Before railroads and motor cars, paddle wheel steamboats were the primary means of transportation in Florida, particularly along the lakes and rivers found in the Panhandle near Tallahassee. Unlike the grand river steamers of legend that plied the Mississippi, the small paddle wheel steamer was the best means of transportation and moving goods to market in the winding rivers and shallow bays of late-1800s Florida,
Unlike the modern propeller, the paddle wheel didn’t get tangled up in weeds or torn up on shifting sandbars. If it did get damaged on a submerged hazard, it was easy enough to unbolt the broken blade and bolt on a new one. That was a major advantage in an age when travel was often measured in days instead of hours.
One of the most famous Florida’s riverboats was Okahumkee, which operated on the Ocklawaha and St. John’s rivers. Its hull was narrow by riverboat standards, with a pointed bow. The lower deck where the steam engines and boilers were was enclosed to prevent overhanging branches from snagging on the side of the boat in the narrow, winding river.
The Okahumkee used a tall, narrow paddle wheel moved forward inside the profile of the ship. This allowed the ship to back up to the shore or a dock without risking damage to the paddle wheel. Many other paddle wheelers intended for the Florida backwaters were built the same way.
Cargo was stowed on the lower deck near the machinery. The upper deck was reserved for passengers. This arrangement had two advantages. First, it meant loading and unloading cargo was easier since the lower deck was often about the same height as the dock. Second, it provided passdengers with cooler breezes, better views and fewer bugs, which were desirable advantages during hot Florida summers before the invention of air conditioning.
The Florida Maritime Museum in the historic Cortez section of Bradenton has a whole collection of information about paddle wheel steamers in Florida’s history and can even arrange for you to enjoy a a sightseeing or eco-tour cruise of Sarasota Bay with Paradise Boat Tours. The Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 am to 4 pm.
Source: Bradenton Herald : Photo: Florida Maritime Museum