When most people think of a paddlewheel steamboat, they think of huge, gilded floating palaces, covered in scrollwork and ornaments. They imagine smoke stacks topped with crowns, belching black smoke as they wind along the Mississippi River.
While some riverboats in St John's River and Apalachicola came close to the grandeur of the Mississippi riverboats, most of the sternwheelers in Florida's history were a bit more practical.
In the winding rivers and shallow bays of late-1800s Florida, the paddlewheel was a wonderful method of propulsion. Unlike the modern propeller, it didn't get tangled up in weeds or torn up on shifting sandbars. If it were to get damaged from colliding with a submerged hazard, it was easy enough to unbolt the damaged blade and bolt in a new one. This was a major advantage in an age when travel was often measured in days instead of hours.
The remote frontier nature of Florida at that time affected the design of the Riverboats as much as the rivers themselves. One of the most famous Florida's riverboats was Okahumkee. She carried goods and passengers along the Ocklawaha and St. John's rivers.
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The hull was narrow by riverboat standards, with a pointed bow. The lower deck where the steam
engines and boilers were, and where cargo would be stored, was enclosed. This was for security and to reduce the chances of an overhanging branch snagging on the side of the boat in the narrow, winding river.
One of the more unusual features of Okahumkee was the placement of the stern wheel. Instead of the wide, low wheel typical elsewhere, the Okahumkee used a tall, narrow wheel moved forward inside the profile of the ship. This meant she could back up to the shore or a dock without risking damage to her paddle wheel, though it did reduce passenger and cargo space. Many other paddlewheelers for the Florida backwaters were built in a similar way.
Whether for use in the rivers or coastal bays, the Florida steamboats generally shared the same layout. The lower deck was reserved for cargo, and the machinery was used to power the stern wheel. The upper deck was reserved for passengers, whether they be traveling for the afternoon or journeying several days down the coast.
This had two big advantages. First, it meant loading and unloading of cargo was easier since the lower deck was often about the same height as the dock. Second, it put passengers higher above the water. This gave them cooler breezes, better views and fewer bugs. These were desirable advantages, especially in hot Florida summers before the invention of air conditioning.
The Stern wheel steamboats that operated near rail hubs and growing vacation spots like Cedar Key, Silver Springs or St. Augustine also catered to tourists and sportsmen from out of state. They were some of the first sightseeing and eco tours in Florida.
To find out more about the boats and characters that helped shape Florida's maritime history, visit the Florida Maritime Museum. If a boat trip for sightseeing and ecotourism is more your speed, the Okahumkee is long gone. But Florida Maritime Museum partners with Paradise Boat Tours to offer sightseeing and eco tours on Sarasota Bay, so contact us for more details.
We're at 4415 119th St. W. in Cortez. Our phone number is 941-708-6120, and we are open Tuesday through Saturday 9-4 with free admission.
John Beale, education and volunteer coordinator for the Florida Maritime Museum, lectures at the museum and around the county on various topics related to Florida's maritime history. He also teaches traditional skills at the Florida Maritime Museum. Reach him at John.Beale@manateeclerk.com.