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With the invention of the steam engine not long after came the river boats with their giant paddle wheels that could travel against the current. This authentic Mississippi Paddlewheel Steamboat reminds us of the days of Mark Twain's famous Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Mississippi riverboats were jacks-of-all-trades. They carried cotton and inland trade, towed barges and ferried railroad trains accross rivers.
As early as 20,000 BC people started fishing in rivers and lakes using rafts and dugouts. Roman sources dated 50 BC mention extensive transportation of goods and people on the river Rhine. Upstream, boats were usually powered by sails or oars. In the Middle Ages, towpaths were built along most waterways to use working animals or people to pull riverboats. In the 19th century, steamboats became common.
Model of an early 20th century shallow draft stern wheel riverboat, the Upper Sacramento River Steamer Red Bluff.
The most famous early riverboats were on the rivers of the midwestern and central southern United States, on the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri rivers in the early 19th century. Out west, riverboats were common transportation on the Colorado, Columbia, and Sacramento rivers. These American riverboats were designed to draw very little water, and in fact it was commonly said that they could "navigate on a heavy dew".
Australia has a history of riverboats. Australia's biggest river, the Murray, has an inland port called Echuca. Many large riverboats were working on the Murray, but now a lower water level is stopping them. The Kalgan River in Western Australia is one of the oldest rivers in the world; it has had two main riverboats. The Silver Star, 1918 to 1935, would lower her funnel to get under the low bridge. Today, the Kalgan Queen riverboat takes tourists up the river to taste the local wines. She lowers her roof to get under the same bridge.
It is these early steam-driven river craft that typically come to mind when "steamboat" is mentioned, as these were powered by burning wood, with iron boilers drafted by a pair of tall smokestacks belching smoke and cinders, and twin double-acting pistons driving a large paddlewheel at the stern churning foam. This type of propulsion was an advantage as a rear paddlewheel operates in an area clear of snags, is easily repaired, and is not likely to suffer damage in a grounding. By burning wood, the boat could consume fuel provided by woodcutters along the shore of the river. These early boats carried a brow (a short bridge) on the bow, so they could head in to an unimproved shore for transfer of cargo and passengers.
Modern riverboats are generally screw (propeller) driven, with pairs of diesel engines of several thousand horsepower.