The term steamboat is usually used to refer to smaller steam-powered boats working on lakes and rivers, particularly riverboats; steamship generally refers to larger steam-powered ships, usually ocean-going, capable of carrying a (ship's) boat. The term steamwheeler is archaic and rarely used.
Engines to produce steam were developed and adapted in the late 18th century for use on ships, but did not become widely used until the early 19th century. Growth in their use was rapid on United States rivers, and steamships gradually replaced sailing ships for commercial shipping through the 19th century and in turn were overtaken by diesel-driven ships in the second half of the 20th century. Most warships used steam propulsion until the advent of the gas turbine. Today, nuclear-powered warships and submarines, although powered by steam-driven turbines, are not usually referred to as steamships.
Screw-driven steamships generally carry the ship prefix "SS" before their names, meaning 'Steam Ship' (or Screw Steamer, or 'screw-driven steamship'), paddle steamers usually carry the prefix "PS" and steamships powered by steam turbine may be prefixed "TS" (turbine ship). The term steamer is occasionally used, out of nostalgia, for diesel motor-driven vessels, prefixed "MV".
The French inventor Denis Papin, after inventing the steam digester (a type of pressure cooker) and experimenting with closed cylinders and pistons pushed in by atmospheric pressure, designed and built a steam pump analogous to the pump advertised by Thomas Savery in England during the same period. In his writings, including his correspondence with Gottfried Leibniz, Papin proposed applying this steam pump to the operation of a paddlewheel boat. During a stay in Kassel, Germany, in 1704, he completed a paddlewheel boat, probably pedal-powered. When he left for England in 1707, hoping to sell the British on his idea of steam-powered navigation, he used his paddlewheeler to navigate down the Fulda River as far as Münden. Although Papin was probably the first to have so clear a conception of a steamboat, he found no backers in London.
In 1736, Jonathan Hulls took out a patent in England for a Newcomen engine-powered steamboat, but it was the improvement in steam engines by James Watt that made the concept feasible. William Henry of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, having learned of Watt's engine on a visit to England, made his own engine. In 1763 he put it in a boat. The boat sank, and while Henry made an improved model, he did not appear to have much success, though he may have inspired others.
In France, by 1774 Marquis Claude de Jouffroy and his colleagues had made a 13-metre (42 ft 8 in) working steamboat with rotating paddles, the Palmipède. The ship sailed on the Doubs in June and July 1776, apparently the first steamship to sail successfully. In 1783 a new paddle steamer, Pyroscaphe, successfully steamed up the river Saône for fifteen minutes before the engine failed, but bureaucracy thwarted further progress.
From 1784 James Rumsey built a pump-driven (water jet) boat and successfully steamed upstream on the Potomac river in 1786; the following year he obtained a patent from the State of Virginia. In Pennsylvania, John Fitch, an acquaintance of Henry, made a model paddle steamer in 1785, and subsequently developed propulsion by floats on a chain, obtained a patent in 1786, then built a steamboat which underwent a successful trial in 1787. In 1788, a steamboat built by John Fitch operated in regular commercial service along the Delaware river between Philadelphia PA and Burlington NJ, carrying as many as 30 passengers. This boat could typically make 7 to 8 miles per hour, and traveled more than 2,000 miles (3,200 km) during its short length of service. The Fitch steamboat was not a commercial success, as this travel route was adequately covered by relatively good wagon roads. The following year a second boat made 50 km (30 mile) excursions, and in 1790 a third boat ran a series of trials on the Delaware River before patent disputes dissuaded Fitch from continuing.
Meanwhile, Patrick Miller of Dalswinton, near Dumfries, Scotland, had developed double-hulled boats propelled by cranked paddlewheels placed between the hulls. He engaged engineer William Symington to build his patent steam engine into a boat which was successfully tried out on Dalswinton Loch in 1788, and followed by a larger steamboat the next year. Miller then abandoned the project. Ten years later Symington was engaged by Lord Dundas to build a steamboat. In March 1802, his Charlotte Dundas towed two 70-ton barges 30 km (19 miles) along the Forth and Clyde Canal to Glasgow. This vessel, the first tow boat, has been called the "first practical steamboat", and the first to be followed by continuous development of steamboats. Although plans to introduce boats on the Forth and Clyde canal were thwarted by fears of erosion of the banks, development was taken up both in Britain and abroad.
