Free online books and articles about the history of ships and boats on the Great Lakes and the region’s rivers, including steamboats, shipwrecks, the Sultana disaster, steamboat pilot memoirs, sailors’ handbooks, Great Lakes commerce, ship-building, and research of past ships. Great Lakes Ship History.
Great Lakes Region History Pages on Century Past
Beeson’s Sailors’ Hand Book: A Complete Directory of the Northwestern Lake Ports Relative to the Customs Service, and Synopsis of Marine Laws
Annual issues from 1888 to 1921 available
Detroit: Port of Detroit Custom House; Harvey C. Beeson
The Hand Book is has two parts. Part One is a “Marine Directory and Guide of the Twenty Lake Ports where there are Custom Houses”. Each entry lists the names of a number of officials in the ports and provides a directory for principal Dry Docks, Ship Yards, Engine and Boiler Builders, Ship Chandlers, Sail Makers, Marine Reporters, Admiralty Lawyers, Marine Hospital Services, etc.
Part Two contains information about a wide number of topics, including: Marine Laws, Rules and Regulations; Steamboat Inspection Service; Fire Apparatus and Drills; Wreck Reporting; Admeasurement of Vessels, Instructions to Mariners in case of Shipwreck; Directions for Restoring the Apparently Drowned; List of Life-Saving Districts and Stations, and many other topics. The Hand Book also contains numerous advertisements for equipment, supplies and services of interest to shipping companies or captains.
Detroit: R.L. Polk
This was called Volume 3 because it was the third annual edition produced. The description is from the ‘Introductory’ page: “The earlier pages contain a complete alphabetically arranged list of all vessels (steam or sail, lake or river) navigating the inland seas, showing the name, rig, tonnage, where and by whom built, port of hail, name of owner and the rating and grade under which each is classed by insurance companies, which is prefaced by a description of the system of classification adopted by the Inland Lloyds.”
Next is a “…classified business portion … which contains the names of all persons engaged in any recognized calling pertaining to the marine interests and located on the shores of the Great Lakes…” After that are “…sketches of the various lakes, ports and harbors, containing a description of each…” Next is “…an entire set of Sailing Directions, dangers, etc.” “The Life Saving Service… is treated on and explained at some length…” Also covered are Cautionary Storm Signals, Steamboat Inspection Service, Marine Hospital Service, Lighthouse Service, and statutes relating to Marine Law.
Proceedings of a Meeting, and report of a committee of the citizens of Cleveland, in relation to steamboat disasters on the western lakes
Cleveland, Ohio. Committee on steam navigation on the western lakes. 1850
This report covers the June 1850 burning of the steamboat “G. P. Griffith” with loss of 275 lives only a few hundred yards offshore near Cleveland. It also includes information about burnings, sinkings and collisions of steamboats throughout the Great Lakes from 1830 to 1850, with the committee’s recommendations for safety requirements.
historical and descriptive review of the lakes, rivers, stands, cities, towns, watering places, fisheries, vessels, steamers, captains, disasters, early navigators, mineral wealth, trade, commerce, transportation, etc., etc.
Detroit: Historical Pub. 1877
Baldwin, Leland D.
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1941
This was originally a doctoral dissertation of Leland Baldwin (1898 – 1981) who went on to a career as a Professor of American History, specializing in western Pennsylvania. This book opens with a discussion of the importance of the rivers for the people who settled the Northwest Territory. Rivers and streams were their highways, and they were dependent on boat transport all the way down the Mississippi River to sell their agricultural products. The river network and the boats upon it tied the frontiersmen west of the Appalachians to each other and to rest of the U.S.
Contents:-The Role of the Western Waters in American Expansion -Boats and Boat Building -The Art of Navigation -The Boatmen -River Pirates and the Natchez Trace -The Immigrant -Shipbuilding on the Western Waters -The Boatman has his Day -Bibliography
Among the illustrations are drawings of an Indian bull boat, barge, keelboat, galley, flatboat, bateau, and the interior of a family boat.
to which is added, an account of the business of the Erie Canal done through Buffalo in 1845 and 1846: also, remarks as to the true canal policy of the State of New York
Barton, James L.
Buffalo: Jewett, Thomas 1847
History of a disaster where over one thousand five hundred human beings were lost, most of them exchanged prisoners of war on their way home after privation and suffering from one to twenty-three months in Cahaba and Andersonville prisons
Berry, Rev. Chester D.
Lansing: Thorp 1892
This is mainly a collection of many first-person accounts by survivors, and also includes a roster of the exchanged prisoners of war on the boat.
Blair, Walter A.
