As historian Carl Brasseaux points out in a history of steamboating in south Louisiana, “By all accounts, liquor was a focal point of conversation among antebellum passengers, and successful boat owners did everything possible
to satiate this unquenchable popular interest.”
Advertisements for the various boats often promoted cheap rates but were just as likely to promise the traveler “a broad array of excellent spirits” served from the several bars that generally lined the central hallways of the passenger boats.
We have, for example, an account of a trip down the Teche by the steamboat Velocipede in April 1835, with a list of passengers that included “lawyers, doctors, merchants, gamblers, horse-jockeys, showmen, philosophers, and planters, with the complex varieties of attendants … which such a complication of masters required.”
When the boat tied up at night “amusements of the evening commenced, namely, gambling and drinking … the captain and more distinguished passengers playing brag and poker, and drinking cognac and juleps in the cabin; while the inferior officers, such as pilots and engineers, indulged in … whiskey in the social hall.”
Further down the pecking order, firemen, stable boys, and “denizens of the lower decks” gambled away what they could muster while drinking what was described as “rot-stomach whiskey.”
Apparently the crew and passengers wiled away most of the night at cards and booze – boat officers often got drinks at half price – and were a bit bleary-eyed when it came time to get back under weigh.
That brought the charge by the anti-drinking crowd that “nine-tenths of steamboat accidents are the result of intemperance,” and applause from the temperance society when it was recognized that “some … steamboat captains are waking up to the importance of having pilots and engineers on their boats that do not drink intoxicating liquors.”
Sobriety was apparently not the rule on the Velocipede. On the second day running a quest for a bit of the “hair of the dog” was blamed when the boat rammed a stump and stuck fast.
According to the account, “the old pilot, about midday, finding his palate rather dry, had come down to the bar, for the purpose of getting a cocktail, and had left the wheel in charge of a gentleman who had been in the habit of traveling the route so often, as a passenger, that he supposed himself a qualified pilot.”
The report continues: “Ropes were run out in all conceivable ways, and there was nothing but pulling and cursing, and stopping the engine and starting her again, going on about the boat; the passengers being employed as usual – that is, gambling, smoking and drinking.”
The party paused momentarily when somebody panicked and hollered, “She’s sinking!” But the passengers quickly returned to their tables when they found it was not true.
The crew threw overboard 50 hogsheads of sugar and 100 bales of
cotton in an attempt to lighten the boat, but that wasn’t enough. Ultimately they had to pay the big sacrifice and also toss out 30 barrels of rum.
That did the trick. The boat was floated off the stump and continued on its merry way. Of course, there was still plenty of cognac, juleps, and rot-stomach whisky to keep everyone happy.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.