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.