WINONA, Minn. (KTTC) – By the late 19th century, steamboats traveling along the Mississippi River were as common to people then as planes are to us today.
“You’d see boats going north and south, you’d see boats pulling up to the docks here, blowing their whistles, ringing bells, you’d see a flurry of activities on the shore,” said Robert Taunt, a river historian. “1857 was the peak year. There were 1,300 steamboats that landed here in Winona that’s almost the record for the upper river.”
As the famous American writer Mark Twain described it, “the stuff of dreams.”
For more than a century, the ‘Mighty Mississippi’ was the trade artery for selling goods and moving people through the midwest. Today, we’re left with the memories, and those curious to sample the river’s past.
Aboard the Cal Fremling boat in docked in Winona, Taunt revisits the stories of the “Golden Age of Steamboating.” He has been researching and telling stories of the Mississippi for 25 years.
“It’s always a pleasure to me to share the old steamboat stories,” said Taunt. “When I speak about steamboating, I like to speak in the voice of George Merrick, who’s our Mark Twain of the Upper Mississippi River.” He even dresses the part during tours. “I don’t wear this on a daily basis, no haha.”
He recounted a unique river story about a race in the 1850s where a riverboat lost its rudder, and its captain made a fateful decision.
“He was never going to lose a race with his boat. So he turned to his pilot and asked, Mr. Tibbles, can you steer this boat without a rudder? And Tibbles said, ‘yes sir I can.’ And so the captain said, ‘take her out.”
Rudder-less and using just the paddle wheels, the ‘Key City’ boat managed to pass its competitor and win the race.
“As we look at the history of the Mississippi River it appears to be the only time that a boat was steered without a rudder. Years later in the 1880s when Mark Twain made a trip down the river he picked up that story and he included it as a fictional story in one of his books. But that’s a true story and it happened right here on our upper Mississippi River.”
“We need to keep telling these stories because people need a perspective. They can look at technology and all that we have available for us today,” said Pauline Christensen, a passenger. “And, we need to have an appreciation for what all has taken place before.”
Joshua Ciccone, a passenger on the Cal Fremling, is studying social studies at Winona State University. “If we can pass anything down to the next generation, it should be these stories.”