Robert Fulton, who may have become interested in steamboats when he visited William Henry in 1777 at the age of 12, visited Britain and France. He built and tested an experimental steamboat on the River Seine in 1803, and was aware of the success of Charlotte Dundas. Before returning to the United States, Fulton ordered a Boulton and Watt steam engine, and on return built what he called the North River Steamboat (often mistakenly described as Clermont). In 1807, she began a regular passenger service between New York City and Albany, New York, 240 km (150 miles) distant, which was a commercial success. She could make the trip in 32 hours. In 1808, John and James Winans built Vermont in Burlington, Vermont, the second steamboat to operate commercially.
In 1809, Accommodation, built by the Hon. John Molson at Montreal, and fitted with engines made at the Forges du Saint-Maurice, Trois-Rivières, was running successfully between Montreal and Quebec, being the first steamer on the St. Lawrence and in Canada; unlike Fulton, Molson did not show a profit. The experience of both vessels showed the new system of propulsion was commercially viable, and as a result its application to the more open waters of the Great Lakes was next considered. That idea went on hiatus due to the War of 1812.
The use of steamboats on major US rivers soon followed Fulton's success. In 1811 the first in a continuous (still in commercial passenger operation as of 2007) line of river steamboats left the dock at Pittsburgh to steam down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and on to New Orleans. The river pilot and author Mark Twain, in his Life on the Mississippi, described much of the operation of these vessels.
For most of the 19th century and part of the early 20th century, trade on the Mississippi River was dominated by paddle-wheel steamboats. Their use generated rapid development of economies of port cities; the exploitation of agricultural and commodity products, which could be more easily transported to markets; and prosperity along the major rivers. Their success led to penetration deep into the continent, where Anson Northrup in 1859 became first steamer to cross the U.S.-Canadian border on the Red River. They would also be involved in major political events, as when Louis Riel seized International at Fort Garry, or Gabriel Dumont was engaged by Northcote at Batoche. Very few such craft survive to the present day.
At the same time, the expanding steamboat traffic had severe adverse environmental effects, in the Middle Mississippi Valley especially, between St. Louis and the river's confluence with the Ohio. The steamboats consumed much wood for fuel, and the river floodplain and banks became deforested. This led to instability in the banks, addition of silt to the water, making the river more shallow and causing unpredictable, lateral movement of the river channel across the wide, ten-mile floodplain. The river became both wider and more shallow, endangering navigation. Boats designated as snagpullers to keep the channels free had crews that sometimes cut remaining large trees 100-200 feet or more back from the banks, exacerbating the problems. In the 19th century, the flooding of the Mississippi became a more severe problem than when the floodplain was filled with trees and brush. Among other effects, changes in its channel meant the destruction of much of the archeology and historical remnants of early French colonial villages of the Illinois Country, such as Kaskaskia, St. Philippe, and Cahokia on the east side, and the original Ste. Genevieve, Missouri on the west side of the river.
Most steamboats were destroyed by boiler explosions or fires, and many sank in the river, some to be covered over by silt as the river changed course. From 1811-1899, 156 steamboats were lost to snags or rocks between St. Louis and the Ohio River. Another 411 were damaged by fire, explosions or ice during that period. One of the few surviving Mississippi sternwheelers from this period, Julius C. Wilkie, was operated as a museum ship at Winona, Minnesota until its destruction in a fire in 1981. The replacement, built in situ was not a steamboat. The replica was scrapped in 2008. For modern craft operated on rivers, see the Riverboat article.
Six major commercial steamboats currently operate on the inland waterways of the United States. They are the steamers Belle of Louisville, Delta Queen, Julia Belle Swain, Mississippi Queen, Natchez, and American Queen. Three of these boats are overnight passenger vessels operated by Majestic America Line, formerly the Delta Queen Steamboat Company of New Orleans, Louisiana.
In Canada, the city of Terrace, British Columbia, celebrates "Riverboat Days" each summer. Built on the banks of the Skeena River, the city depended on the steamboat for transportation and trade into the 20th century. The first steamer to enter the Skeena was Union in 1864. In 1866 Mumford attempted to ascend the river, but it was only able to reach the Kitsumkalum River. It was not until 1891 Hudson's Bay Company sternwheeler Caledonia successfully negotiated Kitselas Canyon and reached Hazelton. A number of other steamers were built around the turn of the century, in part due to the growing fish industry and the gold rush. For more information, see Steamboats of the Skeena River.
