Steam-powered vessels were important to the growth of the U.S. economy in the antebellum years.


5 - 8


Earth Science, Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History


Steamboat River Transport

Steamboats proved a popular method of commercial and passenger transportation along the Mississippi River and other inland U.S. rivers in the 19th century. Their relative speed and ability to travel against the current reduced time and expense.

Image from Picturenow
Steamboats proved a popular method of commercial and passenger transportation along the Mississippi River and other inland U.S. rivers in the 19th century. Their relative speed and ability to travel against the current reduced time and expense.

Any seagoing vessel drawing energy from a steam-powered engine can be called a steamboat. However, the term most commonly describes the kind of craft propelled by the turning of steam-driven paddle wheels and often found on rivers in the United States in the 19th century. These boats made use of the steam engine invented by the Englishman Thomas Newcomen in the early 18th century and later improved by James Watt of Scotland. Several Americans made efforts to apply this technology to maritime travel. The United States was expanding inland from the Atlantic coast at the time. There was a need for more efficient river transportation, since it took a great deal of muscle power to move a craft against the current.

In 1787, John Fitch demonstrated a working model of the steamboat concept on the Delaware River. The first truly successful design appeared two decades later. It was built by Robert Fulton with the assistance of Robert R. Livingston, the former U.S. minister to France. Fulton’s craft made its first voyage in August of 1807, sailing up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany, New York, at an impressive speed of eight kilometers (five miles) per hour. Fulton then began making this round trip on a regular basis for paying customers.

Following this introduction, steamboat traffic grew steadily on the Mississippi River and other river systems in the inland United States. There were numerous kinds of steamboats, which had different functions. The most common type on southern rivers was the packet boat. Packet boats carried human passengers as well as commercial cargo, such as bales of cotton from southern plantations. Compared to other types of craft used at the time, such as flatboats, keelboats, and barges, steamboats greatly reduced both the time and expense of shipping goods to distant markets. For this reason, they were enormously important in the growth and consolidation of the U.S. economy before the Civil War.

Steamboats were a fairly dangerous form of transportation, due to their construction and the nature of how they worked. The boilers used to create steam often exploded when they built up too much pressure. Sometimes debris and obstacles—logs or boulders—in the river caused the boats to sink. This meant that steamboats had a short life span of just four to five years on average, making them less cost-effective than other forms of transportation.

In the later years of the 19th century, larger steam-powered ships were commonly used to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The Great Western, one of the earliest oceangoing steam-powered ships, was large enough to accommodate more than 200 passengers. Steamships became the predominant vehicles for transatlantic cargo shipping as well as passenger travel. Millions of Europeans immigrated to the United States aboard steamships.

By 1900, railroads had long since surpassed steamboats as the dominant form of commercial transport in the United States. Most steamboats were eventually retired, except for a few elegant “showboats” that today serve as tourist attractions.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources