Rigged Model, Keel Boat Packet Barge

Mainly sailing on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, keel boat barges were used to transport people and commodities. The earliest ones were powered manually rather than by sail or steam, only traveling 10 to 20 miles per day as the crew rowed, poled or hauled the keel boat along the river with tow lines. This model, dating to around 1810, would have been called an express boat, as it was able to travel faster than a traditional keel boat. It also could harness wind power with its sails, making the journeys up and downstream more quickly and efficiently.
Often called “keelers,” keel boat pilots dedicated their careers to sailing on the rivers. Steering a keel boat was complex. Pilots had to have extensive knowledge of the ever-changing river, its currents, seasonal conditions, and flood patterns. For this reason, traditional keelers were ideal candidates to operate newer packet barges and steamships during the mid-19th century. By the 1830s, it was rare for someone to become a river pilot without prior experience.
People living in isolated towns on upper river waters and tributary streams were dependent upon these barges. Because steamships were too big to travel in the shallower riverbeds, these packet barges—often painted bright red—were used to deliver manufactured goods, people, mail, and groceries to the town.
Date made
overall: 17 in x 21 in x 10 in; 43.18 cm x 53.34 cm x 25.4 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
related event
Revolution and the New Nation
Expansion and Reform
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
On the Water exhibit
On the Water
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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