River Conditions

The great rivers of the West and Midwest remade themselves continuously. Their currents piled up sandbanks, scoured away riverbanks, gathered trees and debris in underwater snags, built ice floes, and even changed course.

Shipbuilders and pilots had to adapt to these changes. Riverboats were designed to ride high in the water so they could slip across shallows. Pilots learned and relearned the river on every trip. Still, hundreds of steamboats wrecked on the rivers in the 1800s, and hundreds of passengers and crew lost their lives.

The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.
—Mark Twain, 1866

City of Cincinnati crushed in ice at Cincinnati, January 1918

A Stranded Steamboat

In March 1910, the Virginia sailed over a flooded cornfield in Willow Grove, West Virginia, and got stuck. When the Ohio River receded a week later, the boat was trapped a half mile from shore. Hauled back to the river and refloated, it served for another 18 years.


Patent No. 6,469, May 22, 1849

View object record

Abraham Lincoln’s Patent Model [replica]

Shallow water was a chronic problem on western rivers. Lawyer Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, Illinois, thought inflatable rubber-cloth chambers could help boats float over shallow spots. He patented his idea in 1849, submitting a model along with his application. His “adjustable buoyant chambers” proved impractical, but Lincoln became the only president to hold a U.S. patent.

Maintaining the Waterway

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