November 15, 2017

Reception and exhibit highlight the region’s historic steamboats

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Waterways were once the lifeblood of the United States and the steamboats that traversed the nation’s rivers have long fascinated people.

A series of historic photographs compiled by Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Robert Swenson highlights some of the watercraft that were actually built in the region. The exhibit, “1800s Steamboats Built at Metropolis, Illinois, on the Crescent of the Lower Ohio River,” continues through November. A free public reception, featuring a presentation by Swenson, is set for 7 to 9 p.m. on Nov. 17, at Cristaudo’s Café and Bakery, 209 S. Illinois Ave. in Carbondale.

Visitors to the reception and exhibit can get a glimpse into a bygone era and learn more about the importance of the steamboats. Swenson (, selected for the third year as a member of the Illinois Humanities Council’s Illinois Road Scholars Speaker Bureau, will share insights and little-known information about the paddle-wheel steamboats. 

A rare view of local history

“Many people don’t realize that 293 steamers were built along the crescent of the lower Ohio – at Metropolis, Mound City and Cairo in Illinois and at Smithland and Paducah in Kentucky,” said Swenson, an architect and SIU emeritus professor in architecture, who has returned to teach at the university. The exhibit photos represent about a dozen of the 64 steamboats that were built at Metropolis on the lower Ohio River between the years 1833 and 1900.

Massac County shipwrights and craftsmen built a wide-variety of wooden-hulled steamboats at several different shipyards during that span. They also made large, fast sidewheel mail boats that transported Civil War soldiers, payroll, mail, passengers and cotton between St. Louis or Louisville and New Orleans.

Illustrating the past

Swenson extensively researched the steamboat industry, initially planning to write a book focusing primarily on those built in Metropolis. But at the suggestion of publishers, he expanded his work to include the nearly 300 boats built from the early 1820s to the 1930s in the “historically significant” portion of the Ohio River between Cairo, Ill., and Paducah, Ky.

Less than a handful of the steamboats survive today, and none of them are from the region, Swenson said. But, sifting through historical collections at more than 60 venues along the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri and Arkansas Rivers, Swenson has amassed a sizeable collection of photos and details about these boats. He has located pictures of more than half of the steamers built in Metropolis.