The Steamboat Age
The Twilight was born late in Amarica's "steamboat age" which peaked from the 1850's to the early 1870's, when railroads had become vigorous, unrelenting competitors for passengers and cargo. "Credit is commonly given to railroads for the expansion of America, but it was the pioneer steamboats out of Pittsburgh that opened the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, and steamboats on the coast, rivers, canals and lakes facilitated the great movement of passengers and freight," states Fred Erving Dayton in Steamboat Days. "The hooting steamboat, with its flat bottom and shallow draft, seemed able to go anywhere; skippers boasted they could navigate on a heavy dew," wrote historian Daniel Boorstin. "Steam has advanced the career of national colonization and national production at least a century," another historian asserted.
Early river steamboats—the ones that sailed the Mississippi and Ohio rivers principally—resembled floating palaces that boasted high speeds and luxurious furnishings. However, their wooden hulls and high-pressure engines made them prone to short lives. The average steamboat either exploded, burned, collided, or hit a snag, rock, ice, or some hidden obstruction and sank before its fifth birthday.
Steamboating in Missouri climaxed around 1867 when 71 boats were licensed for river trade. In the early 1870s, less than ten boats were left, a fact blamed on the mushrooming railroad industry. Boats that sailed the Missouri and other western rivers were anything but floating palaces. Built for $20,000 on up, these vessels were generally no-frills working craft; suitable for carrying heavy machinery, fur traders, miners, government agents, troops, and immigrants.