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Steamboats on the Grand Excursion

 


 

This section draws from the essay on steamboats by Ed Hill in the 2004 book, Grand Excursions on the Upper Mississippi River


The most common and versatile boat type on the inland rivers from the 1840s until after the Civil War was the packet. In its early English usage, “packet” referred to the carrying of mail, but these boats were all purpose vessels that carried freight and passengers, along with mail. These workhorse boats could be either stern-wheelers or side-wheelers (or occasionally center-wheelers) and had at least two decks

Packets, which varied considerably in size and features, were the lifeblood of Upper Mississippi River trade in the mid nineteenth century. Trade was so varied and the demands of service so great that the packet steamer became the classic icon of the river.

Packets were of shallow draft, usually no more than four feet on a large boat and sometimes as little as eighteen inches on a small one, with a flexible wood hull, low-pressure condensing steam engines and a boiler or two. They had one or more cabin decks, a pilothouse, and paddle wheels on the sides or at the stern. The stern-wheeler was the most efficient design for propulsion since the driving paddles were directly behind the boat. The side-wheeler was more versatile and more easily maneuvered, as the wheels permitted the boat to turn more quickly and in a shorter space. One wheel could be reversed so that the boat could be turned almost “on a dime.” Proportionately, the packets were about six or eight times as long as they were wide.


Advertisement for the Golden Era, which was
captained by Hiram Bersie on the 1854 Grand Excursion.
From the Putnam Museum of History and Natural Science, Davenport, Iowa.

 

Boats on the Grand Excursion:

The Galena, a side-wheel packet, was built at Madison, Indiana in 1854. It displaced 296 tons, had forty-six staterooms, and was captained by D. B. Morehouse during the Grand Excursion. A number of others captained the Galena during its four-year life. She burned and sank at Red Wing, Minnesota on July 6, 1858.

Another side-wheeler, the Golden Era was built in 1852 at Wheeling, West Virginia, with a displacement of 249 tons. Captain Hiram Bersie was in command during the Grand Excursion. It, too, had several other captains during its lifespan, including Stephan Hanks, made famous for having created the first log raft in 1844, who piloted it for a time in 1856. The Golden Era served as a troop transport during the Civil War, making three trips to Vicksburg in 1863, and was dismantled (or abandoned) at New Orleans in 1868.

The G. W. Sparhawk, a 243-ton side-wheeler, was built in 1851 also at Wheeling. Although its first homeport was Cincinnati, Ohio, most of its operations were on the Upper Mississippi, where Monroeville Green captained it during the Grand Excursion. The boat either was lost in the ice at St. Louis on February 26, 1856 or, according to another account, it sank just below Nininger, Minnesota, not far from St. Paul.

The Lady Franklin was a side-wheel packet built at Wheeling in 1850, with a rating of 206 tons. Captain Le Grand Morehouse was in charge for the Grand Excursion. This boat operated mostly on the Upper Mississippi under a number of owners and captains. In 1855, it carried five hundred immigrant passengers on a trip from Galena to St. Paul, with a $12 fare for cabins and $6 for deck passage. It was snagged and sunk at Coon Slough below St. Paul on October 23, 1856.
 


From the collection of the Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse.
 

The War Eagle, a side-wheel packet, was the longest-lived of the Grand Excursion boats. Built at Cincinnati in 1854, with a rating of 296 tons, it was a famous boat in its day. On June 22, 1861 it left St. Paul with five companies of the First Minnesota Infantry Volunteers destined for military service. It served briefly as a troop transport in 1862 during the Civil War, and operated for a time on the Tennessee River. Among the War Eagle’s many captains was Daniel Smith Harris, who was in charge during the Grand Excursion. This boat burned and sank with the loss of several lives at La Crosse on May 15, 1870. La Crosse marks that event with an annual “War Eagle Day.”

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