River transportation has been and continues to be an integral and important part of life in Iowa. The first Native Americans came to Iowa by following the river valleys. They depended on the rivers because many of the things they needed to survive could be found by the rivers and streams. From fresh water for cooking, drinking and gathering edible plants—to animals they hunted for clothing and food—the Indians took only what they needed to survive.
Since colonial times Americans needed some means to transport farm and industrial products to market and to import those necessities they could not produce locally. During the colonial period people traveled on foot and horseback or in carriages and small boats. They transported their goods by pack mule, wagon, and hand- or wind-propelled boats.
An important improvement in water transportation came during the early part of the 19th century when the steam engine revolutionized the nation’s system of transportation.
Iowa’s settlement pattern reflects the great transportation revolution created by steam power. Although many settlers did come overland to Iowa by horse or ox-drawn wagon, steamboats already dominated the great rivers, bringing newcomers as well as goods.
The steamboats that brought new settlers were enjoyable transportation for those who could afford to pay the price of comfort, but low-priced deck passage was just another hardship to be faced by many westward travelers. Steamboat travel was not without hazards; snags and explosions were among the dangers. Deck passenger conditions were cramped and unsanitary. Disease often spread rapidly through the group of travelers.
Towns Developed Along the Rivers
Along Iowa’s major rivers, towns boomed and prospered. They became trade centers where goods could be sold and sent downriver to market. Plans were made to build locks and dams on major rivers to further develop steamboat transportation, but these schemes collapsed with the difficulties of building a lock system and the arrival of the railroad.
The Mississippi River
Through the years, transportation improvements like railroads and automobiles have replaced river travel as a major form of transporting people. However, with development of the lock and dam system on the river (starting in 1913 when the first lock and dam was built near Keokuk,) the upper Mississippi River’s system of 29 locks and dams continues to be a major method of commerce in the United States. Many industries engaged in bulk shipping take advantage of the low-cost transportation of goods available on the river. The largest single bulk items moved on the river are petroleum products—gasoline, kerosene, fuel oil and lubricating oil. They are shipped upstream from the oil fields of Texas and Louisiana. Coal is shipped upstream from Illinois and western Kentucky.
Downstream traffic carries grain such as corn, wheat, oats, barley and rye to New Orleans where it is transshipped to ocean vessels and transported around the world.
Barges push freight up and down the Mississippi River. They are specially built to suit their cargo so that open barges carry coal; tank barges carry petroleum; and covered barges carry grain and mixed cargo. Highly specialized barges are designed to be heated or cooled in order to carry temperamental chemicals. Many of the locks and dams have actually been repaired and widened over the years to accommodate barges.
Still the One
While Iowa's rivers are not used for transporting goods and people at the volume they once were, they are still important to Iowa's economy. The Mississippi continues to serve as a major avenue for transporting goods. People all over the world depend on products that are transported up and down the Mississippi River. Native Iowans recognized the value of the mighty river. In the 21st century the world still depends on it to bring the necessities of life to people around the globe.
- Ginalie Swaim, “Rivers in Iowa,” The Goldfinch 6, no. 4 (Spring 2000): 4-10.
- Mississippi River Teacher's Handbook. Johnston, Iowa: Iowa Public Television, 1999.
Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa and Iowa Public Television's Mississippi River Teacher's Handbook.