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  • Troubled Waters: Steamboat Disasters, River Improvements, and American Public Policy, 1821–1860
  • Mark Aldrich
Paul F. Paskoff. Troubled Waters: Steamboat Disasters, River Improvements, and American Public Policy, 1821–1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. xvii + 324 pp. ISBN 978-0-8071-3268-5, $48.00 (cloth).

This thoroughly researched, clearly written volume analyzes the impact of federal river and harbor improvements on ante bellum Western steamboat transportation. The book contains an introduction, six chapters, an epilogue, and four appendices, along with an excellent bibliography, thirty-two tables, and fifty-three figures. The figures are inadequately cited; the source is invariably “see notes to text,” which are not always clear. The book follows in the tradition of Louis Hunter, Steamboats on Western Rivers, 1949, and Erik Haites, James Mak, and Gary Walton (HMW), Western River Transportation, 1975. The latter conclude that “river transportation in the ante bellum west owed its very life primarily to private initiative and private enterprise” (108). Paul Paskoff terms this the “new orthodoxy” (5) and his apparent purpose is to overthrow it—a goal the book fails to achieve.

Paskoff begins with an overview of river transportation and its hazards. There are data on the numbers and tonnage of steamboats lost, and while the author does not present loss rates, inspection of figure 1 (39) suggests that about ten percent of operating boats fell victim to “natural hazards” in the early years, but by 1860 the fraction was down to roughly six percent.

Chapters 2 and 3 discuss in considerable detail the political alignments on antebellum federal internal improvements spending. The author explains that the conflict over river and harbor spending reflected the split between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians as well as differences in constitutional interpretation, while ultimately the issue became complicated by division over slavery.

The fourth chapter—“Ways and Means”—provides data on sources of federal revenue and spending (like Hunter and HMW, Paskoff ignores the considerable state efforts), and notes how these constrained internal improvements appropriations. In the last section, he discusses river improvements, focusing on snag removal. [End Page 841]

Chapter 5, entitled “Factors of Destruction,” discusses the evolution of steamboat design toward a standard shape that was wider longer and shallower than earlier models. While there is not much new here, the author makes a novel and important point that steamboat improvements often encouraged riskier operating behavior, thereby negating some of the safety gains. Figure 24 demonstrates an inverse correlation between the loss rate to snags and the ratio of boat depth to length. Paskoff’s interpretation is “shallower drafts enabled pilots and captains to risk more dangerous waters” (143–4). Yet, simple correlations can be misleading. HMW note the sharp differences between boats on major rivers and tributaries, and urge “separate analysis of the trunk and tributary components” (177). One wishes Paskoff had followed this advice. This chapter also discusses the shift to high-pressure engines, while the last part argues that railroad competition diverted funds from river improvements—a discussion that seems more appropriately paced in Chapter 4.

Chapter 6, “The Success of Public Policy,” contains the punch of the book. Here, Paskoff makes two interrelated points. He argues that federal spending on river and harbor improvements reduced accidents from snags and increased steamboat longevity. This is surely correct. However, he goes on to estimate what losses would have been without the improvements by applying the percentage loss in the early 1820s to the tonnage in subsequent periods and claiming that the difference between this figure and actual losses is entirely the result of federal programs. This is implausible and indeed earlier in many places the author argues that changes in steamboat design also reduced accidents.

Second, Paskoff challenges HMW’s interpretation that the role of government was “relatively insignificant” (Paskoff 178) as a source of (total factor) productivity gains. HMW’s claim was based on two measures of productivity. Measure one estimated weighted averages of factor inputs and outputs and traced the sources of changing input requirements. A second measure used the prices of inputs relative to outputs. The two measures yield similar results. Paskoff demonstrates for 1821–1860, a weak correlation between loss rates of...


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