What are Riverboats?

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  • Written By: Matt Brady
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 28 September 2019
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Riverboats are water vessels which are used solely for traveling up and down the course of a river. Prior to the 18th century, riverboats were fairly rudimentary canoes and rafts. With the invention of steam technology over the course of the 1700s and 1800s, riverboating was entirely transformed. Large paddle-wheel steamboats began to populate rivers throughout the world, and were used not only for the transportation of people and goods, but also as luxury vessels on which people vacationed. Over time, many riverboats traded in steam power for more powerful diesel engines. Ferries could also be considered riverboats, although they travel from one side of a river to another, rather than up and down it.

Around the beginning of the 19th century, John Fitch and Robert Fulton introduced the technology for steam-powered vessels to the U.S., and a new kind of riverboat was born. Before long, large, multi-tiered steam-powered paddlewheel boats populated U.S. rivers, such as the Mississippi, Missouri, Colorado and Sacramento rivers. Steamboats were quickly adopted on other rivers throughout the world, such as the Yangtze River in China, and the Murray River in Australia.


Steamboats offered larger cargo space than had ever been available before, and thus were naturally used to haul various goods up and down waterways. They were, of course, also used for public transportation. Steamboats were also used as luxury cruise vessels for vacationing travelers, in the same way that many ocean liners had the split roles of cargo ships as well as luxurious getaways.

During the 1800s, the casino industry became deeply intertwined with riverboats, and riverboat gambling became commonplace. In many cases, the casinos didn't actually operate as they boat was moving, but were operated in stationary boats alongside the rivers. Especially in America, many river towns became notorious as gambling hubs, so much so that river gambling—and the infamous gamblers it attracted—became a part of American folklore. Riverboat casinos still operate today in regions of countries where gambling is legal and regulated.

Many cities throughout the world have long used riverboats as a means of getting around town. Perhaps no place is more popular for this than Venice, Italy, where canoe-like boats called gondolas taxi people through water canals that criss-cross the city. There are no cars in Venice, so the gondolas and waterways offer a unique substitute to roads. Other cities along waterways, such as New York City in the U.S., make use of water taxis. Today, riverboats are as widely used as they ever were, only now the array of boats is far more vast. For example, one could still hop aboard an old-fashioned paddle-wheel boat, or take a faster ride on a diesel-powered speedboat.


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