Early Steamboats

First Steamboats

Captain Orin Smith

Str. Northern Belle | Str. Northern Light | Str. Sucker State | Str. War Eagle

First Steamboats

As early as the 17th Century a handful of explorers, hardy French voyageurs, and missionaries had ventured into the environs of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Through a variety of relationships that included cooperation, intermingling, and competition with the native inhabitants of the region, several temporary encampments and forts had been established to support the lucrative fur trade. But most historians agree that nothing changed the frontier as quickly as steam transportation.(1)

In April, 1823 the small steam packet Virginia backed out into the channel of the Mississippi from the St. Louis levee to become the first boat to ascend the Father of Waters into what would later become the Minnesota Territory. This remarkable journey was chronicled by Giacomo Constantine Beltrami, the Italian explorer who went on to play an important role in Minnesota history. (2) A Kentucky family en route to the lead mines of southern Wisconsin on board the 118-foot vessel represented the first trickle of what would soon become a deluge of immigration. Also on board the Virginia for this historic trip was Captain William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1805.

Imagine the contrast of traveling in the relative ease and comfort of this sturdy little boat with his experience of just a few years earlier.

It would be remiss to suggest that the early immigrants did, in fact, travel in luxury on the first steamboats. Such was not often the case. Many immigrant families traveled in virtual squalor and suffered great hardship as deck passengers on board the early packets. Poorer immigrants were forced to travel in cramped conditions, often among cattle and pigs. They were exposed to dreadful diseases and enjoyed few, if any, measures of comfort. The point is that steamboat travel opened immigration to settlers and their children. Travel with children was now safer and easier than it was when only treacherous overland routes existed. The speed and relative safety the steamboat could afford now made it feasible for families to move together, rather than for a father to have to leave loved ones behind while he arduously ventured ahead through wilderness with the hopes of returning for them much later. This fact is what accounted for the tremendous surge in growth.

At first the movement was slow. In terms of commerce, steamboats had mostly been employed in the transport of furs and lead. They were also useful in the delivery of goods for the resupplying of forts and encampments. Eventually, they came to be used in the removal of Native Americans to a variety of reservation sites. But, it was the creation of the Minnesota Territory in 1849 and the influx of immigrant settlers that resulted in what one historian refers to as, "THE HEYDAY [sic] of steamboating on the Upper Mississippi.

For the first time in history, the brute strength of human muscle, beasts of burden, and natural forces necessary to propel a craft at painstakingly slow speed was replaced by the steamboat. People could now travel in comparative luxury. They could travel great distances at speeds once thought impossible -sometimes in excess of eight miles per hour! And travel they did. Just over 22,000 inhabitants were counted in what is now Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota in 1836 when the original Wisconsin Territory was formed. The majority of these were squatters in the mineral region where the three state's boundaries now meet. By 1850 that number had grown to approximately one half million. And in the next twenty years it exceeded two and a half million people. Minnesota acquired a greater population in twenty years than had New York State in a century and a half.


Captain Orrin Smith

Many of the men who piloted these first craft realized that the ultimate settlement and development of the Upper Mississippi River Valley would rest heavily on appropriate landing sites for their boats. Captain Orrin Smith was such a fellow. Smith had the reputation of being a devoutly religious man. He refused to operate his sidewheel packet str. Nominee on Sundays in the Galena to St. Paul trade. His sacred devotions, however, did not interfere with his entrepreneurial prowess. Smith was witness to the fact that towns were springing up along the river, much to the enrichment of speculating landowners. On October 15, 1851 he secured his place in local history, as the founder of Winona, by landing his ship's carpenter, a Mr. Erwin Johnson, with the purpose of claiming title to riverfront and surrounding prairie land.