Sternwheelers were an instrumental transportation technology in the development of Western Canada. They were used on most of the navigable waterways of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C and the Yukon at one time or another, generally being supplanted by the expansion of railroads and roads. In the more mountainous and remote areas of the Yukon and British Columbia, working sternwheelers lived on well into the 20th century.
The simplicity of these vessels and their shallow draft made them indispensable to pioneer communities that were otherwise virtually cut off from the outside world. Because of their shallow, flat-bottomed construction (the Canadian examples of the western river sternwheeler generally needed less than three feet of water to float in), they could nose up almost anywhere along a riverbank to pick up or drop off passengers and freight. Sternwheelers would also prove vital to the construction of the railroads that eventually replaced them. They were used to haul supplies, track and other materials to construction camps.
The simple, versatile, locomotive-style boilers fitted to most sternwheelers after about the 1860s could burn coal, when available in more populated areas like the lakes of the Kootenays and the Okanagan region in southern B.C., or wood in the more remote areas, such as the Yukon or northern B.C.
The hulls were generally wooden, (although a few steel and composite hulls were built after about 1898) and were braced internally with a series of built-up longitudinal timbers called "keelsons". Further resilience was given to the hulls by a system of "hog rods" or "hog chains" that were fastened into the keelsons and led up and over vertical masts called "hog-posts", and back down again.
Like their counterparts on the Mississippi and its tributaries, and the vessels on the rivers of California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, the Canadian sternwheelers tended to have fairly short life-spans. The hard usage they were subjected to and inherent flexibility of their shallow wooden hulls meant that relatively few of them had careers longer than a decade.
In the Yukon Territory, two vessels are preserved: the S.S. Klondike in Whitehorse and the S.S. Keno in Dawson City. Many derelict hulks can still be found along the Yukon River.
In British Columbia, the SS Moyie, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1898, was operated on Kootenay Lake in south-eastern B.C. until 1957. It has been carefully restored and is on display in the village of Kaslo, where it acts as a tourist attraction right next to information centre in downtown Kaslo. The SS Moyie is the worlds oldest intact stern wheeler. While the SS Sicamous of 1914 has been preserved in Penticton at the south end of Okanagan Lake.
The SS Samson V is the only Canadian steam-powered sternwheeler that has been preserved afloat. It was built in 1937 by the Canadian federal Department of Public Works as a snagboat for clearing logs and debris out of the lower reaches of the Fraser River and for maintaining docks and aids to navigation. The fifth in a line of Fraser River snagpullers, the Samson V has engines, paddlewheel and other components that were passed down from the Samson II of 1914. It is now moored on the Fraser River as a floating museum in its home port of New Westminster, near Vancouver, B.C.
The oldest operating steam driven vessel in North America is the RMS Segwun. It was built in Scotland in 1887 to cruise the Muskoka Lakes, District of Muskoka, Ontario, Canada. Originally named the S.S. Nipissing, it was converted from a side-paddle-wheel steamer with a walking-beam engine into a two-counter-rotating-propeller steamer.
Good reference works on the history of these vessels include Art Downs' British Columbia-Yukon Sternwheel Days (1992 Heritage House Publishing Company, Surrey, B.C.), Robert D. Turner's Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs (1998, Sono Nis Press, Victoria, B.C.), Edward Affleck's A Century of Paddlewheelers in the Pacific Northwest, the Yukon and Alaska (2000, Alexander Nicolls Press, Vancouver, B.C.) Graham Wilson, Paddlewheelers of Alaska and the Yukon (1999, Wolf Creek Books, Whitehorse, Yukon) and Robin Sheret's Smoke, Ash and Steam (1997, Western Isles Cruise and Dive Co., Victoria, B.C.).
The first commercially successful steamboat in Europe, Henry Bell's Comet, started a rapid expansion of steam services on the Firth of Clyde, and within four years a steamer service was in operation on the inland Loch Lomond, a forerunner of the lake steamers still gracing Swiss lakes. Today the 1900 steamer SS Sir Walter Scott still sails on Loch Katrine, while on Loch Lomond PS Maid of the Loch is being restored.
