The History of Riverboats in Cincinnati oh

Long before the days of planes, trains, and automobiles steamboats were the heart of American trade and transportation. Cincinnati was once the chief port city along the Ohio River. So vital was the city to the nations transit that it earned itself the name “Queen City of the West.” In fact, even before steamboats were invented in the 1780’s the river was the primary way to get to Cincinnati. With no roads to speak of and hills surrounding the city keel boats, barges, and canoes traversed the Ohio to bring communications, goods, and new settlers to the growing river town in those early days.

Prior to 1815 barges ran goods from Cincinnati to New Orleans at a total round trip of approximately one hundred days. Even with the earliest steamboats this trip was cut down to thirty days. On the day before Christmas of 1814 the first steamboat to operate on western waters found its way to the Cincinnati port. Known as the “Orleans” this two hundred ton vessel was met with much fanfare when it docked in the city harbor. It was the coming of a new era. Soon other ships followed; the “George Washington” made landfall in 1816 and the “Vesta” was constructed that very same year in Cincinnati.

1817 saw the birth of the “Zebulon Pike” the first passenger service-mail carrier. The Cincinnati-based United States Mail Line would be the longest running steamboat line in the nation with the “Zebulon Pike” as its first ship. That same year saw the construction of both the “Eagle” and the “Comet.” The real glory of Cincinnati riverboats, however, came in the following year with the creation of the “Experiment.” Weighing only forty tons it was the first ship to be own entirely by the city. Seven more followed in 1819 and by 1834 two hundred twenty-one ships called Cincinnati their home port.

Steamboats made transportation so efficient that by 1820 the trip that once took one hundred days now took only twenty-four. From Cincinnati to Newport and then on to New Orleans took only eight days. The return trip was another sixteen. Prior to the birth of the railroads Cincinnati claimed eight thousand landings at the peak of its trade in 1852.

Cincinnati holds three steamboat records; two by the “Moselle” the other by the “Queen City.” The “Moselle,” when it was constructed in 1838, was billed as the fastest steamer on the river. Sadly the second title the “Moselle” holds is that of the worst steamboat disaster in history. Twenty-five days after it was launched the boat exploded killing one hundred and sixty people. A far more pleasant record is the one held by the steamboat that shares Cincinnati’s nickname. The “Queen City,” when it was launched in 1897, was said to be the most luxurious steamer on western waters.

Today, steamboats are primarily a thing of the past, but Cincinnati remembers its history. Three cruise lines make regular runs along the Ohio River for tourists, entertainment, and celebrations. Visit their websites to find out more:,, Cincinnati is also home to the largest riverboat festival in the world. Every three years Cincinnati holds the Tall Stacks festival to celebrate riverboat history with music, reenactments, and of course river boats. The 2009 festival was canceled due to budget cuts, but organizers are hoping to bring it back in 2010.