The Murphy Library Steamboat Collection

Photo of the American Queen, the largest overnight passenger vessel ever on the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

Built in 1995 and remodeled in 2011, the American Queen is the largest overnight passenger vessel ever on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. There are 100 feet from the water line to top of her stacks. Photo from Red Wing, Minn., in August 2008. Steam Digital #11326

40,000+ prints

The UW-L Historic Steamboat Photograph collection consists of more than 40,000 photographic images of steamboats on inland U.S. waterways, primarily the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri rivers and their tributaries. Photos depict steamboats in every phase — from construction to destruction — along with daily operations from the 1850s to now.

29,000 now online

You can find nearly 29,000 images from the collection online. Murphy Library worked with the UW-Madison Digitization Center over the past four years to scan and host the images. Hits to the site have grown from 2,096 in fiscal year 2008 to 46,000.

A levee scene at Bayou Sara, La., circa 1910

A levee scene at Bayou Sara, La., circa 1910 — a town that rose to prominence due to its location on the Mississippi River, but faded away with floods and fire. Murphy Neg. 13799


Some steamboats, especially the bigger excursion boats, have more than 100 photographs. For others, there might be only a single photo to document its existence.

More than boats

The photos show steamboats in all kinds of settings — on the water, going through a lock, at a city’s waterfront or levee, tied up at shore. Other river images include:

        • steamboat captains
        • engineers
        • pilots
        • passengers
        • crews
        • city and town waterfronts
        • levees, locks and dams
        • river-related activities
The J.M. White steamboat.

The J.M. White, one of the most luxurious and opulent steamboats when built in 1878, moves gracefully on the lower Mississippi River. Murphy Neg. 2760

Who’s using the collection?

Steamboat buffs along with family and general historians are enjoying the easy online access, says Paul Beck, director of Murphy Library’s Special Collections. “Many doing family history have found that a relative worked on a boat and are tracking down pictures of them,” he says.

Photo searchers like not having to drive to La Crosse to see part of the vast collection. “Everyone’s blown away by the quantity of images online – 29,000 is a lot,” says Beck.

The entire collection cannot be downloaded because of copyright. “But, if we know what you’re looking for, we can tell you if we have any images you can acquire even though they’re not online,” notes Beck.

See more steamboat images.