On the Clyde itself, within ten years of Comet's start there were nearly fifty steamers, and services had started across the Irish Sea to Belfast. By 1900 there were over 300 Clyde steamers. The paddle steamer Waverley, built in 1947, is the last survivor of these fleets, and the last seagoing paddle steamer in the world. This ship sails a full season of cruises every year from places around Britain, and has sailed across the English Channel for a visit to commemorate the sinking of her predecessor, built in 1899, at the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940.
People have had a particular affection for the Clyde puffers, small steam freighters of traditional design developed to use the Scottish canals and to serve the Highlands and Islands. They were immortalised by the tales of Para Handy's boat Vital Spark by Neil Munro and by the film The Maggie, and a small number are being conserved to continue in steam around the west highland sea lochs.
The Clyde sludge boats had a tradition of occasionally taking passengers on their trips from Glasgow, past the Isle of Arran, down the Firth of Clyde, and one has emerged from retirement as SS Shieldhall, offering outings from Southampton, England.
From 1844 through 1857, luxurious palace steamers carried passengers and cargo around the North American Great Lakes. Great Lakes passenger steamers reached their zenith during the century from 1850 to 1950. The SS Badger is the last of the once-numerous passenger-carrying steam-powered car ferrys operating on the Great Lakes. A unique style of bulk carrier known as the lake freighter was developed on the Great Lakes. The St. Marys Challenger, launched in 1906, remained in operation in 2008 as the oldest steam-powered bulk carrier on the lakes.
Swiss lakes are home of a number of large steamships. On Lake Lucerne, five paddle steamers are still in service: Uri (built in 1901, 800 passengers), Unterwalden (1902, 800 passengers), Schiller (1906, 900 passengers), Gallia (1913, 900 passengers, fastest paddle-wheeler on European lakes) and Stadt Luzern (1928, 1200 passengers, last steamship built for a Swiss lake). There are also five steamers as well as some old steamships converted to diesel-powered paddlewheelers on Lake Geneva, two steamers on Lake Zurich and single ones on other lakes.
From 1850 to the early decades of the twentieth century Windermere, in the English Lakes, was home to many elegant steamboats used for private parties and watching the yacht races. Many of these fine craft were saved from destruction when steam went out of fashion and are now part of the collection at Windermere Steamboat Museum. The collection includes SL Dolly, 1851, thought to be the world's oldest mechanically powered boat, and several of the classic Windermere launches.
The first steamship credited with crossing the Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe was the American ship SS Savannah, though she was actually a hybrid between a steamship and a sailing ship. The SS Savannah left the port of Savannah, Georgia, on May 22, 1819, arriving in Liverpool, England, on June 20, 1819; her steam engine having been in use for part of the time on 18 days (estimates vary from 8 to 80 hours). A claimant to the title of the first ship to make the transatlantic trip substantially under steam power is the British-built Dutch-owned Curaçao, a wooden 438 ton vessel built in Dover and powered by two 50 hp engines, which crossed from Hellevoetsluis, near Rotterdam on 26 April 1827 to Paramaribo, Surinam on 24 May, spending 11 days under steam on the way out and more on the return. Another claimant is the Canadian ship SS Royal William in 1833.
The side-wheel paddle steamer SS Great Western was the first purpose-built steamship to initiate regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic crossings, starting in 1838. The first regular steamship service from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States began on February 28, 1849, with the arrival of the SS California in San Francisco Bay. The California left New York Harbor on October 6, 1848, rounded Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and arrived at San Francisco, California, after a four-month and 21-day journey. SS Great Eastern was built in 1854–1857 with the intent of linking Great Britain with India, via the Cape of Good Hope, without any coaling stops. She would know a turbulent history, and was never put to her intended use.
As early as the 1820s, side-wheel steamers plied the waters of Narragansett Bay, Buzzard's Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and Long Island Sound between the ports of southern New England and New York City. Eventually most of the steamship lines that traversed "The Sound" came under the control of J. P. Morgan who consolidated them into the New England Steamship Company, probably better known by the name of its most famous route, the Fall River Line, which transported Astors, Vanderbilts, and the elite of the Eastern Establishment between New York City, Boston, and their palatial summer 'cottages' at Newport, Rhode Island. The last of the great paddle steamer fleet was put out of business by a combination of competition from railroads and automobiles, labor troubles, and the Great Depression economy in 1937; however, service on "The Sound" between Providence and New York City continued with screw steamers, until brought to an end in early 1942 by the menace of World War II German U-boat attacks.
