116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A river man for 38 years, Charles L. Petersen worked for the famous Diamond Jo Line out of Dubuque from 1872 to 1910.
He passed his love for the river on to his son, William, who was fascinated by the Mississippi.
'I spent some of my happiest days in the old Diamond Jo wharfboat, which at that time was located between the Dubuque harbor and what is now the federal barge line terminal,' he said.
William grew up in Dubuque, soaking up history and English at Dubuque High School and the University of Dubuque, then heading for the University of Iowa. He thought he was headed for a career as a teacher and coach, until he consulted with his professor, Dr. Louis Pelzer, about his master's thesis.
When Pelzer heard about William's boyhood on the Mississippi, he said, 'Petersen, do you mean to tell me that your father was associated with the Diamond Jo Line Steamers and that a considerable amount of manuscript material is available on the subject? Petersen, I personally will pull the rope that hangs you to yonder tree if you don't start working on the history of steamboating on the Upper Mississippi for your doctorate.'
Petersen spent the next year hitchhiking 20,000 miles to research his doctoral dissertation. The Federal Barge Line boats carried him 3,000 miles. The other 17,000 miles, he rode in cars, keeping a record as he went. His records showed he rode in 36 makes of cars. On one trip, he wrote, he rode in a preacher's car, an undertaker's automobile and a hearse.
Petersen visited river towns, interviewing old river men, perusing old newspaper files and collecting photos, bills of lading and anything else he could find related to steamboating. He acquired his nickname, 'Steamboat Bill,' from another professor, Dr. Benjamin Schambaugh.
In his research, he found a record of the first steamboat built in Iowa, the Maid of Iowa, built on the Skunk River in Augusta. He also proved Samuel Clemens, known by his pen name Mark Twain, was a pilot on the Mississippi when he discovered Twain's steamboat pilot license in old files in St. Louis.
In 1932, Petersen unearthed a letter written by the discoverer of the Mississippi headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft explained that he named the lake by combining the middle syllables of the Latin words 'veritas caput,' meaning 'truth head.'
'Steamboat Bill' got his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1930. His 313-page doctoral thesis eventually was expanded into 850 pages for his book, 'Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi.'
He was a research associate for the State Historical Society of Iowa from 1930 until 1947, when he was named superintendent. He also served as lecturer and associate professor at the UI. He wrote several books and 392 articles for The Palimpsest, the society's magazine.
For several years after becoming superintendent, Petersen organized one-day steamboat cruises sponsored by the society to give passengers new insight into Mississippi River history. One of his guests in 1950 was Dubuque author Richard Pike Bissell.
According to Petersen, the first commercial river craft on the Mississippi was the steamboat Virginia that sailed up the river in 1823. From 1823 to 1848, steamboats carried lead from the Galena and Dubuque mines, but the steamboats made more money transporting immigrants from 1848 to 1870. Swedes, Norwegians, Germans and Czechs poured into the upper Mississippi area. Grain was the moneymaker from 1870 to 1890.
Riverboat traffic began to wane at the beginning of the 20th century as other methods of transportation became popular. Passenger service steadily was replaced by a growing commercial barge service.
Petersen went into battle mode when a 1966 congressional bill threatened the future of the riverboat Delta Queen in Ohio. The bill said that any vessel carrying more than 50 passengers overnight had to be made completely of steel. The Delta Queen had a steel hull, but her superstructure was made of teak and mahogany. Petersen was passionate about preserving the stern-wheeler.
'When people talk about settling the West, the westward movement, they naturally think of the covered wagon. That's what we've been told, that's what we see in the movies, that's the picture we have in our minds'' he said. 'But actually, although most people don't know it, the Mississippi system, of which the Ohio river is a significant part, was, before the Civil war, constantly referred to as 'Western Waters.' It was not only the main highway of emigration into the Mississippi Valley, as witness how the census of 1820, 1830 and 1840 showed population clinging to the borders of the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers, but it also was the Highway of History, of Honor, and of grotesque tall tales.
'The steamboat, rather than the covered wagon, therefore, should be the symbol of the westward movement and the expansion of the American frontier.
'There were more steamboats, and a greater tonnage on Western Waters in the 1840s than there were in the entire British Merchant Marine.'
'Steamboat Bill' Petersen sparked the drive to build the Centennial Building in Iowa City in 1960, raising $300,000 for the new home of the Historical Society, and multiplied the society's membership tenfold in the years he served as superintendent.
'More importantly, he made Iowa history a living, vital force in the lives of Iowans through his many addresses and the society's periodical, The Palimpsest,' according to an article in The Gazette when Petersen retired in 1972.
Petersen and his wife, Bessie, spent retirement hitchhiking on towboats as research for two more books, 'Towboating on the Mississippi' and 'Mississippi River Panorama.'
William J. 'Steamboat Bill' Petersen died Feb. 2, 1989.
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