Riverboat History
In order to fully understand the significant role steam powered riverboats, (sternwheelers & sidewheelers) played in
America's development, we first need to have a clear "mental picture" of exactly what "America" looked like just before and
during those wonderful
"Riverboat Glory Days".  

Compared to today, the 1800's were really rough & tough times.  There were no telephones, much less cell phones.
There were no computers, no Internet, and no e-mail. In fact for most of it and most people, there was no electricity. That meant,
no radio, no TV, no cars, very few roads, no trains, no planes, no malls, no microwaves, and no Starbucks, and of course, no
Facebook. In fact, not coffee, not tea, but
beer was America's #1 breakfast drink.

American history (until recently) gave all the credit for the invention of the steamboat to
Robert Fulton
. Lately however, John Fitch has been getting his fair share.  But, there is the
question of who should get the credit - someone that does it and fails?  Or someone that does it
and succeeds?

Fitch failed, and did so rather miserably.  Fitch's biggest mistake may have been claiming the
vessel "and the steam engine" (both) as his inventions. Fitch however was obviously unaware
that Ben Franklin not only personally knew James Watt who invented the steam engine, but
Franklin was also responsible for the establishment of the US Patent Office.

Fitch of course, did not invent the steam engine, and therefore Ben Franklin put the nix on
Fitch's ability to convince Congress to give him any money or exclusive rights as was customary
for the government to do to inventors for things considered to be good for the Public or Nation.  

History might have been written differently, had Fitch not tried to claim he invented the
steam engine, or had not argued with
Ben Franklin.

As a boy, Fitch would have nothing to do with school. His own parents ran him off the family's
at the age of 19.  He then apprenticed himself to a local Clockmaker in Connecticut.  He
argued with his boss, quit, and then apprenticed himself to a Metalsmith and repeated his
.  Then again, he did the same thing with a Silversmith.  After that, he left Connecticut
and went to New Jersey and set himself up as a Goldsmith. Accused ot stealing from customers,
and to escape his debt, he left New Jersey and went to Kentucky. There, he again
accused of stealing
gold and silver from his customers.

To escape prosecution and his accusers, Fitch joined the Continental Army. But soon
enough, he was caught up in a turmoil there too,
accusing his superior officers of being
idiots and derelicts. He deserted and went to W. Virginia and found work at a surveying
company. While working for the surveying company, he began
selling beer and tobacco to
; and this, may have been his life's most lucrative venture; until the Indians decided they
didn't want him around, captured him and traded him to the British. The British soon discovered
they made a bad trade and turned Fitch loose. It was at this point in life, in 1785,
at age 43,
John Fitch, claimed he had the idea to build a steamboat.

Years later,
after his death; discovered in Fitch's own memoirs, Fitch mentions he "returned to
Bucks County KY and dug up the gold and silver he had "hidden" and used that money to build
his paddle-wheeled steamboat. So with stolen money, in 1787; Fitch was able to demonstrate a
3 mph trial run of a 45-ft. steam-powered paddle-wheeled craft on the Delaware River. As
customary, Representatives from Congress were present to witness his demonstration.

It wasn't until Ben Franklin died, that In 1791 - John Fitch (without claim to having
invented the steam engine) finally received a U.S. patent
for a paddle-wheeled
propulsion, steam-engine powered boat. But, congress would not give him any money, and his
"steamboat" business failed before it ever got off to a start.  
In 1798 - as a very biased, full of
hate and bitter man, John Fitch committed suicide
... It would be another 19 years before
Robert Fulton demo's his
Do you know?

What does Coke Cola
Geronimo, and the
Statue of Liberty have
in common?


Just what - in 1827 -
really made all the
young men "Go West"?


What really wonderful
White House amenity
did Pres. B. Harrison
have (but never use)  
that today - we can't
live without?

And Why
are there no actual
photographs prior to

It wasn't until 1829
when John Quincey Adams
(our 6th President)
became the first President
to actually be
photographed that
photographs were

Prior to this, camera's
were experimental,
expensive, difficult, and
unreliable, and the
"images" they took were
not permanent and slowly
disappeared - therefore
they were then simply  
traced, or painted over
in-order to preserve the

All these answers...
(and more)
are on the following
pages on the
100 year
history of the
American Riverboat

Do you know the
that enjoyed these
White House

inside toilet?
indoor plumbing?
hot water?

In the scheme of things, 1803 America - was really not that long ago.  My Dad (for example)
was born in 1898. His Dad in 1875, and my Dad's Grandfather was born in 1848 the year of the
first wagon train to California, and his Dad in 1814, the year the British burned the White House.
So in my family, just 5 generations take us back in history to when the first successfully steam
powered riverboat (the "New Orleans") was the most popular form of travel not only on the
Mississippi river, but in the USA.

The population in the United States (all 13 of them) in 1803 was just under 5 million  and
three-fourths of them lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic ocean. There were only five "popular &
frequently" used routes of travel used by anyone, and they were:

    Boston to Philadelphia - 310 miles -  and took 10 days.
    NYC to Albany - 155 miles -  and normally took 6 days.
    Philadelphia to Raleigh - 421miles  -  and usually took 20-25 days.
    Raleigh to Atlanta - 407 miles -  which took 24 days or longer.
    Harpers Fairy to Pittsburgh - 512 miles -  which took 30 days.
    New Orleans to St. Louis was a hard 6 month trip.

All these "routes" were little more than sandy, muddy, bumpy, rugged, and worn trails. Because
of the condition of these routes, or trails; the use of a wagon, did not get the traveler to his
destination any faster than walking. In fact, walking was usually the faster and preferred mode of
travel... Wagons and horses were used mainly to help carry the traveler's loads.
1803 - America

In 1803, no one but Indians lived west of the Mississippi; and all the land north from
the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, and from the Mississippi west to the Rockies, belonged
to France.

American consumers in Boston, Philadelphia, NYC, Raleigh areas were paying an
average of 5 cents per pound each - for basic staples of beans, rice and flour, and 35
cents a lb. for coffee. While in St. Louis the population of 3,000 French settlers (from
Canada) were paying $2.00 a lb. for coffee. Obviously, the demand for coffee
exceeded the supply.
So... It is no wonder why people
didn't travel very far from home.
Capt John's 100 years of Riverboat History
It doesn't have to be boring...
:: Capt John's RiverBoat Glory Days ::
A 100 year history of the American Riverboat

100 years of
brought to you
© 1993 - 2017 CaptainJohn.org
Imagine. . .  if you can.  The Steamship "New Orleans" arriving in New Orleans for the very first time. . .
It would have been far bigger then any ship anyone had ever seen.  In addition, it had no sails.  And if that wasn't a  miracle and
enough - it also promised to take you and your family with all your belongings to St. Louis, in only 18 days. A trip that
previously would have taken you 6 months to a year.