In 1834, nineteen-year-old James Howard started a shipyard on the banks of the Ohio in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and began to build his first boat, the Hyperion. During its three-generation, 107-year history, the Howard Shipyard would put over 3,000 vessels in the running waters of the Ohio and establish the largest inland shipyard in America. The story of the hard-working Howards and their famous riverboats is not lost to us. Fortunately, it is being preserved and presented today by the Howard Steamboat Museum housed in the century-old Howard mansion, a remarkable artifact in its own right.
The massive 22-room Romanesque Revival mansion was built adjacent to the old Howard Shipyard in 1894. Its location made it easy for Howard’s stable of craftsmen to help in its construction and their fine hand is evident in the interior gingerbread woodwork and the grand staircase, reminiscent of those built in the elegant Howard steamboats. Visitors will admire the mansion’s sumptuous late-Victorian interior but if they are river and steamboat enthusiasts they will get lost in the museum’s collection.
Among the many artifacts on display are items from the legendary Robert E. Lee, the Natchez and the Howard-built J. M. White. The largest single artifact is the shaft of the original paddlewheel of the Delta Queen. The museum has a collection of 4-5,000 photographs, a large collection of shipbuilding tools, documents, numerous paintings (including several works by Harlan Hubbard), full ship models and half breadth models from the steamboat era.
When James passed his shipyard to his son, Edmonds, in 1876 it had already struck a reputation for the finest steamboats and Howard quality was in demand. At times, Edmonds had to turn down contracts or bid ludicrously high. Such was the case when the San Francisco-based Alaska Commercial Company wanted three packets and a towboat for the booming Klondike gold trade. Flooded with work in 1897, Edmonds made an outrageously high bid only to find it accepted! On his watch, Edmonds oversaw the construction of the famous J. M. White (1878), the most luxurious cotton packet to ply the inland rivers and the City of Louisville (1894). It still holds the speed record for the Ohio River. Howard control of the shipyard ended in 1941 when it was purchased by the US Navy for WWII construction of Landing Ship, Tanks or LSTs, sub chasers and other ocean-going vessels. The venerable Howard tradition of shipbuilding continues. The yard is now occupied by Jeffboat, Inc., a subsidiary of The American Commercial Line Barge Service, which has built such riverboats as the Mississippi Queen (1973) and the General Jackson (1985). Jeffboat recently launched the $17 million, 310-ft City of Evansville, the newest product of “the oldest continually operated inland shipyard in the country.”