Friday, April 25, 2014

Elegant As A Steamboat

Almost 20 years ago while at a family dinner, my sister-in-law (who worked on a cruise ship at the time) said she had “jumped ship” at the last moment to attend the family function. That chance comment spawned images that have haunted me ever since. I knew what she meant, yet my imagination took over. For the remainder of the evening, the writer in me watched a movie play over and over in my mind. A panicked man running along the deck of a Mississippi riverboat as someone chased him. To escape, the pursued man jumped overboard into the murky waters below. Story questions ensued. Who was this man? Who was chasing him, and for what reason? Little did I know at the time, but it would take nearly two decades to finally settle into writing his story and learning the answers to my questions.

Now that I am working on the story, I find myself researching Western riverboats. Laurie Alice Eakes has already filled us in on their origins here, so I thought I would pick up where she left off. This month, I’ll tell you a bit about the riverboats architecture, and as I delve deeper into my research, I’ll probably fill you in on other aspects of riverboat life and lore.

First, not all riverboats were created equal. It depended on which river the steamboat was meant to traverse as far as what shape and size it would have. Western riverboats were common sights on the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers, but due to the different terrain of each river, the boats had different features. A Missouri River boat would have a rounded prow, and was known as a “mountain boat.” Along the Ohio River, some boats were much stouter and could be used to “tow” other boats. And down the Lower Mississippi where cotton was king, boats were often much wider due to decks that extended well beyond the sides of the hull. These decks were called “guards” and were there to help protect the side-wheel paddles from getting hung up on any low-hanging branches or other things along the river’s edge. In addition, those “guards” were used to store goods, mainly huge bales of cotton, as they were transported along the Mississippi River.

Main cabin (or Saloon) of the City of Arkansas
Riverboats usually had three or four decks. The bottom deck was known as the “main deck,” where you’d find the inner workings of the steamboat. At the forecastle, the ship’s anchor and other implements were stored. A bit further back, you’d find the boilers and fuel. Progressing toward the back of the boat, the space was filled with pipes, valves, and other engine room paraphernalia. Beyond this came the wheelhouses, a few offices, and at the stern came a stable for any livestock the ship might transport. They filled any remaining space on the main deck with cargo.

Ladies Cabin on the J. M. White 
The second deck, named the “boiler deck,” consisted of one long interior cabin called the main cabin or saloon. This room was the central spot for passengers to spend their time. It contained tables and chairs for meals or socializing, as well as barbershops, bathhouses with hot and cold water, and other luxuries. It was opulently decorated with lots of intricate scrollwork, gilding, beautiful chandeliers, and etched or stained glass. In the earlier days of riverboats, this area would be cordoned off at night into curtained berths for sleeping. The men’s berths were toward the front, the women’s toward the back. A partition separated the two areas.

By the 1840’s, riverboat architecture progressed to the point of providing actual staterooms. The staterooms were situated along the perimeter of the main cabin, and each room had two doors. One led into the main cabin, and the other out onto the wide promenade deck, where passengers could sit or stroll. The staterooms also were elaborately decorated, just as the main cabin. They included beds, washstands, mirrors, and other amenities to make their trip comfortable. Most riverboats could accommodate 125 passengers, but paying customers would not be turned away if there was a lack of staterooms. In such cases, the rooms were given to the women and children first, and any men who lacked a room would be bedded down on the floor of the main cabin each night.

Boiler deck Promenade on the J. M. White
(Notice the spittoons spaced every few feet).
The third deck is known as the “texas” and held the officer’s quarters. The fourth and final deck was the pilothouse, a small, square structure where the captain piloted the boat. If the boat had only three decks, the pilothouse sat in front of the texas.

Most steamboats were painted completely white, although some had blue roofs, or sometimes blue, green, or red hulls. They added color to the stark white through the use of bright flags and pennants, stained glass windows, as well as elaborate murals depicting the names of the boats.

And speaking of the names of the boats, Hollywood has it wrong. So often in movies where a riverboat plays a part, the name of the vessel is the generic River Queen. In reality, the names were far more interesting. A few examples are Arabia, Gold Dust, or Lady Madison.

It’s your turn. Have you had an opportunity to travel on a riverboat? If so, please share you experience.

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and made the top 10 and top 3 in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and five fur children.


  1. I have visited a museum in Kansas City about the Arabia steamboat. It sank in 1856 and was found in a field in 1988. Steamboat history is fascinating! Thanks for your post.

    1. In researching my story and this post, I actually stumbled upon that museum's website, Lori. Hoping to get there one day soon.

  2. Hi Jennifer, I love how a single comment got your mind working. I've had similar experiences happen to me.
    To answer your question, I've actually been on two steamboats. I took a steamboat trip on both the Mississippi and Colombia Rivers. What surprised me about the Colombia River was the locks. During this trip I kept envisioning a young boy in a boat heading for the rapids and what looked like certain death.. He was half-Indian and had been cruelly put in the boat by a bunch of hooligans. This imaginary child eventually grew up and went back to the town to seek revenge. What happens next provided the plot for A Vision of Lucy.

    1. How fascinating, Margaret! I love learning the stories behind the stories. Thanks for sharing. When I was a child, my family took a 2-hour ride on riverboat. I remember it to this day! :)

  3. Jennifer, I've always wanted to ride on a riverboat, but never had the opportunity. I had no idea about the staterooms and different decks. Very interesting.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Nancy! My only experience on a riverboat is a 2-hour ride we took during a family vacation when I was a child. I would love to take a week-long journey to get the real sense of these boats.

  4. We've been on The American Queen in the Mississippi Delta N and S of New Orleans and loved it! I'm noticing there's not a deck called the Promenade like on a Cruise ship. I enjoyed walking laps around this deck on the cruise. I enjoyed the 'horn' blowing on the river boat and the calliope playing. Thanks for the interesting post! sharon wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  5. Ooh, my dream trip (at least for now)! I would love to take a cruise on the Mississippi with the American Queen company one of these days. I bet it was wonderful, Sharon!