Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Excitement was bound to fill the air as settlers began to catch their first glimpses of a steamer rounding the river bend with its tall smokestacks churning out black smoke. Bells clanged, whistles blew, and suddenly there was the nostalgic sound of a steam calliope loudly playing New Orleans style music! Passengers stood against the rails of each deck waving to the throngs who gathered along the river banks. Onlookers jumped up and down yelling and cheering!

Before the Civil War, 11,000 paddlewheel steamboats plied the waterways throughout the United States ranging from small, tugboat-like vessels to floating palaces. They were known for their verandas decked in gingerbread trim, Dixieland jazz music, grand staircases, Southern belles, and riverboat gamblers. It was a culture, a lifestyle, made famous by Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi.”

The Steamboat Era on the Des Moines River lasted from 1837 to 1870 when the Army Corps. of Engineers finally declared the river unfit for navigation. Many steamboats had plied the river during those years, the largest of which was the 485-ton Jeanie Deans. She measured 236 feet long, 38 1/2 feet wide, and required a 5 1/2 foot hold. During a period of high water in 1852, this huge steamboat churned its way up the Des Moines with no difficulty. When the water suddenly began to recede, the Jeanie Deans made an abrupt exit back to the Mississippi where it was safer to travel.

The sight of such a large steamboat on the Des Moines must have been spectacular! Today, several dozen steamboats operate up and down the Mississippi, ranging in size from the 90 foot long converted tugboat Lonestar (at Dubuque) to the three giant queens that sometimes pull into the Port of Burlington. Each of these mammoth floating hotels presents a grand sight and a delightful view of the old steamboat days.

Built in 1925, the Delta Queen features a calliope and is 285 feet long, 60 feet wide, 43 feet high, and demands a 9 foot hold or draft. Also featuring a calliope is the Mississippi Queen built in 1976. With 7 decks, this vessel is 382 feet long, 68 feet wide, 53 feet high, and has a 9 foot draft from the waterline. The largest steamboat ever built is the American Queen, built in 1995. This structure is 418 feet long, 89 feet wide, 97 feet high, and has an 8.6 foot hold. Each are elegant and glamorous, although they offer a rather slow means of travel. The American Queen averages just 11 miles per hour!

It is interesting that Mark Twain once said “Someday man will figure out how to travel seven hundred miles per hour, yet he’ll still want to travel just seven!”

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