Steamboat Disasters of the Lower Missouri River

Online Presentation by Historian and Author James Erwin

February 8th we were joined by author James Erwin to discuss the impressive engineering and fragile nature of steamboat travel on the Lower Missouri River.

Published: February 8, 2022

Online Presentation by Historian and Author James Erwin, Missouri Humanities Speakers’ Bureau

Click here to view the presentation on YouTube.

Hosted by Missouri River Relief and Missouri Humanities Council

On February 8th, we were joined by James Erwin from the Missouri Humanities Speakers’ Bureau to discuss the fate of many steamboats from the nineteenth century. Between Omaha, Nebraska and the mouth of the Missouri River in St. Louis, 300 steamboats sank into the muddy waters. Although derided as little more than an “orderly pile of kindling,” steamboats were in fact technological marvels superbly adapted to the river’s conditions. Their light superstructure and long, wide, flat hulls powered by high-pressure engines drew so little water that they could cruise on “a heavy dew” even when fully loaded.

James shared with the audience the engineering feats of these boats as well as their fates. These same characteristics made the boats susceptible to fires, explosions, and underwater tree snags. The river held other dangers as well–disease, crime, and (in times of war) guerrillas. James lead us through the story of the steamboats’ perils and shared with us the realities faced by those aboard. He concluded the talk by sharing examples of steamboat wrecks recovered in the last couple of decades, still laden with the goods they carried.

James Erwin is a retired attorney who practiced law in St. Louis for 38 years. Jim is the co-author with his wife Vicki of Steamboat Disasters of the Lower Missouri River, and recently appeared on The History Channel’s Beyond Oak Island episode about David Hawley’s search for additional steamboat wrecks on the Missouri River. Jim is the author of three books on the Civil War in Missouri, a history of St. Charles, and co-author with Vicki of Notorious Missouri: 200 Years of Historic Crimes. Currently, Jim is vice-chair of the Kirkwood (Missouri) Arts Commission, past president of the St. Louis Civil War Roundtable, an interpretative guide at the Missouri History Museum and treasurer of the Unbound Book Festival.

James is a featured presenter in the “Show Me Missouri” Speakers Bureau, an initiative of the Missouri Humanities Council and the State Historical Society of Missouri.

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The Big Muddy Speaker Series in Rocheport

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Special thanks to Les Bourgeois Vineyards for giving us the opportunity to use their beautiful space overlooking the Missouri River. All speakers are presenting for free! Thank you all for sharing your knowledge with us!

The Big Muddy Speaker Series also takes place in Kansas City and St. Charles.


The views and opinions expressed by our presenters do not necessarily reflect the view or policies of Missouri River Relief, the Big Muddy Speaker Series or any of the partners that support this public forum. The Big Muddy Speaker Series believes that hearing diverse perspectives is a crucial building block for an informed public.


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