Quad Cities, IL/IA

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Nostalgia for a Steamboat


By Patrick Harness, Health Alliance

The relentless pace of modern life makes it easy to forget how different things were in the past.

Last Fall, my friends Bill and Sharon took a steamboat trip, and they described it as “incredibly relaxing.” Sounds like an interesting way to travel, and it piqued my curiosity about riverboats in general.

There are 2 main varieties of paddle steamers: a sternwheeler (one wheel at the back naturally) and a side-wheeler (I’m sure you can guess where they were located). It seems their speed is dependent on a number of factors, including cargo onboard and head winds. An average speed seems to be around 15 mph, which was very fast when steamboats became popular.

Some steamboats were the height of luxurious travel at the time. Cut crystal lighting, lavish furniture, and carpeting were the most up-to-date available. Live entertainment and game playing were popular activities. Other steamboats were more pedestrian, combining passengers and cargo, both of varying degrees of quality. However, railroads eventually eclipsed the importance of riverboat travel.

Although popular media has sometimes romanticized riverboat travel, it occurs to me they didn’t have air conditioning. (I have been in St Louis during August.) I am also wondering what the bathrooms were like, in case someone wanted to grab a quick shower. The very real threats of fire and running aground were constant reminders that some of the dangers of a riverboat trip came from the ship itself, not just the other passengers. Hitting snags or sandbars and exploding boilers all presented a very real threat to life and limb.

My friends said the food was good, but definitely not low calorie. I asked them what they did between meals, and Sharon said they mostly loafed on the deck and watched the scenery go by. Occasionally, they enjoyed some live music or a dramatic reading. Card games were a popular choice among some of the passengers, while others napped. “We both noticed it was the most relaxed we’d been in a long time. We highly recommend it,” she said.

It seems ironic to me that a historic mode of travel formerly known for its speed now sets the pace for a leisurely excursion. Considering the cost of today’s riverboat tickets, it’s even more ironic how much people are willing to pay for a little relaxation.

Patrick Harness is a community representative for Health Alliance Medicare. For more information about community resources for seniors, reach him at 1-800-965-4022 or patrick.harness@healthalliance.org.To learn more about Health Alliance Medicare, please visit