Old Times on the Upper Mississippi: Recollections of a Steamboat Pilot from 1854-1863

By George Byron Merrick | Go to book overview

Chapter XXI
Steamboat Bonanzas

How it was possible to derive any profit from an investment of from $20,000 to $40,000, the principal of which had an average tenure of life of but five years, has puzzled a great many conservative business men from “down east”, where “plants” lasted a lifetime, and the profits from which may have been sure, but were certain to be small. A man educated in such an atmosphere would hesitate long, before investing $25,000 in a steamboat that was foreordained to the scrap pile at the end of five summers; or where one out of every two was as certainly predestined to go up in smoke or down into the mud of the river bottom at the end of four years —these periods representing the ordinary life of a Mississippi River steamboat.

From 1849 to 1862 the shipyards of the Ohio, where nine out of ten Western boats were built, could not keep up with the orders. Every available shipwright was employed, and on some boats gangs worked at night by the light of torches at double wages, so great was the demand. Every iron foundry was likewise driven to the limit to turn out engines, boilers, and other machinery with which to give life to the hulls that were growing as if by magic in every shipyard.

If there had not been profit in the business, the captains and other river men who gave orders for these craft would not have given them. By far the greater number of boats were built for individual owners—practical river men who navigated the boats, and who knew just what they were about. Many of the orders were given to replace vessels that had been snagged or burned within the past twenty-four hours—for time was money, and a man could not afford to be without a steamboat many weeks, when twenty weeks or less represented a new boat in net earnings.

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