Cleveland: Clark 1930
The Wisconsin Magazine of History Volume 14, number 3, March 1931 pp 243-261
Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin
The author spent years piloting boats and log rafts on the Chippewa. The article contains descriptions of various boats and rafts used there, and the techniques that were developed for river navigation. There are a number of helpful drawings.
Proceedings of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association Vol X, 1918-21, 318-33
Cochran, William C.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Mississippi Valley Historical Association
The author reviews and analyses the risks inherent with steamboat travel beginning with the risk of fire, as in the 1865 Sultana disaster that cost more lives than the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
Mississippi Valley Historical Review Vol VII, 1920-21, 26-38
Coleman, Christopher B.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Mississippi Valley Historical Association
In the first decades of the 19th century, a large proportion of emigrants intending to settle in the northwest would use the Ohio River once they passed over the Alleghenies. The author briefly describes the choice a settler had of points of embarkation, then addresses in detail their choice of watercraft and how each was built.
The American Magazine Vol 37, 1894, 713-718
Croffut, Bessie B.
NY: Leslie Publishing
Article in a general interest magazine about shipping on the Great Lakes, with plenty of statistics about cargo and ships.
Together with a Brief History of Our Inland Seas
Curwood, James Oliver
NY: Putnam’s Sons 1909
With 72 illustrations and a map.
Contents:Part 1: The Ships, their Owners, their Sailors, and their Cargoes
-The Building of the Ships -What the Ships Carry – Ore -What the Ships Carry – Other Cargoes -Passenger Traffic and Summer Life -The Romance and Tragedy of the Inland Seas -Buffalo and Duluth: The Alpha and Omega of the Lakes -A Trip on a Great Lakes Freighter
Part 2: Origin and History of the Lakes
-Origin and Early History -The Lakes Change Masters -The War of 1812 and After
Cuthbertson, George A.
NY: Macmillan 1931
Feltner, Charles E. & Jeri Baron
Cincinnati: H.W. Derby & Co, 1848
James Hall was an early writer in Cincinnati. This is both a description of commerce on western rivers at the time of writing, in the late 1840s, and background history.
Contents: -The river network in the west, and connections to New Orleans and the eastern states -Floods of the Ohio River, and effects on Cincinnati -Sandbars, and efforts to bypass or remove them -The Louisville and Portland Canal -Upper and lower rapids of the Mississippi -Steamboats; history, expenses, improvements, explosions -Value and types of commerce on western waters -Western cities: manufactures and trade -Cincinnati: manufacturing, trade
with the loss of life and property, vessels bought and sold, new vessels and their tonnage; also, those which have passed out of existence, with a sketch of early marine history, and vessels laid up at various Lake Ports. Carefully compiled by Capt. J. W. Hall, Marine Reporter at Detroit
Hall, John W.
Detroit: Free Press 1872
“The number of Marine disasters on the Northern Lakes during the season of 1871, so far as known, was 1,167. Of this number, 225 were caused by collisions, 280 vessels went ashore, 31 were burned, 26 capsized, 19 foundered, 132 sprung a leak, 65 waterlogged, 60 were dismasted, 110 lost deck-loads, and 10 exploded their boilers.” (page 20). The type and name of each of several hundred of the more important vessels are listed, with a one-line description of the incident.
The publication includes much other information of interest, as described in the subtitle.
Monthly Nautical Magazine, and Quarterly Review Vol 1, Jan 1855, 289-298
Henderson, John J.
NY: Griffiths and Bates
This article discusses shipbuilding along the coast of Lake Erie in the vicinity of Buffalo, beginning in 1809. It includes the first steamboat on the Great Lakes; the “Walk-in-the-Water”. The author could not find reliable records for ships built there from 1822-1845, but added a list of vessels built from 1846-1854. There is also a report on shipbuilding activity in 1854.
See also:Phillips, J. E., “Fine Timber [Ship-building in Marietta, 1800-13]” in Ohio Economic History
Ohio History Journal, Vol 20, 1911, pp378-402
Henshaw, Leslie S.
Ohio Historical Society 1911
Article describes the history of steamboat travel on the Ohio River, which began in 1811 with the voyage of the first steamboat on western waters (west of the Alleghenies?), which was built in Pittsburgh and was called the “New Orleans”.
2. The Pioneer Lake Erie Steamboats, “Walk-in-the-water” and “Superior”
Hodge, William ed.
Buffalo: Bigelow Brothers. 1883
Capt. Wilkerson commanded steamboats on the Great Lakes from 1835 to 1852. “Walk-in-the-water” was the first steamboat on the Great Lakes, launched in 1818 from Black Rock, near Buffalo NY. “Superior” was launched in 1822, after “”Walk-in-the-water” was wrecked.
