Early steamboat trips on the Missouri River tested boats, crews and passengers. Between 1820 and 1900, several hundred steamboats on the Missouri were destroyed by fire or boiler explosions, crushed by ice, or sunk by snags. The first steamboat to navigate a significant distance on this untamed river was the Independence. In May 1819, the Independence set out from St. Louis loaded with flour, whiskey, iron, sugar and passengers. After 13 days and 150 miles, the boat reached Franklin, Mo., and was greeted by a huge celebration. The Independence continued to Chariton before returning to St. Louis.
An Army Expedition
The success of the Independence fueled enthusiasm to travel the Missouri River by steamboat. In June 1819, an army expedition of four steamboats and nine keelboats headed to the Yellowstone River in present-day Montana. Maj. Stephen Long led the scientific part of the expedition in the Western Engineer, and stopped at Franklin for a week-long celebration. But one by one, the remaining boats fell far behind. In a year's time, the expedition progressed only 860 miles, and the boats were deemed unfit to continue. Congress cancelled further funding of the expedition. It would be 13 years before another steamboat, the Yellowstone, completed the journey.
Steamboats Draw Rocheport Residents
As steamboats became more reliable, boats carried people and goods up and down the river. For Rocheport residents, moonlight excursions on steam ferries were a favorite recreation. In 1836, the sidewheeler Diana sank on a snag at today's Diana Bend, about 2 1/2 miles above Rocheport. The Little Dick steam ferry took pasengers in 1880 and 1881, then sank. In 1890, the Plow Boy advertised a grand excursion to Mammoth (now Rocheport) Cave, three miles below Rocheport.
End of an Era
Steamboating on the Missouri lasted from 1819 through the 1920s. Railroads gradually took away passengers and long-haul freight from boats. By 1910, a few family-owned companies operated small freight boats, mostly along the Gasconade and Osage rivers where railways were fewer. These companies also carried passengers on day trips. Steamboat trade helped build Missouri's river towns. In fact, Rocheport was a major shipping port for tobacco and hemp before the Civil War.