A steamboat’s blast rent the starless evening sky; sparks tossed up like confetti. Its passengers spun and turned and glided to the music of an orchestral waltz.
More blasts erupted from the steamboat’s boilers, louder this time. And more sparks flew. Still the dancing and music in the boat’s saloon continued. Why should we be concerned? This is what these passengers thought. We enjoy dancing to Strauss.
Well, in some instances they should be concerned. Steamboat explosions frequently happened in nineteenth century America. But in the case described above, this steamboat wasn’t about to explode. It was “venting” itself on its way to a landing on the Alabama River. Such noises, and the sparks, were expected. So, its passengers danced the night away.
Though no one is sure of the exact date steamboats first plied Alabama’s rivers, the steamboat era began almost at the same time it became a state (1819), and by the 1820s steamboats became a common mode of travel on its fourteen major rivers. In the early years of steam-boating, three Alabama companies built them. Later, by 1861, Cox, Brainerd, & Company pretty much monopolized Alabama’s steamboat trade.
As these boats churned the rivers toward the port of Mobile, they’d stop at numerous landings situated below bluffs to take on cotton, which was then loaded on its lowest deck, called the main deck. Second-class passengers had to tolerate the discomforts of this deck, for on it were the vessel’s engine and kitchen as well as cotton bales, firewood, animals, and similar freight.
The wealthier passengers traveled in more luxury on the boat’s middle deck– the boiler deck, which held its saloon and cabins. British passenger, Sir Charles Lyell, described one Alabama boat’s saloon in his work, Second Visit to the United States (1849): …The upper deck is chiefly occupied with a handsome saloon, about 200-feet long, the ladies’ cabin at one end, opening into it with folding doors. Sofas, rocking chairs, and a stove are placed in this room, which is lighted by windows from above. On each side of it is a row of sleeping apartments, each communicating by one door with the saloon while the other leads out to the guard, as they call it, a long balcony or gallery, covered with a shade or verandah, which passes around the whole boat…
On the third deck, the hurricane deck (aka Texas deck) the boat’s officers lived. Their quarters, flanked by smokestacks, were called the Texas. Finally, atop this deck was the pilot house. In his classic work, Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain described the pilot house as being as “a sumptuous glass temple; room enough to have a dance in.”
And as mentioned earlier, explosions were a real danger on these boats. Below is an article about a steamboat tragedy in the port of Mobile. The accident was believed to have been caused by its boilers not having enough water.
Causey, Donna, “Citizens of Alabama were excited and afraid of the first steamboats,” Alabama Pioneers (blog), Days Gone By—Stories From the Past, https://www.alabamapioneers.com/citizens-of-alabama-were-excited-and-afraid-of-the-first-steamboats/.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Alabama Humanities Alliance, http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/e-154
Griffith, Lucille. Alabama: A Documentary History to 1900, University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1972.
Lyell, Sir Charles, Second Visit to the United States, vol. 2, London: J. Murray, 1849, quoted in Alabama: A Documentary History of the United States to 1900, University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1972.
McMillan, Malcolm C., The Land Called Alabama, Austin, Texas: Steck-Vaughn Company, 1968.
Mellown, Robert O., “Steamboats in Alabama,” Encyclopedia of Alabama, Alabama Humanities Alliance, updated August 16, 2019, http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1803.
Twain, Mark, Life on the Mississippi, Signet Reprint Edition, 2009.