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A Whistle Good-bye

July 2024
3min read

An era is ending on America’s inland waterways. A century and a hall after it began—with the launching of Robert Fulton’s North River Steamboat in 1807—the Age of Steam is chufling to a dose. At its height there were overnight and day-excursion steamers; packets carrying passengers, mail, and goods on regularly scheduled runs; ferries taking people to and from work; vessels for carrying cargo, pushing barges, or clearing channels. Powered by reciprocating steam engines and driven at first by paddle wheels and later by propellers, they plied our coasts, crisscrossed our lakes and harbors, and along our navigable rivers caused whole towns to spring up. Almost all these steamboats aie gone now. Bulk-cargo carriers, a few railroad-car ferries, and one overnight steamer still ply the Great Lakes: some ferries, workboats. and excursion boats are still to be seen on the Mississippi and a lew other rivers. Hut the coastal steamers are virtually extinct, and on Long Island Sound—in bygone days the greatest steamboat showcase in North America—there is only a single survivor, the ferryboat Catskill . Two excursion steamboats operate out of New York Harbor, but a quarter ol a century ago there were forty-five. Canada has taken its overnight luxury liners off the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence. Waterway trallic is far from dead: it has made a spectacular comeback since World War II and last year carried a healthy ten per cent of the nation s freight. Mut today’s businesslike, dicscl-driven towboats and gasoline-engine barges arc a far cry from the grateful steamboats of the past, with their churning paddle wheels, lordly pilothouses, and slender stacks. I took most of these pictures within the last five years, yet so fast does Progress bear down upon us that what began as a personal salute has ended as a farewell to steam.

The yeomen ol the inland waterways are the workhoats. which spend their lives doing essential chores without fanfare. They will not be doing them much longer by steam. The catamaran ferry City of Baton Rouge (right) and her sister ship Louisiana will soon be replaced by a new bridge over the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and Port Alien. The propeller-driven dredger Ockersson (opposite page, top) will soon be retired by the dorps ol Engineers, which has already retired the Arkansas II (below), a snag boat that once cleared obstructions and set out navigation buoys on the Mississippi. The two New York Central tugboats opposite, part of the last sizable steam-tug Hcct in North America, will probably pulf their last when the Central-Pennsylvania merger allows the Pennsy’s new diesels to take over in New York Harbor. Next to them is the laker Diamond Alkali . She and her lellow cargo carriers William J. Filbert and Algosoo (whose graceful stern is seen just beneath the Alkali ) carry ore and grain from the top of Lake Superior to Chicago, Detroit, and the Lake Krie ports via the Soo Canal locks: they return with steel and coal. They are fighting a determined rear-guard action against the new breed of diesel giants fostered by the St. Lawrence Seaway. The W(X)den-hullcd. coal-fired, twin-stacked Lone Star (below center) noses barges up and down the Mississippi River near Davenport. Iowa. Fifty years ago she would have been commonplace, but now she is the sole surviving classic Mississippi steamboat. Mark Twain would have loved her.

The Yeomen of the Waterways

A Queen Dethroned

The golden age of steamboating. the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, was epitomized by the splendid passenger packets that combined luxury and the excitement of travel in a manner rarely equalled by any other form of transportation. But no longer. By the time I set out to photograph the steamboat in the United States and Canada, only seven of them survived. One was the Keewatin , a Great Lakes liner operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway. In this picture she is down at the stern because her coal bunkers are lull for the trip across Lake Huron to Fort William on Lake Superior. As her interior details show, she belonged to the era of the Grand Hotels and the four-stacked “greyhounds of the sea.” Since these photographs were taken, Canada has passed a law requiring that metal replace wooden superstructures on all passenger vessels within the Dominion’s waters. This action spelled the end for five ships which no service can afford to remodel: the Keewatin and her sister, Assiniboia , as well as the last three boats on the St. Lawrence, the Richelieu , Tadoussac , and St. Lawrence . Now only two overnight steamers are left, both in this country: South American , operating between Buffalo and Duluth, and the steel-hulled Delta Queen .

Three Whistles Still Blowing

The Mississippi and the Hudson each developed a distinctive style of passenger steamboat. Today the original Mississippi bouts have all but vanished, but the Hudson retains the classic Alexander Hamilton (above). On the Mississippi system there are two steamboats, the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen , both stern-wheelers, but the (Ji*gf n was built for service on the Sacramento River in California, and the Belle was a ferry. Now the Queen is the only passenger vessel on which one can travel extensively on our inland rivers; her cruises have been so successful that her owners. Rreene Line Steamers of Cincinnati, plan to build a new steel steam packet in nineteenth century style. And the Belle of Louisville , with her pilothouse relocated amidships, her stacks lengthened, and a Texas deck added, bears some resemblance to the great Moating palaces of the past.

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