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Retired professor studying steamboats
Southern Illinois | Steamboat Capital

Retired professor studying steamboats

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CARBONDALE -- Retired SIU architecture professor Robert Swenson is writing a book about the design and development of steamboats that floated the Ohio River much of the 1800s.

The building of steamboats is an almost forgotten industry that once employed hundreds of men  Swenson said.

There were shipyards in Mound City, Golconda-Shawneetown, Cairo and Paducah.

Swenson is focusing much of his research on shipyards in his hometown of Metropolis. During the Civil War, construction of gunboats and supporting vessels was vital to the Union gaining and controlling access to the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers, Swenson said.

"At least 65 boats were built in Metropolis. I've researched about 30," Swenson said.

What has amazed Swenson were the enormous sizes of many of the steamboats.

"They were wooden buildings that could float," he said.

One such boat, the Mary Bell, was 327 feet long and more than 50 feet wide.

"That's like driving a football field down a river. They had to be very sturdy," Swenson said, noting some boats were mammoth and sturdy enough to transport a train locomotive engine and six to 10 railway cars.

Steamboats were built with oak, hickory and beech found in the nearby Appalachian Mountains.

Timber was transported by way of log rafts steered by small, steam-powered tugboats to the many lumber mills that dotted the river landscape.

And the boats were built by hand, taking about five months to build, Swenson said.

Besides being used to transport goods, steamboats were a main mode of travel between towns.

"There was a packet boat going town-to-town, carrying passengers on the upper deck, freight and livestock on the lower deck. Sometimes a barge would be tied up alongside. It was like a city bus," Swenson said.

Steamboats got fierce competition from the railroad industry as the latter progressed from the Civil War years on. What hampered steamboats were river variables such as low tides or floods.

In some instances, railroads intentionally built bridges at low heights to prevent steamboats and their huge steam stacks from passing through.

"There was some really neat competition going on," Swenson said.

Swenson gained interest in steamboats years earlier when he came upon a box of old photographs in the Cairo Public Library during an SIU architectural project.

His book will contain drawings on how the boats were built and other information on how the boats were engineered.

"There are many people interested in history and fanatic about its details. My goal is to help someone else in their search for those details," Swenson said.

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