Past Event

Steamboat Days on the Lower Ohio: Nineteenth-Century Boats Built in Metropolis, Illinois

A Road Scholar Program by Robert Swenson

Architect, historic preservation consultant, and educator Robert Swenson was raised in Metropolis, Illinois, on the lower Ohio River. Combining his professional interests with his personal background, Swenson has conducted extensive research about steamboats constructed in his hometown during the nineteenth century.

Swenson’s presentation will share information obtained from more than 40 libraries, museums, and researchers throughout the inland river system, as well as personal memories of growing up in Metropolis – riding on the Delta Queen and listening to the late-night sounds of the deep, mellow steam whistles on the river while trying to sleep on muggy summer nights. He will discuss the 67 boats built at Metropolis beginning in the 1850s and the people involved – the designers, engineers, builders, carpenters and craftspeople, owners, captains, pilots, and "roustabouts." The story includes boats that played significant roles during the Civil War, boats built for the Missouri River trade during the Gold Rush, railroad ferries, logging boats, and the 327-foot "cotton boat" Mary Belle, one of the largest to ply the lower Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the 1870s.

Using digital slides supported by video clips and music, Swenson will discuss the complexity of river transportation problem-solving as part of a bigger story of the evolution of the lumber milling, metallurgy, wood-craft, and steamboat building industries from the upper to the lower Ohio River. He will discuss hull design and engineering difficulties involved in creating large, floating wooden structures that carried heavy loads and were subject to challenging river and weather conditions.

Other topics will include stern-wheel, center-wheel, and side-wheel propulsion systems, wood post and "hog-chains" structural systems, and functional classifications including "packet," "tow," "excursion," "cotton boat," "railroad or wagon ferry," "mail boat," "showboat," "photographer’s boat," "wharf boat," "propeller tug," "snag boat," and hybrids of these various types.

Questions and conversation will follow.

This event is Free and Open to the public. For more information, please contact William Abate at