Steamboats on the Colorado River

COLORADO RIVER—Did you know the Colorado River was once defined by maritime commerce? Steamboat ships consistently navigated the river along California’s southeastern border during the mid- and late-1800s. Steamboat navigation came to an end in the early-1900s, when the river was re-envisioned for agrarian and irrigation purposes.

The flashpoint in time of the death of steamboat navigation on the Colorado River was on March 31, 1909, when a large group of people gathered at the recently completed Laguna Dam, located 14 miles above Yuma, Arizona. Laguna Dam closed off the river along the lower portion of its California-Arizona stretch.

Local politicians, according to the book, “Steamboats on the Colorado River,” hoped to establish the Colorado as the “American Nile.”

“To them [the politicians] the Colorado was no long a turgid avenue of commerce, but a bountiful source of water which could make the desert bloom and enrich the pockets of all,” Richard E. Lingenfelter, author of “Steamboats on the Colorado River,” wrote. “This new era dawned on the Colorado with a reawakening to the agricultural and financial potential of irrigating its flood lands; it was the opening of these lands that led to the closing of the river to steamboats forever.”

Steamboats, however, were a major mode of transpiration between 1850 and the early-1900s – particularly on major rivers here in the West.

“Paddle-wheel steamboats provided the cheapest and most efficient form of transportation in the West,” Lingenfelter wrote. “During this time the Columbia, the Sacramento-San Joaquin and the Colorado rivers became the main thoroughfares for opening the interior to settlement and development. Within a few years of one another each of these rivers was supporting a thriving steamboat business.”

Steamers ran up and down the Colorado between 1852 and 1916, Lingenfelter said. Uncle Sam was the first steamboat to touch the river’s waters.

“In November 1852 a homely little steam tug, the Uncle Sam, was launched on the muddy waters at the mouth of the Colorado River. As a handful of Cocopahs, Sonorans and Yankees watched with amusement, sparks popped from her firebox, mesquite smoke belched from her stack, and her hand-me-down engine shuddered and clanked,” Lingenfelter wrote in his book. “Finally, with a straining creak her paddles started to stir the cloudy water, and, hesitantly, she pulled away from the bank to he’d up the unknown river.”

The Colorado River is still home to recreational activities, of course, as anglers, boaters, hunters, waders and others visit the inland waterway regularly. Yet the days of seeing steamboats on the Colorado are long gone.

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