It is the ordinary opinion, and one expressed too often in publications which might be expected to speak with some degree of accuracy, that river transportation in the United States is a dying industry. We read every now and then of the disappearance of the magnificent Mississippi River steamers, and the magazines not infrequently treat their readers to glowing stories of what is called the “flush” times on the Mississippi, when the gorgeousness of the passenger accommodations, the lavishness of the table, the prodigality of the gambling, and the mingled magnificence and outlawry of life on the great packets made up a picturesque and romantic phase of American life. It is true that much of the picturesqueness and the romance has departed long since. The great river no longer bears on its turbid bosom many of the towering castellated boats built to run, as the saying was, on a heavy dew, but still carrying their tiers upon tiers of ivory-white cabins high in air. The time is past when the river was the great passenger thoroughfare from St. Louis to New Orleans. Some few packets still ply upon its surface, but in the main the passenger traffic has been diverted to the railroads which closely parallel its channel on either side. The American travels much, but he likes to travel fast, and for passenger traffic, except on a few routes where special conditions obtain, the steamboat has long since been outclassed by the railroads.
Yet despite the disappearance of its spectacular conditions the water traffic on the rivers of the Mississippi Valley is greater now than at any time in its history. Its methods only have changed. Instead of gorgeous packets crowded with a gay and prodigal throng of travelers for pleasure, we now find most often one dingy, puffing steamboat, probably with no passenger accommodations at all, but which pushes before her from Pittsburg to New Orleans more than a score of flatbottomed, square-nosed scows, aggregating perhaps more than an acre of surface, and heavy laden with coal. Such a tow—for “tow” it is in the river vernacular, although it is pushed—will transport more in one trip than would suffice to load six heavy freight trains. Not infrequently the barges or scows will number more than thirty, carrying more than 1000 tons each, or a cargo exceeding in value $100,000. During the season when navigation is open on the Ohio and its tributaries, this traffic is pursued without interruption. Through it and through the local business on the lower Mississippi, and the streams which flow into it, there is built up a tonnage which shows the freight movement, at least, on the great rivers, to exceed, even in these days of railroads, anything recorded in their history.