Explore KY's Steamboat History

Rivers define Kentucky. The Bluegrass State can claim three different bodies of water as its directional borders. The Ohio River serves as the northern border of the state, while the eastern border is formed by the Big Sandy River and one of its tributaries, the Tug Fork. On the west, the mighty Mississippi flows southward.

Within the state are numerous other navigable rivers. The Cumberland River starts in Kentucky, dips into Tennessee, and then enters the state again before making confluence with the Ohio River at Smithland. The Tennessee River runs parallel to the Cumberland just miles to the west and empties into the Ohio at Paducah. Other rivers, like the Green, Barren, Kentucky, and Licking have historically provided a means for Kentuckians to travel, and transport crops and goods.

Today, it is difficult for us to imagine the change that steamboats brought to the trans-Appalachian West. While boats once only efficiently traveled downstream with the currents, the mechanized steamboat allowed for upstream navigation for long distances. All that was required was a reliable boat, a crew, and plenty of fuel. Sources of fuel for the steamboats were also found in abundance in Kentucky. In the first half of the nineteenth century wood-fired boilers provided the needed energy source; while in the second-half of the century, coal powered steamboats, both large and small.

Just as the steamboat shaped Kentucky's history, Kentuckians and Kentucky places shaped the steamboat's history. In this app you will be able to learn about pioneering steamboat inventors like John Fitch. Several captains of these vessels are examined, too. Colorful characters such as John W. Cannon, Samuel Sanders, and Mary Miller lived a great deal of their lives on the water. A number of towns, cities, and counties in Kentucky have close ties to the steamboat era. Places like Rumsey, and counties such as Fulton and Livingston, were named for individuals associated with steamboats. We hope the stories included here will help you better understand and appreciate the impact that steamboats had on the commonwealth's history. Additionally, you will find a wealth of period primary source images that help illustrate this significant by-gone era.

Captain John W. Cannon

Historical Marker #1756 in Hawesville (Hancock County) cites the birthplace of noted steamboat captain and builder John W. Cannon. Cannon captained steamboats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers during much of the nineteenth century and became famous…

Captain Samuel Sanders

Historical Marker #2265 in Owen County notes the historical significance of steamboat captain Samuel Sanders, who plied the waters of the Kentucky River for many years. Today, it is difficult to believe that steamboats once appeared in great numbers…

Fulton County

Historical Marker #1169 in Fulton explains that the county and town were both named for Robert Fulton, an early steamboat innovator. Fulton County's location on the Mississippi River in the southwest corner of Kentucky fits well with its…

Grave of Steamboat Captain (Mary M. Miller)

Historical Marker #1778 in Louisville remembers the final resting place of pioneering female steamboat captain Mary Millicent Miller, who received her license as a captain in 1884. The nineteenth century world of steamboating was often a rough and…

Great River Tragedy

Historical Marker #720 in Gallatin County notes the tragic steamboat collision between the "America" and the "United States" on the Ohio River in 1868. The disaster, which occurred near Warsaw, Kentucky, resulted in a significant…

Historic Riverfront (Paducah)

Historical Marker #1065 in Paducah—where the Tennessee River flows into the Ohio River—commemorates the importance of the waterfront to this river city. River towns often materialize near natural geographical distinctions. For example, cities…

Kentucky River Forms Here

Historical Marker #1805 in Beattyville (Lee County) notes the location where the Kentucky River begins. Two branches, the North Fork and Middle Fork, join together east of Beattyville. They then form a confluence with the South Fork at the town,…

Livingston County Named, 1798

Historical Marker #801 in Smithland commemorates the namesake of Livingston County, Robert R. Livingston. Robert Livingston was born in New York City in 1746. He was educated at King's College and studied law soon thereafter. Livingston was…

Louisville’s Steamboat Era

Historical Marker #1681 in Louisville remembers that city's close association with the time when steamboats ruled the Ohio River. Louisville's location at the Falls of the Ohio River made it a prime port location for early steamboat travel…

Monterey

Historical Marker #925 in Monterey notes that town's association with steamboat travel and trade on the Kentucky River. Monterey, in Owen County, was originally named Williamsburg after a local pioneer settler. In 1847, the town changed its…

Rumsey

Historical Marker #1264 in McLean County notes the namesake of the town of Rumsey. Kentucky claims strong ties to the steamboat. Early innovator John Fitch lived his last years in Bardstown, and Fulton and Livingston counties were named for famous…

Steamboat Inventor

Historical Marker #944 in Bardstown (Nelson County) commemorates steamboat innovator John Fitch, whose pioneering work helped set the stage for a transportation revolution. Fitch was born on January 21, 1743, in Windsor, Connecticut. He first…

Union Steamboat Captured/Site of Front Street

Historical Marker # 1935 in Lewisport (Hancock County) commemorates the December 1864 capture of a Union mail packet steamboat at this Ohio River town by Confederate guerrillas. A sharp rise in pro-Confederate guerrilla activity in Kentucky…