On this day in 1816, a steamboat with a design that will soon prove ideal for western rivers arrives at the docks in New Orleans. The Washington was the work of a shipbuilder named Henry M. Shreve, who had launched the steamboat earlier that year on the Monongahela River just above Pittsburgh. Shreve's cleverly designed Washington had all the features that would soon come to characterize the classic Mississippi riverboat: a two-story deck, a stern-mounted paddle wheel powered by a high-pressure steam engine, a shallow, flat-bottomed hull, and a pilothouse framed by two tall chimneys.
Perfectly designed for the often-shallow western rivers like the Mississippi and Missouri, the Washington proved itself on its inaugural voyage the following spring. Steaming upriver against the current with full cargo, the Washington reached Louisville in only 25 days, demonstrating that the powerful new generation of steamboats could master the often-treacherous currents of the mighty western rivers. Soon the Washington began to offer regular passenger and cargo service between New Orleans and Louisville, steaming upstream at the then dizzying speed of 16mph and downstream at as much as 25mph.
With the brilliant success of the Washington, other similarly designed steamboats followed. At the peak of the era of the paddle wheelers in 1850, 740 steamboats regularly moved up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, carrying three million passengers annually. Had it not been for the ready availability of this rapid transportation technology, settlement of the western United States would undoubtedly have been far slower. Many emigrants setting out for the far western part of the U.S. often cut the first stage of their long journeys short by booking passage on a steamboat to the overland trailheads at Independence, Saint Joseph, and Council Bluffs. Gold seekers heading for Montana after 1867 could even take steamboats all the way up the Missouri to Fort Benton, just below the Great Falls, cutting months off the time required for an overland journey.
By the late 19th century, though, the golden age of the western steamboat was over, a victim of cheap rail transport and diesel-powered towboats and barges. But in its era, the steamboat was as important as any explorer or trailblazer in opening the American West to widespread settlement.