Long before it was known as the “Steel City,” Pittsburgh was known as a Steamboat City.
Western Pennsylvania established itself as a steamboat hub following the successful journey of the Steamboat New Orleans, the first steamboat to navigate western rivers by travelling from Pittsburgh to its namesake city in Louisiana. Steamboats improved the existing river commerce system by providing a faster way to ship large amounts of goods such as copper, tin, shoes, ropes, and saddles to frontier towns.
By the 1830s, Western Pennsylvania manufacturers built nearly 40 percent of all steamboats in the U.S. Skilled craftsman constructed the steamboats using locally produced wood, iron, glass and paint. Communities across the Monongahela and Ohio River valley, including Pittsburgh, Brownsville, Belle Vernon, California and Sewickley, launched hundreds of vessels each month. The booming steamboat industry helped maintain Pittsburgh’s role as a key “Gateway to the West” from the 1830s through the 1860s.
Despite the industry’s success, steamboat travel proved to be a dangerous venture due to fast currents, winding bends and varying water levels on the Missouri, Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The Missouri River was particularly treacherous, as more than 300 steamboats sank attempting to travel the river during the 1800s.
One of these vessels was the Pittsburgh-built Steamboat Arabia, which departed Pittsburgh in 1853 and travelled the western waters for three years. In 1856, the Arabia hit a tree snag and sank to the bottom of the Missouri River with more than 1 million objects and 220 tons of cargo still onboard.
During this time, a more efficient system of transportation began to emerge as railroads revolutionized commerce in the U.S. Trains traveled greater distances without the hindrances of natural barriers such as water and mountains.
As railroads developed into the preferred method of trade and travel, the steamboat cargo industry declined dramatically following the Civil War.
But throughout the middle part of the 1800s, Pittsburgh’s steamboat industry helped to maintain river commerce and propel western expansion.
Visitors to the Heinz History Center can learn more about the steamboat industry and see more than 2,000 perfectly preserved artifacts from the Steamboat Arabia’s cargo as part of the new “Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia” exhibition. For more information, visit www.heinzhistorycenter.org.