Troubled Waters: Steamboat Disasters, River Improvements, and American Public Policy, 1821-1860

Article excerpt

Troubled Waters: Steamboat Disasters, River Improvements, and American Public Policy, 1821-1860. By Paul F. Paskoff. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. Pp. xvii, 324. Preface, introduction, illustrations, epilogue, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $48.00.)

Steamboats are one of the most vivid icons of the nineteenth-century United States, and of the trans-Appalachian West and Mississippi Valley in particular. Even Walt Disney included one, the aptly named "Mark Twain," in his frontierland depiction of American history. Throughout the pages of Troubled Waters, Paul F. Paskoff demonstrates that riverine transportation before the Civil War would put to shame any of Disney's E-ticket rides.

Paskoff's narrative focuses on the four decades preceding the great sectional conflict of the 1860s and traces the frustrating attempts to improve conditions along the nation's rivers. Both natural and manmade dangers threatened these essential routes, from "snags" by submerged trees that could quickly sink a boat to improper boiler maintenance that could lead to an explosion. Whether responding to these challenges was a local, state, or federal matter provoked heated arguments at all levels of government, as Paskoff ably demonstrates.

The narrative of internal improvements throughout the antebellum period, both generally and with specific reference to steamboat travel, is a prominent aspect of Troubled Waters. Paskoff shows how the controversies over river improvements stood shoulder to shoulder with sectionalism and the rise and fall of political parties. An extensive recounting of executive and legislative wrangling over proposed river projects fills much of the book's first half. Paskoff then shifts to the various responses to the embarrassing state of the nation's rivers. New technologies helped clear snags and other obstructions, while wheeler-dealers in Congress helped negotiate obstructive politicians. Paskoff observes that steamboats, the workhorses of early nineteenth-century American commerce, struggled for funding with the new show horse of the railroads, a dazzling technology that often distracted the public's attention from the needs of the nation's rivers. The Union's triumph in the Civil War was reflected in riverine issues, as Paskoff concludes that the federal government accepted responsibility for internal flows in the 1860s, and within two decades the nation's major rivers had, for the most part, been transformed into safe corridors for passengers and freight. …