Winona Levee 1862

Smith's str.Nominee was one of many steamboats that brought the new immigrants and their families to Winona and other communities along the Upper Mississippi River. Of course these boats did not only carry passengers. They also delivered goods and freight of all kinds to the Winona landing. Many were also contracted by the U.S. Government to carry the mail. The Nominee and other boats that you can see in this small collection of photographs are good examples of the packet boats that landed at Winona during the Minnesota Territorial period. During this time, most of the boats were being built at cities along the Ohio River. This is, of course, because these towns had long since been settled, had iron works, lumber yards and the skilled laborers necessary for the manufacture of such wondrous specimens. As the Upper Mississippi was developed they eventually had boatyards of their own that built many fine boats for the local trades Sidewheel packet wood hull built at Shousetown, Pa. (hull), and completed at Pittsburgh, 1848. Originally built for the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati trade, she only ran there for the 1849 season. She was then sold to Orrin Smith who brought her to the Upper Mississippi in 1850. She was the first boat to arrive at St. Paul in that season. She was the first boat to pass through Lake Pepin in the 1852 season. In 1853 she made 29 trips between Galena and St Paul. She was again the first arrival in St. Paul in 1854. When under the command of Capt. Smith, a Sabbath observer, she was always laid up on Sundays.


Historians everywhere are indebted to the late Captain Frederick Way, Jr. of Sewickley, Pennsylvania. Capt. Way was a steamboat pilot, the founder of The Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, a renowned author of many books on the subject of rivers and steamboats, and until his recent death, in 1993, was known as the "dean" of steamboat history. The information we offer here on the description of these boats was compiled by Captain Way and published in his Way's Packet Directory 1848-1983.

Str. Northern Belle

The Northern Belle was a Sidewheel packet wood hull built at Cinncinatti Ohio in 1856 for The Miinnesota Packet Company, Capt. Preston Lodwick. Capt. Jesse Y. Hurd was master 1858-59,running to Dunleith(now East Dubuque, Il.) and La Crosse. This boat also transported Civil War troops in 1861 while under the command of Capt. W. H. Laughton. No record of her whereabouts appears after 1870.


Str. Northern Light

Northern Light: Sidewheel packet wood hull built at Madison, Ind. In 1847. This boat was also under the command of Capt. Preston Lodwick. Of the Minnesota Packet Company. There were oil paintings of St. Anthony's Falls Dayton Bluffs, and Maiden Rock in the cabin. The paddle boxes were graced with paintings of aurora borealis. She was runiing in Coon Slough between La Crosse, Wisconsin and Brownsville, Minnesota when she struck a pile of ice on Apr. 11, 1866. She sank in thirty feet of water.Key City: Sidewheel wood hull packet built at Cincinnati, Ohio in 1857. In service of the Minnesota Packet Company through 1869 when she was sent to Madison, Indiana to be dismantled. She was involved in a collision with the str. Ben Coursin near La Crosse, on Aug. 24, 1857 in which the Coursin was sunk.


Str. Sucker State

Sucker State: Sidewheel packet wood hull built in 1860 at McKeesport, Pa. She was built for the Northern Line Packet Company where she operated the St. Louis to St. Paul trade until she burned at Alton Slough in 1872. She ran the distance between those to cities in 12 minutes under 3 days in June of 1867. That time was bested the following year by her sister ship, the almost identical str. Hawkeye State. Sucker State is a nickname given to Illinois. It is a reference to a manner of lead mining practiced by miners from that state in extracting lead from the Wisconsin Territory.


Str. War Eagle

The War Eagle was sidewheel packet wood hull built at Cincinnati, Ohio for Orrin Smith of the Minnesota Packet Company. She not only hauled many immigrants to the Minnesota frontier but also was placed into service for the Union effort during the Civil War. In 1862, while on a trip on the Tennessee River she was shot in one of her smokestacks. She burned at La Crosse, Wisconsin on May 15, 1870 at the confluence of the Black and Mississippi Rivers with the loss of two lives and $215,000 in property damage. Recent efforts by local divers have yielded many artifacts from the War Eagle that may be seen at the River Interpretive Center in Riverside Park in La Crosse.