The Rise and Fall of River and Rail Transportation in Madison, Indiana.

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Flatboats & Keelboats

Though the Native American canoe was convenient for early explorers and settlers, the craft’s size and carrying capacity made it unsuitable for the majority of pioneers who later ventured west.

The Journey West on the Ohio

Life in the crowded, dirty cities of the 19th century, as well as the allure of cheap land made available by a series of land grants and treaties with native tribes, lead many easterners to simply pack up their families and all their belongings and set off into the wild. Though they were a far cry from the solitary surveyor or trapper, confidently winding his way down the Ohio in a canoe packed with provisions, these waves of settlers nonetheless played an important role in populating the Ohio River Valley. Several such mass migrations in the late 18th and early 19th centuries meant that river travel quickly became one of the premier means of transporting a pioneer household to the frontier.footnote 1 To accommodate the heavier loads now carried by settlers, a series of much larger and stronger river vessels was needed.

The Use of the Flatboat

FlatboatThe average colonist embarking on a journey down the Ohio had several types of rivercraft to choose from. The first, most basic, and most affordable of these new vessels was the boxy and awkward flatboat. It was so named because of its flat underside and shallow draft, which gave the hull the balance and strength to hold a large deck, but made the vessel difficult to steer. At anywhere from 8 to 20 feet wide and sometimes up to 100 feet long however, the flatboat was considerably larger than any previous riverboats.

The flatboat’s size made it a crucial component of Ohio River commerce from the 18th century onwards. Its large cargo capacity ensured that river trade from east to west boomed, but the vessels were primitive and suffered greatly from an inability to ascend the river against the current. This meant that trade between settlements on the Ohio River and the industrial bases further east or the export centers to the southwest could only proceed one way. Once a flatboat reached its destination, cargo would be offloaded and its fate was determined by the owner. Settlers often dismantled their flatboats, using the planks to build homes, while businessmen typically instructed their steersmen to salvage any intact boards to sell as scrap timber. The flatboat opened the eyes of many manufacturers and entrepreneurs to the lucrative opportunities offered by river transport, but the vessel’s design faults as well as its helplessness against the current of the Ohio made it less than ideal for the economic growth of a nation.

Use of the Keelboat

KeelboatAn improvement on the flatboat was the keelboat. Named for the keel, the longitudinal beam to which the “ribs” of the vessel were attached, the keelboat was a much stronger and more versatile vessel than the flatboat. This can be seen by the fact that a mainstay of the Lewis and Clark expedition was a 55 foot keelboat named “Discovery.” The great advantage of this type of boat over its predecessors was its ability to ascend the river against the current. To this end, the keelboat had a sleek hull and a pointed prow and was often equipped with a mast and sail to ease the ascent. If the wind was uncooperative, the ship’s crew, known as keelboatmen, took to the oars or more frequently to long poles. These they used to row or “pole” the boat up the river, while other crewmen helped to drag the boat forward by pulling on overhanging tree limbs. If such backbreaking work still failed to propel the vessel upstream, a party of men would be forced to land on the riverbank, secure a rope to the keelboat, and tow the craft by hand. Despite the arduous nature of their return journeys, the keelboat was a more advanced and less expendable vessel than the flatboat. Its design often sported a covered superstructure or even cabins for the passengers and crew. This at least made the long, slow voyage back up the Mississippi or Ohio a little more comfortable.


The end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th witnessed not only the rise and the zenith of flatboats and keelboats on the Ohio, but also their decline. While these vessels delivered their cargo and plied the treacherous waters of the great river, the device that would replace both and come to dominate the great rivers of America was born: the steamboat.

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