Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Steamboats along the Des Moines River have always aroused the adventuresome spirit in residents, particularly those living in port towns along the winding water thoroughfare. Today, we can almost visualize the smoke pouring from the tall stacks, the shrill whistle blowing, and the calliope playing as the boat comes into view rounding the bend, then pulls into port!

Such an event always created excitement. People dropped everything to rush to the riverfront for a glimpse. An arrival meant fresh, new supplies, travelers, settlers, news from far away places, and these occasions did not happen every day.

According to William J. Petersen (Iowa--The Rivers and Her Valleys, 1941) the first steamboat to venture up the Des Moines was the Hero in 1837, unable to proceed more than 30 miles upstream due to sandbars. However, by the fall of 1837, the Science dislodged supplies and groceries at Keosauqua, then advanced as far as Iowaville.

From 1838 to 1843, Wild Bill Phelps had as many as five steamboats making occasional voyages on the river. In 1843, the Agatha made a round trip between Farmington and Raccoon Forks in fourteen days. Between 1837 and 1860, forty different steamboats plied the river. In 1857 alone, eight passed through Van Buren County destined for Des Moines.

Dennis Lloyd Bishop (A History of Benton’s Port, 2002) says that 1858 was the busiest year for steamboats. Sixty left Keokuk bound for ports as far up river as Ft. Des Moines. In 1859, Keosauqua logged in 107 vessels, but only three in 1861. Due to the Civil War, traffic halted in 1862. It never resumed because the river was also silting rapidly, and by 1870 was declared unfit for navigation. The legislature stopped funding the Des Moines River Project in 1857 because this was a slow, unreliable means of transportation. Although 1859’s boating season was 112 days, most years were much less. It took two weeks to complete a round trip from Keokuk to Des Moines, and passing other vessels on the river was hazardous, if not impossible. Constant damage to vessels made shipping costly and less reliable. Millers at port towns frequently built dams across the river. Sometimes steamboat captains would charge through them at full speed hoping to jump the dam or break the obstruction, but sometimes their vessels capsized or were severely damaged.

Port towns were expected to provide amenities. Arriving pioneers required hotels, livery stables, and stagecoaches for inland transportation. In 1858, a year of record immigration into Iowa, Dubuque hosted 28 hotels. Several prominent men in Van Buren County were associated with steamboating. Besides Iowaville’s fur trader William Phelps, Ed Manning of Keosauqua owned several steamboats. Placed in charge of supplying Ft. Des Moines, Manning is said to have saved the garrison from starvation when his tiny steamboat Ione arrived there in 1841 laden with goods. The railroad took over as a better, faster, safer, more reliable, year-round, cheaper means of transportation. By 1858, rail service entered the county, connecting Keokuk with Bentonsport. In less than a decade after the Civil War, railroads carried more freight and passengers in and out of the county each month than river traffic had provided during any full season!

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