River Commerce in Kansas

Steamboat on the Arkansas River in Kansas.

Steamboat on the Arkansas River in Kansas.

When the first settlers came to Kansas, there were no railroads west of the Mississippi River, and the various watercourses were depended upon to furnish the means of transportation. As early as 1819, four steamboats — the Thomas Jefferson, Expedition, R.M. Johnson, and Western Engineer — were built to navigate the upper Missouri River and were used in the first Yellowstone expedition.

Kansas City river traffic.

Kansas City river traffic.

Before that time, the only watercraft on the western streams were the Indian canoes or the fur traders’ keelboats and flat-bottomed boats. In 1830 a steamboat called the Car of Commerce was built for the Missouri River trade but sank near the river’s mouth two years later.

The Yellowstone ascended the river in 1831, and between that time and 1840, the Assiniboine and the Astoria made regular trips. About the time Kansas was organized as a territory, the Missouri River’s best-known steamers were the A.C. Goddin, the A.B. Chambers, and the Kate Swinney.

The last-named, a side-wheeler 200 feet long and 30 feet Wide, sank on the upper river on August 1, 1855. Other steamers on the Missouri River were the Keystone (upon which Governor Geary came to Kansas), the Robert Campbell, the Paul Jones, the Polar Star, and the J.M. Converse.

Lewis & Clark Sculpture in Kansas City, Kansas.

Lewis & Clark Sculpture in Kansas City, Kansas.

Lewis and Clark’s journal for June 5, 1804, contained the following entry:

“Passed the Creek of the big rock about 15 yards wide on the left side at 11:00 o’clock, brought to a small raft in which was two French men, from 80 leagues up the Kansas River where they wintered and brought a great quantity of Beaver.”

It may be that this early report was partially responsible for the popular belief some years later that the Kansas River was navigable for a distance of 80 leagues. The first attempt to navigate the river by steam was in 1854 when Captain C.K. Baker bought the Excel, a vessel of 79 tons with a draft of only two feet, for the Kansas River trade. On one trip down the river, this boat made the run from Fort Riley to Kansas City in 24 hours, stopping at thirty landings. In 1855, eight new steamboats attempted to navigate the Kansas River, including the Bee, New Lucy, Hartford, Lizzie, Emma Harmon, Financier No. 2, Saranak, and Perry. The Hartford made but one trip. On June 3rd, she ran aground a short distance above the Blue River’s mouth, where she lay for a month waiting for high water. With a rise in the river, she dropped down to Manhattan, where she unloaded her cargo, and with the next rise started for Kansas City, but grounded opposite St. Mary’s Mission, where she caught fire and was burned. The bell of this boat is later was installed in the steeple of the Methodist Church in Manhattan.

Factories along the Kansas River Front in Lawrence, Kansas.

Kansas River Front in Lawrence, Kansas.

In 1856 the steamers Perry, Lewis Burns, Far West, and Brazil made their appearance on the Kansas River. This year, the flat-boat Pioneer took out the first load of freight from up the river, arriving at Kansas City in April. The following year four new steamboats were added. They were the Lightfoot, Violet, Lacon, and Otis Webb. The Lightfoot of Quindaro, a stern-wheeler, was the first steamboat ever built in Kansas. The Violet was built at Pittsburg. She arrived at Kansas City on April 7, 1857, and two days later reached Lawrence. Here, the captain noticed that the river was falling and declined to go any farther. Discharging his cargo and passengers, he started back down the river and arrived at Kansas City on May 10th, having spent the greater part of a month on the sand bars. The vessel never tried a second trip.

In 1858, the Otis Webb, the Minnie Belle, and the Kansas River were put on the water, and in 1859 came the Silver Lake, Morning Star, Gus Linn, Adelia, Colona, Star of the West, and the Kansas Valley. In 1860 the Eureka, Izetta, and Mansfield were added to the list. Then came the Civil War, but little was done in river commerce until peace was restored to the country. The Tom Morgan and the Emma began the navigation of the Kansas River in 1864; the Hiram Wood, Jacob Sass, and E. Hensley were put in commission in 1865, and in 1866 the Alexander Majors was added.

Kansas River Ferry Crossing.

Kansas River Ferry Crossing.

Many difficulties attended the early navigation of the Kansas River. Wood was used for fuel, and it was no unusual occurrence for a boat to tie up while the crew went ashore to fell trees and lay in a supply of wood. On one occasion, the Financier No. 2 ascended the Republican River for 40 miles by way of experiment. This was the farthest that river had ever been navigated. A correspondent of the St. Louis Democrat, on November 18, 1855, said:

“The bed of the Kansas River, like that of the Missouri, is quicksand, ever-changing, and ever-dangerous while the water will not average over two feet in depth at any place for a distance of 500 feet along its banks. If the bottom was rock and the banks precipitous, a line of steamers would pay well; but as it is, no sensible capitalist will invest his money in a single boat. Kansas is destined by nature to be the Railroad state.”

When the counties of Cowley, Sedgwick, and Sumner were settled about 1870, the question of steamboat navigation on the Arkansas River became one of interest to the settlers, who were desirous of finding an outlet to market. In the fall of 1875, A.W. Berkey and A.C. Winton of Cowley County built a flatboat at Arkansas City and loaded it with flour, which they took down the river and sold at Little Rock, Arkansas. Upon their return, a stock company was formed for the purchase of a steamboat. A light draft boat was bought, and it ascended the river nearly to Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, when the engines were found to be of insufficient power to stem the current. In the summer of 1878, W.H. Speer and Amos Walton built a flat-boat 50 feet long and 16 feet wide, equipped it with a 10 horse-power thresher engine, and with this novel craft made several trips up and down the river for a distance of 60 miles from Arkansas City while the water was at a low stage.

Arkansas River in Kansas.

Arkansas River in Kansas.

Through correspondence, Little Rock’s businessmen were induced to send a boat on a trial trip to Kansas. The boat selected was the Aunt Sally, which had been built for the bayou cotton trade of Arkansas. She arrived at Arkansas City on June 30, 1878, and the officers of the boat expressed the opinion that a boat built especially for the purpose could make regular trips up and down the river at all seasons of the year. Thus encouraged, McCloskey Seymore had the Cherokee built at Arkansas City. This boat was launched on November 6, 1878; it was 85 feet long, 22 feet wide; and had a draught when loaded to the guards of only 16 inches. Other steamers built for the Arkansas River trade were the General Miles, the Necedah, and the Nonesuch. But, before the commerce of the Arkansas River was fully established, the railroad came, and the certainty of railroad traffic, compared with the difficulties attending that of the river, made the steamboats’ operation unprofitable. However, as late as 1884, a steamboat called the Kansas Millers was built for the trade. This was the last attempt at steam navigation of the Arkansas River, though some flatboats and barges continued to transport wheat and flour down the river until the railroad lines were more fully developed.


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of Kansas, updated February 2021.

Also See:

History Along the Arkansas River

Kansas History

Kansas River – Explorations Beyond Missouri

Kansas Rivers

About the Article: The majority of this historic text was published in Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Volume I; edited by Frank W. Blackmar, A.M. Ph. D.; Standard Publishing Company, Chicago, IL 1912. However, the text that appears on this page is not verbatim, as additions, updates, and editing have occurred.

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