Steamboat Economics

May 3, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Mark Twain would have us believe that boys along the Mississippi in his day longed to become steamboat captains because of the romance of those floating wedding cakes and the mystery of the great Mississippi itself. A closer look might reveal a deeper and far more American reason to take up steam boating: money.

Steam boating was romantic, and it was risky. A fourth of all the boats on the Upper Mississippi were wrecked by snags or blown boilers. Four years was the average life of these boats, though a few lasted less than a year. Why would anyone take such chances with an investment of 30,000 dollars, the cost of a medium packet boat?

Get your pencil and paper out and add up the figures for yourself. Let's take a typical stern-wheel light draft boat of 200 ton running between Galena, Illinois, and St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1854. That boat can take an amazing load of up to 350 tons of passengers and cargo—say 200 cabin passengers and a hundred deck passengers, and 5,000 sacks of wheat. Upstream cabin passage from Galena to St. Paul in 1854 was $12 and deck passage half that. Cargo charges ran $1.50 a hundred weight. Downstream charges were less.

The boat makes four round trips a month. Each round trip brings the boat owner 5,590 dollars, or $22,760 per month. Food wages and fuel for that month run to $11,500, leaving a net profit to the captain-owner of $11,260. In a typical season on the Upper Mississippi a small boat like this ran for five months each year. Profit at the end of the season: $56,300, more than enough to buy an even larger boat for the next season and leave some pin money for the captain: say about $20,000, in an age when the typical American made a dollar a day.

These figures are conservative. One such boat, the "Lady Franklin," cost $20,000 in 1855. She paid for herself and then some in the first two months, and by the time she sank in 1857, her owner had made enough to buy two new steamboats twice as large.

You can see that that wistful smile young Sam Clemens saw on the captain’s face as his boat eased into Hannibal, Missouri, was not all due to romance. Like the Mona Lisa, he knew something mere mortals didn’t know.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.