A History of the Steamboat Eclipse
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 12, Number 3, Fall 2012
- pp. 21-42
- Additional Information
FALL 2012 21 A History of the Steamboat Eclipse Robert Gudmestad T he typical steamboat that splashed the waters of the western rivers was an utterly forgettable rattletrap. Eclipse, however, was anything but typical, one of the largest boats ever built west of the Appalachian Mountains and perhaps the most impressive. One awestruck traveler even described it as one of three wonders of America. But despite its notoriety, historians know little about Eclipse because scant information on western boats survives. Steamboats were usually owned by a few individuals who tended to throw out or destroy pertinent business information like bills of lading, passenger lists, financial ledgers , and payroll sheets. For most steamboats, only the barest minimum of information survives: year of construction, tonnage, year of loss, and home port. Scattered travel accounts and newspaper stories shed light on a few boats, but their information remains limited. As a result, scholars who study riverboats have to piece together their stories from fragmented records and speak to steamboats in a general rather than a specific way. With those limitations in mind, this study uses Eclipse to discuss the larger issues surrounding the importance of riverboats in American history.1 Steamboat Eclipse, from an oil painting. CINCINNATI MUSEUM CENTER A HISTORY OF THE STEAMBOAT ECLIPSE 22 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY The most famous Eclipse (at least fourteen boats shared the name) took shape in 1852 in New Albany, Indiana, a busy antebellum steamboat construction site. The Louisville area, which also had shipyards across the Ohio River in New Albany and Jeffersonville, Indiana, built 704 steamboats between 1817 and 1860, or about 18 percent of riverboats used west of the Appalachian Mountains. Other major shipbuilding centers included Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, though other river towns built a fair number of smaller vessels. No plans, drawings , or schematics of Eclipse survive, but it was a huge boat. At 1,117 tons, it stood about three times as large as the average boat prowling the western waters in the 1850s. Eclipse was three hundred fifty feet long and had a huge main deck. Most of this space was actually on the guards, the portions of the deck that stretched beyond the hull and normally did not touch the water. The boat’s hog chains, which ran from the forward hull, up and over the upper decks, and back down to the stern, made it possible for Eclipse to have huge guards. Should the guards start sagging under the weight of added freight or passengers, deckhands tightened turnbuckles to prevent the boat from “hogging” or sagging at the extremities. Large guards like those found on Eclipse increased riverboat tonnage , which rose from an average of one hundred ten tons before 1820 to three hundred sixty tons in the decade of the 1850s.2 Like other steamboats of its day, Eclipse had a multi-tiered structure. The main deck contained the engine, the freight room, and was home to deck passengers and most of the cargo. The second level, built on the roof of the boiler room, was known as the boiler deck. It became the domain of cabin passengers who enjoyed conditions noticeably different from the main deck. The hurricane deck, named for its ever-present breeze, was the roof of the cabins and the location of View of New Albany, Indiana, from Portland, Kentucky, c. 1840. THE FILSON HISTORICAL SOCIETY ROBERT GUDMESTAD FALL 2012 23 the ship’s signal bell and the repository of small cargo. One level up stood the texas, so named the story goes, because it was annexed to steamers, just as the United States added the Lone Star State in 1845. Shorter and narrower than the boiler deck, at most one-third the length of the vessel, it was home to the crew. The pilothouse rested on the highest deck of the steamboat, about fifty feet above the main deck, and had a commanding view of the river. It had windows on all four sides, and contained the huge wheel, a bench, and a stove. Just ahead of the pilothouse rose the chimneys, or stacks. Not only did the tall stacks add to the majestic appearance of the steamboat, but they served...