Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


A keelboat is a shallow riverboat used for hauling freight, sometimes containing a cover. Although the boat can be towed it is usually moved by poles, or rowed. With poles, it is easy to move the boat upstream.

The primary difference between a keelboat and a flatboat is that at least one end of the flatboat is usually squared off. Flatboats were used for moving bulkier freight than the keelboat could manage, and in some ways was a forerunner of the barge.

Both keelboats and flatboats were made for use on Americaís inland rivers. Early fur traders often used canoes, even employing Native Americans at times to move their precious cargo to a commercial center.

The inland fur traders who worked a territory containing a large water way, quickly found use for keelboats and flatboats. Bill Phelps began building them at Iowaville in the 1830s, so that he could transport furs easily and quickly to St. Louis.

Among the sites in Van Buren County where boats were made, Iowaville is best known for this service. Long after Phelps had vacated the area, a steamboat named the N. L. Milburn was built and finished by the Des Moines River Company, in Iowaville in 1852. Although it was intended solely for service on the Des Moines River, it ventured as far away as St. Louis.

For several decades, steamboats were frequent visitors to Van Buren County river ports when the Des Moines River had enough water in it for navigation, and when they could bust through the dams. Tacitus Hussey wrote several articles for the Annals of Iowa, and in his writing, mentioned the building of boats at several locations within the county.

In 1836, Henry Bateman of Farmington was moving stone and coal from Van Buren County to Quincy by way of keelboats, several of which he may have built. By 1843, William Alfrey operated a keelboat at Farmington, but it isnít clear who built it.

In 1841, Ed Manning and Steeles of Keosauqua employed Samuel Morton to build a flatboat at Rochester, and Hugh Sample built at least one boat at Kilbourne. Several keelboats were made at Columbus.

A steamboat called The Light was built at Bonaparte by Richard Cave and was in service during the early 1840s.

According to the Van Buren County Historical Society (the Keosauqua Experience, 1989) benefactor Dr. Ralph Roberts, gave funds back in the 1950s for the purpose of having an excursion steamer operating behind a dam, around the bend, for recreation purposes. Unfortunately, costs of the project outgrew the funds that were proposed. Perhaps some adventurous soul will revive the project.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick