Steamboats on the River

The crew threw more wood on the fire. The steamboat needed a lot of steam power to pull away from the shore. The giant paddle wheel started turning faster. As the crew made sure the cargo was packed tightly, the captain blew the whistle. On the decks the passengers cheered as the boat headed up the river. Throughout the 1800s, steamboat travel on Iowa’s rivers has impacted the states development and growth.

Iowa as a River State

Iowa is the only state with four border rivers, the Mississippi, Missouri, Des Moines, and Big Sioux. The ability to navigate these rivers was of great importance in the settlement of Iowa before railroads. Steamboats traveled into Iowa border waters even before Iowa was legally open for settlement. Steamboats and flatboats brought thousands of early settlers to the new land of Iowa. Steamboats brought supplies to the new Iowans and transported their produce and products to market.

The Dangers of the Missouri River

The Missouri was a dangerous river. Dead trees fell into the river and got stuck on the bottom. Sometimes these snags stuck out of the water. Then the captain did his best to steer around the dead trees, but sometimes they were hidden underwater. The jagged limbs could rip open the bottom of a steamboat.

The current on the Missouri was fast, and the channel—the deepest part of the river—shifted from place to place. Sometimes captains accidentally ran their boats up onto the sandbars. Bad storms hit the river in the summer. Hundreds of steamboats were wrecked on the Missouri. Irregular river depth, sandbars and snags made steamboat travel on the Missouri slow and dangerous.

Steamboats on the Missouri River

Traveling by steamboat on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers was common in the 1800s. The huge boats could carry many passengers and large amounts of freight. Most river travel was between the years of 1846 and 1866. In 1857, The Nebraska City Advertiser newspaper listed 46 steamboats traveling the Missouri, with 12 more being built.

Long before Kanesville or Council Bluffs were settlements on the Missouri river, the steamboat the Western Engineer arrived in the area in 1819. By the 1830s steamboats had navigated the Missouri River to the mouth of the Yellowstone River. During the gold rush to Montana in the 1860s, steamboats traveled far up the Missouri to early mining towns. Steamboats carried plows and seed to new farmers settling in Nebraska in the 1850s and 1860s.

The Calmer Mississippi

The Mississippi was not as dangerous. The current was calmer and the channel was deeper. However, the Upper Rapids and Lower Rapids were serious obstacles to navigate. Sometimes terrible accidents happened on the Mississippi too. Steamboats collided or caught on fire. Sometimes the boilers exploded. Passengers were blown apart or scalded by the hot water.

Steamboats on the Mississippi River

The first steamboat on the Mississippi River along Iowa’s border was the 109-ton Virginia, on its way to Fort Snelling (now Saint Paul, Minnesota) in May 1823. There were 10 passengers on board.

In the 1820s, steamboats on the Mississippi carried lead from Julien Dubuque's lead mines near Dubuque. Lead was a very important export from the Dubuque area. Between 1823 and 1848, 365 boats made 7,645 trips. These trips moved almost 5 million tons of lead down stream!

On November 19, 1840, The Burlington Hawkeye newspaper reported upwards of 100 flatboats had passed Burlington going downstream loaded with produce. Flatboats and keelboats carried cargo down the river. During the Civil War steamboats carried Iowa soldiers, weapons and food supplies to army posts. In later years the steamboats pushed huge rafts of logs from the forests of Wisconsin and Minnesota to sawmills farther down the river.

Steamboat Travel on Iowa’s Interior Rivers

Despite even less reliable water depth than the border rivers, interior Iowa rivers (those rivers that do not border the state) also saw considerable steamboat travel. In the 1840s, The Ripple was the first steamboat to the capital in Iowa City. In 1859, the Blackhawk made 29 round trips between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo on the Cedar River. The Hero and the Pavillion traveled the Des Moines River to Fort Des Moines in 1837. And even before the Civil War, 30 steamboats had traveled to Des Moines before the Civil War.

Steamboat Accidents

Steamboat companies often made huge profits by carrying tons of cargo to rapidly growing communities. The lure of huge profits led steamboats to travel in unsafe river conditions and at unsafe speeds. This led to many accidents and groundings. The exact number of steamboat accidents in Iowa Rivers is not known.

The Corp of Engineers in a report issued July 3, 1934 listed 36 types of steamboat wrecks on the Missouri River alone. Many of these boats were salvaged soon after the accident and rebuilt, but some remain in or near Iowa rivers. The May 9, 1989 the Des Moines Register newspaper listed 40 known sunken steamboats from the southwest corner of Iowa north just over 100 miles to Sioux City. That is a sunken ship almost every 3 miles!

The End of the Steamboat Era in Iowa

When railroads started carrying freight across the country, the days of the steamboats were over. By August 1872 the count of steamboats under the Burlington Railroad Bridge was 147, while the 1,108 engines and trains crossed over that bridge during the same month. The last Iowa steamboat to carry goods was the coal fired sternwheeler the Loan Star in 1967. Barges still carry some goods on the river, but trains and trucks carry most of the freight in America. The few steamboats still gliding along the rivers today are usually carrying tourists on short trips.


  • Ginalie Swaim Ed., “Steaming Up the River,” The Goldfinch 6, no. 4 (April 1985): 6.


Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.