Ohio History XXVI, January 1917, Number 1, 78-81.
King, I. F.
Columbus: Ohio Historical Society
In this article of only 4 pages, the author describes the construction and dimension of the flatboats that were commonly used on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and discusses the cargos carried. A few statistics of interest: Flatboats were generally about 100 feet long, drew up to 4 feet of water, and could carry a cargo of 350,000 pounds. Floating with the current at a speed of about 3 miles per hour, it could take up to three months to go from the mouth of the Muskingum River to New Orleans.
Larson, John W.
U.S. Army Engineer Water Resources Support Center 1983
“This pamphlet is one of a series on the history of navigation done as part of the National Waterways Study, authorized by Congress in Public Law 94-587. The Historical Division of the Office of the Chief of Engineers supervised the development of this pamphlet…” – From the Preface
Contents:-Beginnings of Lake Commerce -Great Lakes Connecting Channels – 1866-1916 -Great Lakes Harbors – 1866-1916 -A Thirty-Year View, 1916-1945 -Improvements in Lake Transportation – 1945-1969 -Changing Aspects of Lake and Seaway Navigation -Chronology -Footnotes -Bibliography
Containing the history of the first application of steam, as a motive power …
Lloyd, James T.
Cincinnati: Lloyd 1856
“The lives of John Fitch and Robert Fulton, likenesses and engravings of their first steamboats. Early scenes on the western waters, from 1798 to 1812 – History of the early steamboat navigation on western waters – engravings of the boats. Full accounts of all the steamboat disasters since the first application of steam down to the present date, with lists of the killed and wounded – a complete list of steamboats and all other vessels now afloat on the western rivers and lakes – when and where built, and their tonnage: Maps of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers,(etc. etc.)” – Front cover
Mansfield, J. B., ed.
Chicago: J.H. Beers 1899
“Considered the most important history of Great Lakes shipping published in the nineteenth century, Mansfield’s two volumes comprise a comprehensive work. Volume One surveys the geological, political, and economic development of the Great Lakes and the country around them through the end of the nineteenth century. It presents, as well, a comprehensive listing of Great Lakes vessels. Volume Two is a biographical dictionary.”
– from the Michigan eLibrary website
Historical Collections Vol 4, 1881, 67-69
Lansing: Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society
The author had worked on ships in lower Michigan when he shipped in 1845 to the Sault. He describes helping to haul a steamer on rollers around the rapids at the Sault, where it would be the first steamer to sail on Lake Superior. As it was late in the season when they got her into the water, their trip along the Upper Peninsula was a stormy and exciting one.
Merrick, George Byron
Cleveland: Clark 1909
The ‘Upper Mississippi’ is defined in Wikipedia as the portion north of Cairo, IL, where the Ohio meets the Mississippi, but for this steamboat captain, the southern-most port on the Upper Mississippi seems to have been St. Louis. The northern port was in the vicinity of St. Paul; 800 miles by river. There are a number of photos of steamships, and of some of the locations featured in the text. In the appendix is a list of all the steamboats that traveled the Upper Mississippi from 1823-1863.
Contents:-Early Impressions -Indians, Dugouts, and Wolves -On the Levee at Prescott -In the Engine-room -The Engineer -The “Mud” Clerk-Comparative Honors -Wooding Up -The Mate -The “Old Man” -The Pilots and their Work -Knowing the River -The Art of Steering -An Initiation -Early Pilots -Incidents of River Life -Mississippi Menus -Bars and Barkeepers -Gamblers and Gambling -Steamboat Racing -Music and Art -Steamboat Bonanzas -Wild-cat Money and Town-sites -A Pioneer Steamboatman -A Versatile Commander; a Wreck -A Stray Nobleman -In War Time -At Fort Ridgeley -Improving the River -Killing Steamboats -Living it Over Again
Mills, James Cooke
Chicago: McClurg 1910
With illustrations from photographs, and maps and drawings.
