Sidewheeler For Shelburne

A determined collector brings a steamboat to her museum of Americana—by rail.

In the gray of In late December, 1954, a traveler happening along Thompson’s Road, which skirts Shelburne Bay on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, could have seen a steamboat suspended as if by sky hooks on a horizon of dry land. He might have dismissed this as a mirage or a fantasy, but as it happened there was a steamboat hanging on a horizon of dry land.Read more »

The Short, Dramatic Life Of The Steamboat Yellow Stone

She lived only six years, but it was a history-packed career

Old rivermen used to talk of the first time the steamboat Yellow Stone reached the fur-trading posts on the upper Missouri. Belching smoke, roaring like a cannon, and spurting steam into the air, she penetrated farther up the river than a boat under its own power had ever gone before. Her owner, John Jacob Astor, never saw her, although from his New York office he sent fleets of ships on trading missions from Liverpool to Canton.Read more »

Going For The Horns

The 1,200-Mile Race Between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee

The first days of July, 1870, found busy river ports along the Mississippi stewing in an unprecedented atmosphere of oppressive, sticky heat and blazing excitement all the way from St. Louis to New Orleans. Roaring upriver under full steam past crowded wharves and levees sped the two most famous steamboats of the day—the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee . Read more »

The Flames Of Hell Gate

Her life preservers weighted with scrap-iron, her lifeboats mere decoration, the excursion steamer General Slocum left New York’s Third Street pier at 9:30 on the morning of June 15,1904, with thirteen-hundred picknickers bound for a Long Island beach. Less than an hour later, she was afire.

June in Middle Village—a time of flowers. Along block after block in that quiet section of Queens in New York, front yards glow with their colors. Roses by the thousands, the tens of thousands. And in the Lutheran Cemetery on the community’s southern fringe, sixty-one red carnations, one for each of the unidentified dead in New York’s worst disaster. Their anonymous bodies lie together in what is known as the Great Grave.Read more »

A Last Glimpse Of The Steamboats

A Portfolio of Paintings

Americans have always loved steam. We cannot claim the steam engine as our invention, but we did adopt it at once and brought it to the peak of its development. The device took on peculiarly American forms in this country; compare, for instance, the tidy British locomotives with their rangy American counterparts. So too with our steamboats. While they lacked the sharp beauty of the clippers, they made up for it with their powerful, chunky, intricate American grace.Read more »

The Fight For The Queen, Or Two Cheers For Congress

The wonderfully evocative photograph spread across the two preceding pages has a great deal to say, in the way that pictures do, about America, its heritage, and the importance of historic preservation. And besides all that, it is a good point to begin what starts out as a very unhappy story. Read more »

The Steamboat’s Charter Of Freedom


The famous case of Gibbons v. Ogden, decided on March 2, 1824, was, with its preceding litigation, ultimately concerned with a single question: the power of Congress to regulate interstate as well as foreign commerce. It produced a triumph for nationalism, in the most generous and constructive sense of that term, and its influence has been immense. Its immediate effect, however, was to release from monopoly, like a genie from a bottle, a sooty, romantic, and useful servant to the American people—the steamboat.

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Side-wheels and Walking Beams

Self-taught, the Bard brothers specialized in the painting of gleaming, accurate little steamboats

In 1827 James Bard, born in New York in the year of Waterloo, made his first steamboat painting, of the Bellona, the first steamer ever owned by Commodore Vanderbilt. The picture itself has since vanished, but young Bard, a mere twelve or thirteen when he selected his highly specialized career, never lost his childlike simplicity or his enthusiasm for the steamboat, until his death, seventy years and (by one probably exaggerated estimate) four thousand steamboat paintings later.

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The Stanleys and their Steamer

Teetotaling twin brothers built the most wonderful car of their era, and its day of glory may not be over yet

At the turn of the twentieth century, the American automobile industry was in a stage of youthful indecision. Two courses lay open to it: to follow the already well-defined path of steam propulsion, or to explore the lesser-known byway of gasoline power. Steam seemed to have the brighter future and, at this point, was heavily favored by the early auto makers. In the year 1900 more than 1,600 steam cars were produced, compared to only goo driven by gas.