How Fast Were They?
About five years ago I asked myself, "Which paddlewheeler was the fastest?"
There had to be one that was faster than all the rest. Right? Well, it
took three years of research for me to come to the conclusion that there's
just no way of knowing which was the fastest. (bummer).
Here's why I came to that conclusion:
At first glance I thought that determining the "fastest" boat would be a
piece of cake. Alas, I found that time and distance comparisons alone would
not provide enough information for any valid conclusion. A number of other
variable factors had to be considered and examined. Here are some of the
Tide and Current - with or against. Downstream runs were faster that
upstream runs. Different rivers and sections of these rivers had variable
currents (the Upper Mississippi had a much stronger current than the Lower
Mississippi, therefore upstream runs on the Lower Mississippi were much
faster than those on the Upper Mississippi). Each body of water was
Wind - with or against. How strong?
Load - fully loaded or stripped for speed.
Landings - on long runs, time was "deducted" for landings. This time was
estimated by the Captain and were not usually verifiable.
Distance - what course was run? Not necessarily in the channel. Shortcuts
were often taken reducing the actual distance run. Boats of shallower draft
could run closer in -also reducing distance. Also, many rivers decreased in
distance over time. When the Lee and Natchez had their famous tussle in
1870, the distance from New Orleans to St. Louis was about 1218 miles.
Through cutoffs and channel changes, the distance today is less than 1050
miles - making it hard to compare earlier with later fast trips between the
Timing Methods - early fast runs (especially the long ones - i.e.
Eclipse/A.L. Shotwell contest 1853 - New Orleans to Louisville -1455 miles)
were not accurately timed because most small towns along the river set their
clocks by solar time. Also, many early time pieces just did not keep
accurate time. Many fast runs were also exaggerated over time, as stories
were told and re-told. it's best to go to the newspaper accounts written at
the time - and sometimes even these are suspect.
So, with all these variables in mind, it becomes evident why determining the
fastest boat by time over a specific measured distance is just about
Having said that, I do have a list of "candidates" for fastest. They are
(in no particular order):
Lower Mississippi River:
ROBT. E. LEE - New Orleans to Natchez, MS ("The Race" June 30, 1870)
265 miles: 17 hrs, 11 mins (upstream) 15.42 mph avg.
NATCHEZ VI - Same as above (to the minute)
ROBT. E. LEE - New Orleans to Natchez, MS (Oct. 16, 1870)
265 miles: 16 hrs, 36 mins (upstream) 15.95 mph avg.
J.M. WHITE III - New Orleans to Baton Rouge, LA (Oct. 23, 1881)
133.2 miles: 7 hrs, 40 mins (upstream) 17.34 mph avg
Upper Mississippi River:
GREY EAGLE - Dubuque, IA to St. Paul, MN (Aug. 17, 1858)
265 miles: 25 hrs, 40 mins (upstream) 10.75 mph avg.
ROYAL - Henderson, KY to Evansville, IN (May 16, 1891)
13 miles: 52 minutes flat (upstream) 15.00 mph avg.
(The Robt. E. Lee made this same run in 49 1/2 mins but took a short cut
which saved about 3 minutes - the Royal was probably the fastest
sternwheeler to ever run on the Ohio).
CITY OF LOUISVILLE - Louisville, KY to Cincinnati, OH (April 5, 1896)
133.5 miles: 9 hrs, 40 mins (upstream) 13.82 mph avg.
133.5 miles: 5 hrs, 58 mins (downstream) 22.38 mph avg.
BUCKEYE STATE - Cincinnati, OH to Pittsburgh, PA (May 1, 1850)
470.3 miles: 1 day, 19 hrs (upstream) 10.93 mph avg.
FRANCIS SKIDDY - New York City to Hudson, NY (June 30, 1852)
116 3/8 miles. 5 hrs, 3 mins 23.04 mph avg.
DANIEL DREW - New York City to Hudson, NY (Oct 13, 1862)
116 1/4 miles: 5 hrs, 5 minutes. 22.75 mph avg.
MARY POWELL - New York City (Vestry St. Pier) to Piermont (Date not
verifiable -1878? Personal account of a deckhand) 23.55 miles: 59 minutes.
ALBANY - New York City to Poughkeepsie (May 12, 1880)
72 7/8 miles: 3 hours, 8 mins. 23.26 mph avg.
CHAUNCEY VIBBARD - New York City to Albany (April 8, 1876)
144 miles: 6 hrs, 20 mins 22.75 mph avg.
CHRYSOPOLIS - Sacramento to San Francisco, CA (Dec. 31, 1861)
117 miles: 5 hrs, 19 mins 22.03 mph avg.