The first steamship to operate on the Pacific Ocean was the Beaver, launched in 1836 to service Hudson's Bay Company trading posts between Puget Sound and Alaska. The California Gold Rush, trade and U. S Mail contracts to the west coast of the United States brought the steamships of the U.S. Mail Steamship Company and other lines carrying passengers to the Isthmus of Panama crossing first by mules later by the Panama Railroad Company where Pacific Mail Steamship Company steamers carried them to California.
Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States used steamships (such as the USS Mississippi) to help force Japan to open its ports up to American trade in 1853. This was a contributing factor to the Meiji Restoration.
By 1870, a number of inventions, such as the screw propeller and the triple expansion engine made trans-oceanic shipping economically viable. Thus began the era of cheap and safe travel and trade around the world.
RMS Titanic was the largest steamship in the world when she sank in 1912; a subsequent major sinking of a steamer was that of the RMS Lusitania, as an act of World War I. Launched in 1938, RMS Queen Elizabeth was the largest passenger steamship ever built. Launched in 1969, RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) was the last passenger steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean on a scheduled liner voyage before she was converted to diesels in 1986. The last major passenger ship built with steam engines was the Fairsky, launched in 1984.
SS Explorer is the last remaining steam trawler in Britain. She was built in Aberdeen, including the last steam engine built there, and was launched in 1955 as a fishery research vessel. Accommodation was provided for researchers, including a computer cabin. Currently she is berthed at Edinburgh Dock, Leith, by Edinburgh, and is subject of a restoration project.
Most luxury yachts at the end of the 19th Century and early 20th Century were steam driven (see luxury yacht; also Cox & King yachts). SS Delphine is a classic 1920s yacht commissioned by Horace Dodge, co-founder of Dodge Brothers of automobile fame. The yacht was launched on April 2, 1921, and spans 258 feet (79 m). The Delphine can reach 15 knots (28 km/h) under power from her two quadruple steam expansion engines, each of 1,500 hp (1,100 kW). Interactive images including those of her original engines can be viewed here: VR Panoramic images of The SS Delphine After a full restoration she now cruises the Mediterranean under charter. A full history can be viewed on the official website.
After the demonstration by Charles Parsons of his steam turbine-driven yacht, Turbinia, in 1897, the use of steam turbines for propulsion quickly spread. Most capital ships of the major navies were propelled by steam turbines in both World Wars and nuclear marine propulsion systems aboard warships, submarines, and such vessels as the NS Savannah relied on turbines as well.
There are few genuine steamboats left on the River Thames; however, a handful remain.
The SL (steam launch) Nuneham is a genuine Victorian steamer built in 1898, and operated on the non-tidal upper Thames by the Thames Steam Packet Boat Company. It is berthed at Runnymede.
SL Nuneham was built at Port Brimscombe on the Thames and Severn Canal by Edwin Clarke. She was built for Salter Bros at Oxford for the regular passenger service between Oxford and Kingston. The original Sissons triple-expansion steam engine was removed in the 1960s and replaced with a diesel engine. In 1972, the SL Nuneham was sold to a London boat operator and entered service on the Westminster Pier to Hampton Court service. In 1984 the boat was sold again – now practically derelict – to French Brothers Ltd at Runnymede as a restoration project.
Over a number of years French Brothers carefully restored the launch to its former specification. A similar Sissons triple expansion engine was found in a museum in America, shipped back to the UK and installed, along with a new coal-fired Scotch boiler, designed and built by Alan McEwen of Keighley, Yorkshire. The superstructure was reconstructed to the original design and elegance, including the raised roof, wood panelled saloon and open top deck. The restoration was completed in 1997 and the launch was granted an MCA passenger certificate for 106 passengers. SL Nuneham was entered back into service by French Brothers Ltd, but trading as the Thames Steam Packet Boat Company.
1736 steamboat English patent.
Robert Fulton's Clermont.
"Enterprise on her fast trip to Louisville, 1815"
Left: original paddlewheel from a paddle steamer on the lake of Lucerne. Right: detail of a steamer.
730-foot lake freighter Edward L Ryerson Welland
Turbine steamer TS Queen Mary.
SS United States laid up in Philadelphia.
Sky Wonder last steam powered cruise ship built 1984