When you booked passage on a 1800s steamboat, and depending on what you could afford, you found quite a difference between the conditions enjoyed by steamboat cabin passengers and deck passengers. Those who could afford the best traveled in near splendor. We are talking of ‘For that time’. Boarding the boat at the bow, Forecastle, one immediately saw the Grand staircase leadingto the second deck where the cabins were. This second deck is known as the Boiler deck although there has never been a boiler on this deck, and at the top of the stairs are doors leading into the Main cabin. Passengers dine here under the vaulted skylight ceiling.
This is the Main cabin of the Grand sidewheel steamer Great Republic. Here, well-dressed waiters served meals while being entertained by an accomplished pianist.
Doors, on either side of the Main cabin open into the bedrooms, Staterooms, which are also accessible from the outboard side, from the Promenade deck. Early on, bedrooms on steamboats were named for the different states of the Union. The bedroom cabin’s toilet facilities consisted of a chamber pot, a slop jar with handles on either side, a covered soap dish, a shaving mug, and brush jar, a ewer (water pitcher) and basin. The chamber pot was emptied once daily by the chambermaid.
The Main cabin roof, known as the Hurricane deck, has another cabin of rooms sitting on top of the Main cabin skylight. This cabin of rooms is called a Texas; generally, the Captain and crewmembers consisting of Pilots, sometimes two, the Purser, the Engineer, Mate and Firemen occupied these rooms. Of the crew, the Pilot was the most important, an absolute king. He had to know every foot of the section of the river that he would navigate, steer the boat, in fog or pitch black night. Not considered crew were the roustabouts who did all the heavy work The Texas gained its name in 1846 when Texas, U.S.A. became a state.
Not all steamboats were this fancy, this was one of the grandest of all. She was the Great Republic, she left Pittsburgh on her well advertized maiden voyage March 16, 1867 for New Orleans. The river banks down the Ohio River were lined with spectators day and night hoping to see her passing down. The upper feathered part of her stacks had not been placed due to the low bridge at Wheeling where a multitude of sightseers swarmed the wharf.
The steamboat’s diner bell rang three times daily, and cabin passengers dressed for dinner. The ladies dressed in their finest gowns, and gents dressed in tails or morning coats. In these steamboat ‘Floating Palaces’, patrons were served by waiters, the next step down from these boats, food was served in boarding house style, with diners grabbing what they wanted.
Here we see a reproduction of a five-course menu Bill of Fare from one of these opulent ‘Floating Palace’ steamers, the Ed. Richardson.
The Main deck, the deck one had just boarded by crossing the Swinging stage or gangplank onto the Forecastle, was where the deck passengers assembled, there mingling with the many roustabouts, placing themselves at the very bottom of the steamboat’s ranking. On this hot dirty Main deck are the Furnaces that heat the water in the Boilers that supply steam to the engines in the Engine room. This crowded deck had no beds, food, nor toilet facilities to accommodate deck passengers. There was one table strictly reserved for the Firemen and Stokers. Food for the roustabouts consisted of the leftovers from the table of cabin passengers. “For them the broken meat was piled into pans, all sorts in each pan, the broken bread and cake into other pans, and jellies and custards into still others-just three assortments, and this, with plenty of boiled potatoes. One minute after the cry ‘Grub-pile!’ one might witness the spectacle of forty men sitting on the bare deck, clawing into the various pans to get hold of the fragments of meat or cake which each man’s taste particularly fancied. It certainly wasn’t an appetizing spectacle.” Page 95 Donovan, Frank, River Boats of American 1966 Thomas Y. Crowell Co. New York
The quality of steamboat passage depended on the type boat you booked. Passengers on common steamboats had a room (usually a double) with a berth (shelf) for a bed, with sometimes dirty linen, and the washroom toilet facilities were communal, but separate for men and women. One could compare toilets with outhouses. You sat on a bench with open holes about three feet apart. These facilities were placed on a bulkhead where the wash from the Paddlewheel’s splashing water flushed and kept everything clean. In the washrooms were a row of ewers (pitchers) and basins, a communal toothbrush that was hooked to a chain, and a few clean? towels. The ewers (pitchers) were filled with water scooped from the river by buckets. Clean drinking water was a problem; wine and spirits best accompanied one’s meals. Many barrels were placed on the Hurricane Deck where they could collect rainwater, the only supply of clean water available. The cleanliness of river water one supposes depends on where, downstream the boat is from the last city you passed. Cities had no sewage plants, sewers just emptied directly into the rivers to be diluted by river water.
Deck passengers were expected to furnish their own food. The few that ran out of rations on a trip that took longer than expected, begged from the roustabouts some of their meager portions.
You got what you paid for, and if you traveled as a deck passenger, paying about one-fifth of the Cabin Passage price, and that was what you could afford, you didn’t want to carry money in your pockets, and if you did, you really didn’t want to lay down to sleep. Cabin fares ranged from twelve to fifteen-dollars for overnight runs, twenty-dollars for an overnight ‘Floating Palace’ fare, and three-dollars for Deck Passage.
A well-dressed fancy man was most always thought to be a gambler, of which there were always a few on every boat. A well-dressed woman, that was maybe a little too flashy and trashy was thought to be a prostitute, and not accepted on most steamboats. A lady had to be careful how much makeup she used.
The mid to late 1800s was the heyday of these Floating Palaces that were slowly being eclipsed by the railroads that offered better accommodations and access to more destinations.
The 1867 steamer Great Republic built in Pittsburgh had 54 Staterooms with an additional ten rooms in the Texas reserved for passengers. In 1868, following the bankruptcy of her original owners she was sold to new owners. She was rebuilt somewhat bigger, and in 1876 renamed the Grand Republic. Way’s Packet Directory 2426 Grand Republic and 2438 Great Republic
- Bowman, John, Wheeling The Birthplace of The American Steamboat, Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation, Wheeling, WV, 2008
- Donovan, Frank, River Boats of America, 1966 Thomas Y. Crowell Co. New York
- Eskew, Garnett Laidlaw, The Pageant of The Packets, 1929 Henry Holt and Co. NY
- Way, Frederick Jr., Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1983 Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, 1983
- Wayman, Norbury L., Life On The River, 1971 Bonanza Books, New York
- Weyand, Kenneth C. Steamboat Adventures The Woodsmoke Series Vol. II 1991 Discovery Publications
- 1867 Steamer Great Republic photo from Liberty Marine Photos J. Minton Scribner’s Monthly, An Illustrated Magazine for the People 1874 New York
- 1867 Steamer Great Republic photo courtesy the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Ohio
- 1878 Steamer Ed. Richardson 1879 Dinner menu photo from the John Bowman Collection