Steamboat History: Ferryboats

Many works of river history are focused on big packet steamers like the CITY OF LOUISVILLE or workhorse towboats like the CHICOT. Although well-known boats like these are what people today usually think of when we imagine the Steamboat Era, the most common type of steamboat that people back then would have actually seen and used in their day-to-day lives was something a bit humbler: the steam ferryboat.


May be an image of body of waterSteam ferryboat A.M. HALLIDAY, launched by the Howards in 1903 for the Union Ferry Co. in New Orleans, Louisiana.

For more than a century, ferryboats were essential for travel across the inland rivers. In the Louisville area, between the opening of the first ferry in 1794 (a simple craft which was little more than two canoes lashed together) and the construction of the K&I Railroad Bridge in 1883, ferries were the only safe and consistent way to get across the Ohio River between Kentucky and Indiana, and they remained an important form of cross-river transportation in the local area until the last ferry service finally shut down in 1929. Over these 135 years, ferryboats carried countless passengers and tons of cargo across the Ohio and played an important role in the economic development of this part of the country.


May be an image of body of waterHoward-built steam ferryboat A. BALDWIN. Due to the double-hull catamaran design of many ferryboats, it was common for most of these vessels to have one center-mounted paddlewheel (called a centerwheel) between the two hulls; the wash from this wheel can be seen off the stern of the boat.


May be an image of outdoorsSteam ferryboat THOMAS PICKLES under construction at the Howard Shipyard in Jeffersonville, Indiana. The unique double-hull catamaran design of most ferryboats is easily seen in this photo.

The Howard family had close ties to the local ferry business. Nearly all the ferryboats used in the Louisville area were built at the Howard Shipyard in Jeffersonville. In fact, James Howard, who founded the shipyard in 1834, died on October 14th, 1876 when his horse spooked and pushed his buggy into the river while returning to Jeffersonville on the steam ferryboat JOHN SHALLCROSS, a boat he himself had built. 


May be an image of body of waterSteam ferryboat NEW SHALLCROSS; she was built to the same lines as the JOHN SHALLCROSS.

One particularly interesting Howard-built ferryboat is the CITY OF BATON ROUGE. Launched by the Howards in 1916 for the Baton Rouge Transportation Company, she ran from 1916-1968, and her engines, paddlewheel shaft, pilot wheel, and other machinery were used in building the 1971 excursion steamboat JULIA BELLE SWAIN. The CITY OF BATON ROUGE is one of only two fully-intact Howard-built boats known to be in existence today; she is currently used as the wharfboat for the riverboat Twilight in Le Claire, Iowa. 


May be an image of body of waterSteam ferryboat CITY OF BATON ROUGE.


Fishbaugh, Charles Preston. From Paddlewheels to Propellers. Indiana Historical Society: Indianapolis. (1970).

Norrington, Keith. “Death of a Stellar Steamboat Builder”. In The Waterways Journal (March 15, 2021).

Way Jr., Frederick. Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1983. Ohio University Press: Athens. 1983.

Wall text. Ferryboats. The Howard Steamboat Museum, Jeffersonville, Indiana.