TELEPHONE - Portland to Astoria, OR (July 2, 1887)
105 miles: 4 hrs, 34 3/4 mins 22.93 mph avg.
HASSALO - Portland to Astoria, OR (June 18, 1899)
105 miles: 4 hrs. 22 3/4 mins 23.80 mph avg.
BAILEY GATZERT - The Dalles to Portland, OR (June, 1914)
115 miles: 5 hours (approx.) 22.00 mph avg.
T.J. POTTER - Tacoma to Seattle, WA (June 14, 1891)
28 miles: 1 hr, 22 1/2 mins. 20.36 mph avg.
BAILEY GATZERT - Tacoma to Seattle, WA (Oct. 13, 1891)
28 miles: 1 hr, 21 mins. 20.77 mph avg.
CITY OF ERIE - Cleveland, OH to Erie, PA (June 4, 1901)
94.5 miles: 4 hrs, 19 mins, 9 secs. 21.97 mph avg (in dead water/no current)
Long Island Sound:
PRISCILLA - Cornfield Light Ship to Stratford Shoal (June 20, 1894)
69.9 miles: 2 hrs, 58 mins. 22.55 mph avg.
PRISCILLA - Cornfield Light Ship to Watch Hill Light (June 20, 1894)
27.6 miles: 1 hr, 12 mins. 23.00 mph avg.
There are other fast runs that are nearly as fast as these, but these are, I
believe, the elite of the swift. All were sidewheelers except the ROYAL,
TELEPHONE and HASSALO (sternwheelers). Some of these vessels could make
25-26 mph for short distances under ideal conditions, but none could make
that kind of speed over distance.
Well, there you have it. Take your pick. Any of these could be called
"fastest" with some justification. But, unless we could line them up
side-by-side, on the same stream, under the same ideal conditions, with the
same preparation and let them all have a go at each other, there is no way to
know for sure which of them was the fastest (sigh).
As far as "verifiable" accounts of top speeds - back when steamboats were
plentiful, there was no way to determine "peak" speed. The shortest distance
used to determine speed was over the measured mile. There was nothing like a
speed gun back then. Some steamboats reported speed of 25-26 mph but, in my
opinion, these were aided by current, wind and, more often than not,
Here are a few examples of what is probably as close to "true" speed in the
group of really fast ones:
On June 4, 1901, the big sidewheel Lake Passenger and Freight steamer CITY OF
ERIE raced the big sidewheel passenger steamer TASHMOO from Cleveland, OH to
Erie, PA. It was an off shore race (about 2.5 miles out) and took place in
dead-water (with no current or tidal influences). It was one of the closest,
most competitive races ever held, with the CITY OF ERIE beating the TASHMOO
over the 94.5 mile course by 45 seconds. The ERIE ran the course in 4
hours, 19 minutes and 9 seconds. Average speed: 21.97 mph.
On April 18, 1896, the big sidewheel packet CITY OF LOUISVILLE made a two-way
run between Louisville, KY and Cincinnati, OH on the same day. In theory,
the total distance divided by the times both way would negate the current
advantage/disadvantage and give a true average speed. Downstream time: 5
hrs, 58 minutes - avg speed: 22.38 mph/Upstream time: 9 hrs, 40 minutes - avg
speed: 13.82 mph. Total distance: 267 miles. Two-way average speed: 18.10
On June 18, 1899 the new sternwheel steamer HASSALO was carefully groomed for
a speed run between Portland and Astoria, Oregon. She was stripped of all
superfluous weight, carried no freight and carried only as few "special"
passengers and used "picked fuel." She made both the downstream and upstream
trip in the same day. The purpose of this trip was to break the 13-year-old
record held by the steamer TELEPHONE between those two cities. Downstream
time: 4 hrs, 22 3/4 min - avg speed: 23.80 mph. Upstream time: 6 hours
(flat) - avg speed: 17.50 mph Total distance 210 miles. Average speed: 20.65
These are three good examples of three very fast paddlewheelers operating
without the benefit (or disadvantage) of a swift current or favorable tide.
As you can see, the true apparent speed is well under 25 mph.
The HASSALO, TELEPHONE, ALBANY, NEW YORK and MARY POWELL were all reported to
be capable of making 25 mph or better. The claims exist, the proof does not.
The Capt. of the Hudson River steamer NEW YORK claimed his boat could make
28 mph on a short sprint (doubted by most). The HASSALO was said to have
made 26 mph on a two-mile downstream sprint. There are many "boasts" that
have found their way into print. I have found no documentation for claims in
excess of 25 mph for a paddlewheel steamer. The really fast paddlers could
"average" between 21-24 mph - NO FASTER. There were maybe 25-30 vessels (out
of the many thousands produced) capable of this kind of speed. Finis.
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