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 and trade. The falls are a natural, exposed fossil bed that was the only navigation obstacle between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Gulf of Mexico. To avoid that barrier, early steamboats often had to wait for high waters to carry them safely over the falls.

Before the Portland Canal was constructed, goods and passengers often had to disembark their craft on one side of the falls and "portage" to the other side. This annoying necessity was resolved to some extent with the opening of the Portland Canal, which began construction in 1826 and was completed in 1833. However, with the growth of steamboat traffic, and thus the size of the steamboats, many craft were too large to navigate through the canal. During the mid-nineteenth century, various projects were proposed for its enlargement, but none came to fruition until after the Civil War, when the Army Corps of Engineers took over the venture. With the canal's enlargement, steamboat traffic increased drastically at Louisville.

Louisville's location across the Ohio River from major steamboat shipyards at Jeffersonville and New Albany, Indiana, also benefited the city's trade and traffic. Howard's Shipyard in Jeffersonville began producing steamboats as early as the 1830s and became the largest inland shipyard in America. In adjacent New Albany, at least six shipyards turned out hundreds of steamboats, most of which transported agricultural goods from the Midwest and Kentucky to New Orleans and more distant international ports.

Although steamboats on the Ohio River at Louisville have become a thing of the past, modern-day tourists can still get a small taste of Louisville's steamboat days with a cruise on the Belle of Louisville.