Saturday, January 20, 2018

Riverboat Travel in the Old Wild West

This post is brought to you by Janalyn Voigt.

Riverboat Travel in the Old Wild West

This riverboat Mural in Independence, Oregon (Polk County) captures a romantic view of riverboat travel; Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
Most of us think of western migration in America in the context of covered wagons. While it’s true that over 500,000 people traveled the Oregon Trail at its height (between 1843 and 1869), many others made their way west by a different route. Riverboats traveled farther inland than most people realize. Alexander Culbertson of the American Fur Company built Fort Benton at the end of the navigable waters of the upper Missouri in what is now central Montana.

Those willing to occupy the limited space remaining on the lower deck after the deckhands loaded the freight onboard a riverboat, could buy tickets fairly cheaply. 'Deck passengers' brought their own food and fended for themselves against the elements on the open deck. It couldn't have been fun to ride alongside the boilers, not to mention the livestock, cotton bales, and barrels, while crammed in with other passengers. It did, however, carry them to their desired destination.

Double the fee bought a private room on an upper deck and the chance to enjoy fine cuisine in the elegant dining room, gamble at a table in the bar, and lounge in comfort while watching the river slide by.

Whether sheltering with the cargo or living in luxury, both types of passenger might face danger. A riverboat might crash into a tree snag, run aground on a sandbar, catch fire, or suffer a boiler explosion. The wreck of the Sultana, a riverboat accident on the Mississippi in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, took more lives than the Titanic. The fire that burned down half of St. Louis in 1849 started on a steamboat. 

People took riverboats at their own risk. With liquor and gambling on board, passengers had to watch both their belongings and fellow passengers. The crew might not be honest either. The riverboat captain might have hired a professional gambler to fleece those reckless enough to approach the gaming tables. Sometimes a riverboat ran aground on a sandbar or gravel bar and passengers disembarked to lighten it, only to be abandoned once it was freed.

With all these troubles, why would anyone want to travel by riverboat? Speed. A steamboat could travel up to 5 miles per hour. Compare that to the 20 miles a day a wagon pulled by livestock averaged. Remember, too, that the Oregon Trail was not exactly safe either. During Montana’s goldrush, the backdrop for the Montana Gold series, miners were in a hurry to reach gold. The heroine of Cheyenne Sunrise, the second book in the series, travels to Independence by riverboat. Her brother Con, with whom she travels, distrusts riverboats so much that they join a wagon train for the rest of their journey. His attitude was not uncommon. 
Riverboats had a reputation. 

About Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn's father instilled a love of literature in her at an early age by reading chapters from classics as bedtime stories. When Janalyn grew older, and he stopped reading to her, she put herself to sleep with tales "written" in her head. 

Today Janalyn is a storyteller who writes in multiple genres. The same elements--romance, mystery, adventure, history, and whimsy--appear in all her novels in proportions dictated by their genre. 

Cheyenne Sunrise (Montana Gold, book 2)

Can a woman with no faith in men learn to trust the half-Cheyenne trail guide determined to protect her?

Young Irish widow Bry Brennan doesn’t want another husband to break her spirit. When she and her brother Con join a wagon train headed to Montana Territory, Bry ignores her fascination with Nick Laramie, the handsome trail guide.
Nick lives in an uneasy truce between the settlers and his mother’s tribe without fully fitting in among either. With no intention of dragging a woman into his troubles, he stifles his yearning for Bry.

The perilous journey throws the two together, leaving Bry no choice but to trust Nick with her life. Can she also trust him with her heart? Answering that riddle forces Bry to confront her unresolved questions about God’s love.

Based on actual historical events during a time of unrest in America, Cheyenne Sunrise explores faith, love, and courage in the wild west.


  1. I hadn't actually thought about this before! Thanks for the post.

  2. Thanks for sharing this interesting post about riverboat travel.

  3. I've often thought that I probably wouldn't have survived, much less thrived, in the Old West. But then I think, I also wouldn't be the creature of comfort that I am, so... maybe I would! It's always a treat reading your posts, Janalyn; thanks for making it calorie-free food for thought. :)

    1. I've wondered that too, Beverly, and come to the same conclusion. A person's character pulls them through, along with a heapin' helping of God's grace.

  4. I've often thought I wouldn't have survived, much less thrived, in the Old West. Then again, I probably wouldn't be the creature of comfort that I am, so... maybe I would!
    It's always a treat reading your posts, Janalyn; thanks for making it calorie-free food for thought. :)

  5. I think that we are capable of enduring much more than what we think we can. I like to think that the strength and fortitude that helped my grandoarents raise 8 children during the Depression is in me! Thanks for a great post.