“When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.”
-Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
Prior to the arrival of the train, steamboats were the primary means for transporting goods across the United States. And no river saw more traffic than the Mississippi. Starting in Minnesota, the river travels south all the way to the Gulf of Mexico–a total of 2,530 miles.
Steamboats were used for both transport of cargo as well as people. Cotton, tobacco, corn, coal–pretty much any good imaginable found it’s way down the Mississippi on a steamer. So did the rich, the poor, the foreign, and the farming–people of every age and kind used steamboats to get where they needed to go. As Mark Twain implied in his quote above, there was something glamorous and free about the Mississippi. People from all around the nation and even the world would come to try their luck working on a steamboat.
Of course, Mississippi life wasn’t without dangers–bad ones. Explosions happened often and with great fatalities. Twain’s own brother died in an engine explosion, and thousands of shipwrecks littered the Mississippi–their exposed hulls putting new ships at risk.
If you want to learn more about life on the Mississippi, then take a peak at Mark Twain’s autobiographical accounts!