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Steamboat Season

The steamboat was everywhere a century ago - a workhorse in the harbor, a freight carrier on the high seas, a passagemaker and explorer carrying civilization along on its journey of progress.

But it was also used for fun. Indeed, such is the case in this photo taken in the 1890s on the Thames River near New London, Conn.

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The parasols, white dresses and Sunday hats - even the children are gaily garbed - mark this as a holiday or weekend, and it's likely the crowd on the heavily laden dock has gathered for that summertime staple that was as much a part of the season as the ice cream social: the steamer excursion.

It's a scene that was repeated around the country, from Chesapeake Bay to San Francisco Bay, from Lake Michigan to the Florida Keys. The 1890s were perhaps the halcyon days of the excursion steamer. Summer travel was increasing, and day and overnight trips "upon the salt water" were becoming increasingly popular - a pleasant alternative to a horse-and-buggy ride on a hot, dusty road.

The queens of the fleet were impressive - luxurious boats, 250 feet or more in length, with such grand names as Providence, famed for opulence; Pilgrim, the "Iron Monarch of the Sound"; and the 24-knot rocket Yale.

But small country steamers such as Julia, pictured here, were beloved. These hard-working vessels served the people, plying America's rivers and bays, deep-water lakes and waterways, taking families, business groups and societies out to celebrate Independence Day, an ethnic holiday, or perhaps a wedding. Or, as one rider put it, to simply take "leisurely trips down the quiet river with the constant enjoyment of scenery on the shore ... the stately white mansions set among the trees, the small villages ... the pointing spires slipping by."

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.


Photo of drawing of steam boat race

The Great Steamboat Race

Mississippi steamboat races, as depicted here, are the stuff of myth, lore and legend. And none is more famous than the Great Race of 1870.