 1870, against the Natchez, from New Orleans to St. Louis. Captain John Cannon, of the Robt. E. Lee, removed all unnecessary weight such as doors, took on no freight, arranged cordwood to be loaded from another steamboat without stopping, and risked running in fog. Captain Leathers of the Natchez, on the other hand, took no such measures, making a number of stops. The Robt. E. Lee arrived in St.Louis first ~ three days, eighteen hours, and fourteen minutes out of New Orleans, six and a half hours ahead of the Natchez. Considering that the “playing field” was not even, it is quite possible that the Natchez was just as fast on the water, or perhaps even faster, than the Robt. E. Lee.

Crowds gathered on the riverbanks to witness the great race, day and night. Telegraph lines flashed news of the race across the United States and over half a million dollars in bets were laid. In this painting, two men are standing on the lower right as one pays his dues to the jubilant winner.

Gary R. Lucy is known for his historical accuracy and his eye for detail. Prints are available directly from the artist in Missouri. Please contact the artist at for further information about this print.

‘The John W. Cannon’  ~ 1872

This remarkably detailed drawing is based on a photograph. The name of the second boat, or the landing, is not known. Note that the boiler deck of the John W. Cannon has an extended deck over the forecastle, which was an unusual feature. While this provided a large viewing deck for passengers and extra cover for freight, it also made handling the ‘stage’, or gang-plank, and heavy freight, more difficult because it limited the lateral range of the hoisting spars.

A small group of gentlemen and ladies stand in the foreground of this drawing, which appears to be pen and ink.

This boat was owned by Captain John W. Cannon and operated in the New Orleans-Bayou Sara trade. It was perhaps his finest boat.