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  • Writer's pictureRochelle Gridley

Steamboat Service, circa 1850


Before the days of the railroad, Bloomington had no truly modern transportation locally available. By 1840 there were ten steamships running on the Illinois River from St. Louis to Pekin, and then, as areas further north settled, to Lasalle. In 1851 river boats traveling from Pekin advertised in the Intelligencer (precursor to the Pantagraph) and must have carried many McLean County citizens on their way to St Louis or Lasalle, where, after 1848, one could take a passenger packet to Chicago on the Illinois Michigan Canal. (The canal did not take passenger traffic after 1853, when the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad began traveling the same route.)

The steamships, or packets, advertised in the Intelligencer were the Prairie State, Avalanche and Niagara. The Avalanche seems like an unlucky name, as avalanches are almost exclusively connected with disaster. The boats traveled once or twice a week, making the up river trip in two days. Although strict adherence to schedules was promised, I doubt that the boats always ran to schedule.

Many emigrants to Illinois traveled the steamships down the Ohio and then to the Illinois River in order to reach central Illinois, which must have been only marginally more comfortable than wagons or stages unless one was able to take a cabin. This drawing of deck passengers does not suggest that deck travel was comfortable or even sanitary. The drawing depicts people in an ill-fated voyage in 1873, when cholera broke out among the passengers on a trip down the Mississippi. Sadly, germ theory was not sufficiently developed at this time to have influenced passengers to demand sanitary conditions while traveling.

In September 1852 the editor of the Intelligencer, J. W. Fell, wrote of how he had traveled the states of Illinois, Missouri and Iowa by stage, steamboat and car in order to learn more about how the citizenry were thinking of the upcoming elections. Fell even featured an interview with the river boat captain, regarding his position on government sponsored improvements to the rivers and harbors. He was appalled by the lack of interest this boat captain showed in the issue and expounded on the unnecessary cost that was passed on to passengers and consumers. Fell also observed that a new steamboat being launched in Keokuk, Iowa was being built without a bar! A strict temperance man, Fell believed that no steamboat or town should have a bar or alcohol, and rejoiced that the good men of Keokuk were of his persuasion. He further recommended that only strictly temperance men be hired as captains and crew, due to the dangers of accidents while under the influence. (While alcohol does cause needless misery for some, others are able to enjoy alcohol without overindulgence and should be free to do so, and I for one am happy such attitudes are not inflicted on the public today.)

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