Contents:-The Origin, Discovery, and Magnitude of the Great Lakes -Earliest Navigation -Le Griffon, the First Sailing Vessel -The Launch and Voyage of Le Griffon -Navigation from 1680 to the War of 1812 -The Beginning of Steam Navigation -The Walk-in-the-Water – Pioneer Steamboat -The Early Days of Steam Navigation -The Rapid Growth of the Lakes Shipping -The Advent of the Screw Propeller – The Commerce of Lake Superior -Prosperous Times for the Lake Marine -The Beginning of Railroad Cometition -The United States Gunboat Wolverine, the First Iron-hulled Vessel -From Wood to Iron -The River Ferries from Hand to Steam -The Railway Transports -The Era of Steel and the Package Freighters -The Greyhounds of the Unsalted Seas -The Merchant marine of Canada -The Building of a Lake Freighter -The Queen of the World’s Lake Craft, the City of Cleveland -The Six-Hundred-Foot Ore and Grain Carriers -For the Freedom of the Sea -Wrecking and Fire Tugs, the Navy Training Ships, and the Mail Boat -Economics of Lake Navigation
Omro Herald Oct 2, 1930
Madison:State of Wisconsin Collection
Newbert was a long-time resident of Eureka, WI. For many years he had made an extensive study of steamboats on the Fox River, and summed up their history in this 22-page paper.
Historical Collections Vol 4, 1881, 112-115
Palmer, Mary A. Witherell
Lansing: Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society
Walk-in-the-Water was the first steam boat to operate on the Great Lakes, in 1818. This is a passenger’s description of Walk-in-the-Water’s last voyage on October 31, 1821, in which she was wrecked in a gale.
Plumb, Ralph Gordon
Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1911
In 1911 the Congressional Committee on Railways and Canals had recently reviewed several proposals for canals connected to the Great Lakes that would create new or shorter waterways to enhance commerce. The chairman of the Committee authorized the printing of this 80-page early history of Great Lakes navigation as a part of the committee’s records, presumably because it covered previous attempts to build canals, and efforts to otherwise improve Great Lakes waterways and port facilities.
Contents:-The Beginnings -The Era of Expansion and Development -The Age of Steel -The History of Lake Superior -The United States Harbor Improvements on the Lakes -Canadian Harbor Improvements on the Lakes -The Lighthouse, Life-Saving, and Revenue-Cutter Systems -Disasters on the Lakes -Marine Employers’ and Employees’ Organizations -Economic Effects of the Great Lakes
Plumb, Ralph G.
Manitowoc, WI: Bradt 1941
Contents:1. The Setting 2. Early History 3. Navigation on Lake Michigan 4. The Harbors 5. The Lighthouse and Lifesaving Service 6. The Islands 7. Shipbuilding 8. The Carferries 9. Small Craft 10. Disasters
11. Lake Michigan Veterans 12. Flotsam and Jetsam
containing a complete list of all the lights and light-houses, fog signals and buoys, on both the American and Canadian shores, with a full description of all the harbors and breakwaters completed and in progress, with directions for entering them, a list of all the life saving stations, and other useful information; also courses (corrected for magnetic variation of the compass), distances and sailing directions for all lakes and rivers, and directions for correcting courses and bearings for magnetic variation and deviation of the compass. With tables of distance for each of the lakes.
Detroit: Free Press 1892
Stanton, Samuel Ward
Meriden, CT: Meriden Gravure 1962
A collection of drawings. Note that five volumes from the “American Steam Vessels” series are all at this link.
Tunell, George Gerard
Washington, D.C.:House Doc. 57th Congress 1898
This was a PhD dissertation about shipping cargo on the lakes, in the categories of flour and grain, iron ore, coal and lumber.
Boston: Osgood 1883
This is a memoir by Mark Twain of his days as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River before the American Civil War, and also a travel book, recounting his trip along the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans many years after the War.
The book begins with a brief history of the river as reported by Europeans and Americans, beginning with the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1542. It continues with anecdotes of Twain’s training as a steamboat pilot, as the ‘cub’ of an experienced pilot. He describes, with great affection, the science of navigating the ever-changing Mississippi River in a section that was first published in 1876, entitled “Old Times on the Mississippi”.
In the second half, Twain narrates his trip many years later on a steamboat from St. Louis to New Orleans. He describes the competition from railroads, and the new, large cities, and adds his observations on greed, gullibility, tragedy, and bad architecture. He also tells some stories that are most likely tall tales. Simultaneously published in 1883 in the United States and Great Britain, the book is the first submitted to a publisher as a typewritten manuscript.
-from the Wikipedia entry “Life on the Mississippi”.
See also: Paine, Albert Bigelow, A Short Life of Mark Twain in Century Past Biographies: T, U & V
Some resources on this site for: Life on the River in Frontier Days
Weir, Hugh Cosgro
Boston: Wilde 1912
A volume in the “Great American Industries” series; intended as educational fiction for young men.
This Digital Library contains ship lists, shipwrecks, historical documents, newspaper articles and many other resources, all online and free. An excellent site for research.