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Mississippi River History

In their golden age, riverboats were our nightclubs, our theater district, our parade ground…

Photograph courtesy of Ed Lekosky

Sometimes it seems like all we know of the river is fireworks and gambling. And floods. But in the late 1800s, there could be as many as 1,200 steamboats out on the river at once. Instead of a banquet at a stuffy hotel, a fundraiser might be a moonlit cruise on the Charles P. Chouteau side-wheeler. Orphans were taken on “fresh-air excursions”; courting couples picnicked on the water on Sunday afternoons. Upriver, boys canoed out every time a steamship glided past, hoping a few of those passengers in white linen and straw hats would laugh at their antics and
toss coins.

The river was not, in those years, a sullen and muddy conveyor belt for barges. There were circus boats stuffed with clowns and poodles; theater boats wailing over villainy; opera boats that sent heralds ashore to trumpet their performances. Minstrels did the Cakewalk and the Buzzard Lope and the Buck and Wing, told tall tales, sang spirituals, shook tambourines, mocked current events. All the persuaders were on the river: preachers and card-readers, lecturers on mesmerism and the significance of bumps on the skull.

A boat’s trial run was always a holiday—on the John H. Dickey’s first outing, February 11, 1858, champagne corks popped and guests raised an earnest toast to the captain: “May he pass down the river of life without drifting on the rocks of destruction or the sandbars of deceit.”

On Independence Day 1870, steamers ran excursions down the river, and onlookers watched the Robert E. Lee churn the water, sending up four-foot waves as she raced ahead of the Natchez to win the great race from New Orleans. The guns at Jefferson Barracks fired a salute, and she returned it as she steamed by.

Eight years later, the Veiled Prophet sailed up as though on the River Styx; he would arrive in this fashion every year for decades, standing masked on the hurricane roof of a boat draped in purple and gold, as all the boats along the levee blew their whistles in deference.

On September 9, 1886, a crowd gathered to watch President Andrew Johnson step onto the deck of the Andy Johnson. He was welcomed by three steamers lashed together and many more fanning out behind them to represent the 38 states then in the Union. In October 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt stood waving on the deck of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi steamer, and the steamboat parade in his honor gathered more and more boats as it made its way downriver.

Even when the river rose, there were grand excursions to see the flooded bottomlands of Illinois from the upper decks of these cake-tiered ships.

And then they began to die off. The Charles P. Chouteau, the first electrically lit steamboat St. Louisans ever saw, burned on the river in 1887. Over the next century, the river’s amusements faded. The grandest boats were anchored, gambled on, scrapped. Soon the
brightest hope would be a gondola.

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