Book Review: Steamboat Disasters of the Lower Missouri River

Vicki Berger Erwin and James Erwin, 128 pages, nonfiction, Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, softcover, $23.99

The Missouri River earned its reputation as a dangerous river during nearly a century of steamboat traffic because it was notoriously difficult to navigate. The problem of the Missouri’s sometimes shallow depth, meandering channel, and sharp bends was something that the process of channelization sought to correct to enhance its viability for barge traffic, but by the time the project was finished, the railroad was a viable alternative for moving freight. The Big Muddy never saw as much barge traffic as the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

The lower Missouri sank more than three hundred steamboats during the nineteenth century alone. In this new book, authors Vicki Berger Erwin and James Erwin tell the stories of some of the most interesting and infamous sinkings along the river. These incidents are helpfully divided into categories, which include explosions, fire and ice, and war. As the title of the book suggests, its scope isn’t limited to sinkings only—it also contains stories of disease outbreaks, murders, and even war crimes.

Some of these stories are told in concise paragraphs, while others, like the sinking of the Saluda, take multiple pages and include minute-by-minute witness accounts. The Saluda was a particularly deadly case of a steam engine explosion at Lexington in 1852, and the Erwins have gone to admirable lengths to tell the stories of individual passengers who happened to be on board.

Any reader partial to histories will be happy to add this book to his or her library, especially because the format rewards skimming around to read a few stories, then returning later to find out more. As a fringe benefit, anxious travelers might take comfort in learning how truly risky even a short journey across the state was during the steamboat epoch.