Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Industrial Heritage and Archaeology (PhD)

College, School or Department Name

Department of Social Sciences


Susan Martin


This dissertation examines a unique working class in the United States, the men and women who worked on the steamboats from the Industrial Revolution until the demise of steam-powered boats in the mid-20th century. The steamboat was the beginning of a technological system that was developed in America and used in such great numbers that it made the rapid population of the Trans-Appalachian West possible. The steamboat was forever romanticized by images of the antebellum South or the quick wit of Samuel Clemens and his sentimental book, Life on the Mississippi. The imagination swirls with thoughts of boats, bleach white, slowly churning the calm waters of some Spanish moss covered river. The reality of the boats and the experience of those who worked on them has been lost in this nostalgic vision.

This research details the history of the western steamboat in the Monongahela Valley, the birthplace of the commercial steamboat industry. The first part of this dissertation examines the literature of authors in the field of labor history and Industrial Archaeology to place this work into the larger context of published literature. The second builds a framework for understanding the various eras that the steamboat went through both in terms of technological change, but also the change the workers experienced as their identity as a working class was being shaped. The third part details the excavations of two steamboat captains houses, those of Captain James Gormley and Captain Michael A. Cox. Both men represented a time in which the steamboat was in an era of transition. Excavations at their homes yield clues to their class status and how integrated they were in the local community. The fourth part of this study documents the oral histories of steamboat workers, both men and women, and their experience on the boats and on the river. Their rapidly declining population of those who lived and worked on the boats gives urgency for their lives to be documented. Finally, this study concludes with a synthesis of how worker identity solidified in the face of technological, socio-economic, and ideological change especially during their push for unionization and the introduction of the diesel towboat. (798 kB)