Steamboating the Minnesota River

Thousands of immigrants were carried to their "promised land" up the Minnesota River by small steamboats


Photo courtesy of Minnesota
Historical Society

Text Courtesty of the Joseph R. Brown Minnesota River Center


Steamboating Heyday
The heyday of steamboating on the Minnesota was the 10-year period from 1855-1865, when almost 3,000 arrivals were recorded at St. Paul wharves. Sternwheelers and sidewheelers were used on the Minnesota. The West Concord was one of the fastest boats on the river. Other well-known steamers were the Clarion, Tiger, Franklin Steele, Greek Slave, Favorite, Jeanette Roberts, Mollie Mohler, Mankato, Chippewa, and the Ellen Hardy.

The Early Days
The first steamer to pass up the Minnesota River past Carver was the Anthony Wayne, a Mississippi River boat, which came from St. Paul in 1850 with an excursion party and went as far as Traverse des Sioux. She was shortly followed by the Nominee, and in 1851 by the Yankee, which went above the mouth of the Blue Earth as far as Judson. By 1853 Fort Ridgely and the two Dakota agencies had been established, and boats loaded with supplies began to ply the river. In 1856 there were five good boats constantly on the river, loaded with freight and swarming with passengers destined for the thriving settlements at Henderson, Glencoe, Hutchinson, New Ulm and points west.

Big Business
Boatbuilding was big business. A prominent river man of the 1850s reported that a steamboat represented a $20-40,000 investment. The average life of a riverboat was five years, but a boat could pay for itself in two.

Bell Foretold Arrival
Every boat on the river had a bell, and every bell had its own tone. People living near the river knew which boat was coming by the sound. Some bells were recycled when their boats were scrapped. The bell of the Montello sat atop an old school building in Henderson for many years and is now in the Sibley County Museum.

Navigability Always a Problem
The Minnesota was full of sandbars: one large one a short distance above Mendota gave trouble even to little boats such as the Antelope. But the main obstruction in the Minnesota was what was known as the Little Rapids a ledge of soft sandstone lying across the stream 7 miles above Shakopee. In the 1850s a series of locks was proposed to overcome this impediment, but nothing was done.
The idea of maintaining the Minnesota as a navigable river lingered for decades after the steamboat era, but the coming of railroads and their river-spanning bridges in the late 1860s doomed the idea.


Read Accounts of Steamboat Adventures
James Goodhue, 1850 Excursion
Henry D. Thoreau, 1861 Excursion


This page was last updated 4/15/03