Sailing Up The River:

When Steamboats Plied The Mahoning


As we look at the old Mahoning today, it’s hard to believe that there was a day when people swam and fished in the Mahoning River, and steamboats sailed up and down the river carrying passengers, yet as we will see both in text and photographs, there was a time when this was the case.

Now mind you, these boats were nothing like those river boats that sailed the Mississippi or Ohio rivers, but still they were boats that carried passengers, and were operated by the Mahoning Pleasure Boat Company.

The name of the park referenced in this article was the Baldwin - Morgan - Karnahan Park.


Steamboats Once Puffed on the Mahoning

Fishermen and Lovers Used Smaller

Boats on River in “Gay Nineties

Amusement Park on North Bank of Mahoning Drew “Young Bloods”

By C. J. Colmery

In the fifth year of the ninth decade of the 19th century, right slap in the middle of the “Gay Nineties” as it were, the growing metropolis of Mahoning County blossomed forth with a pleasure park on the north bank of the Mahoning River opposite the mouth of Mill Creek. In this park an enterprising management maintained a dance pavilion. On any summer night an orchestra running largely to brass blared forth “Little Annie Rooney”, “A Bird In A Gilded Cage” and “After The Ball.”

Young bloods in hard starched shirts, celluloid collars, detached cuffs, Ascot ties, striped trousers and high ankled congress gaiters, waltzed with wasp-wasted lassies arrayed in long, flaring skirts, mutton legged sleeves, and stiffly starched unmentionables.

Between Dances

Between dances young people paired off and strolled in the firefly spangled night to patronize the lemonade, hokey-pokey and hot dog stands. If you were an affluent Jack you invited your Jill to enter the penny arcade, stick the rubber-tipped receivers in her ears, and hear the strains of the latest song hit, “A Bicycle Built for Two,” ground out from one of Thomas Alva Edison’s gramophones.

The River boat City of Youngstown in 1895

At 11 O’clock the gasoline flares burned low, the orchestra “oom-pawed” through the haunting bars of the home waltz and you began to think about “seeing Nellie home.” There were those acceptable methods of transportation in those days: you walk, you might take a “hack”, or you might elect to spend 25  and float the star mirrored waters of the Mahoning River to the foot of the Spring Common Bridge in the good ship “City of Youngstown.”

Steamboats on the Mahoning River! Why of course there were. If you want convincing proof, take a glance at the picture taken in 1895, and now in the possession of F. William Shaw, who at the time operated a barber shop in the street level portion of the boat house which nestled at the western abutment of the Spring Common bridge.

Shaw does not remember whether the crowd of spectators on the bridge gathered to inspect the boat or to watch the photographer. “It was a tossup as to whether the camera man would get a picture or fall in the river with all his equipment, including the black headcloth,” says Shaw, “and maybe the crowd just naturally prayed for the worst. I do remember, though, that I hurried through with my chores of cleaning and polishing some 48 hand-painted individually monogrammed shaving mugs that morning so that I could pose for my picture. You’ll see me at the proudest moment of my life. There I am cleaning, stiff shirt and a brown derby, grasping the tiller ropes and all set to pull the whistle cord.

The man directly back of me is Ralph Miller, superintendent of the Mahoning Pleasure Boat Co., captain of the “City of Youngstown”, ticket taker, pilot, fireman, mate, steward and crew. The cap he wears is not a relic of Civil War days, but a headpiece designed especially to give the enterprise a nautical setting.

The standing figure in the picture is George Cappy. I do not know the name of the gentleman with the black bow tie and the fireman’s suspenders; neither can I identify the ladies, although I dimly remember that one was a Miss Bricker.

West Federal Street in 1889

The “City of Youngstown” was built and operated by George Vaughn. It used coal for fuel, and was capable of accommodating 15 passengers, provided they ‘scrooched’ up a little and hung their arms overboard. It was not a speedy vessel, being capable of about three knots an hour. But no one was in a hurry in those days, and when once aboard the ‘lugger’ the passengers figured they got more fore their money if the voyage from the dock to the park lasted longer than if they had walked to their destination.

While the matter of speed was the least of the passengers troubles, the matter of power was a thing for the management to worry over. Steam engines in 1895 were not as efficient as they are today, comparing them weight for weight, bulk for bulk and horsepower for horsepower. When Captain Miller started out on a trip he had to be sure the steam pressure was at it’s maximum and the firebox stuffed with fuel. The boat was constructed along the lines similar to the one Abraham Lincoln told about. It had such small boilers and such a big whistle that when it blew it’s whistle, it couldn’t generate enough steam to run. Well, the “City of Youngstown” was as much underpowered as Lincoln’s Ohio River steamboat. Skylarking swains occasionally turned pirate and captured the vessel, and celebrated their lawlessness by pulling the whistle cord until the steam pressure ran down and stopped the engine. Then

Captain Miller turned fireman and stoked boilers, and drifted and worried about sand bars, snags and the danger point on his boiler gauge. One good thing about it, though, he always had a good alibi for Mrs. Miller when he got in after midnight. “Bunch of hoodlums tied me up for over an hour at the Mill Creek ripples,” explained he, and Mrs. Miller had to swallow it.

Another view of West Federal Street in 1889

Had Many Boats

The City of Youngstown” was not the only boat on the Mahoning River in 1895. Take a look at the docks of the Mahoning Boat Co. They owned a whole armada of row boats, 42 of them to be exact, as may be proven by a glance at the record board on the pier. Each time a boat left port, Captain Miller made note of the time of departure in the appropriate space. When the boats came in the Captain collected at the rate of 25an hour. There were spendthrifts in those days who stayed out for as long as four hours. It was a grand sight on a June night to see the rowboats scattered up and down the stream, many of them lighted up by Japanese lanterns, the lovers sometimes letting things drift, and occasionally attempting to pull the hole-pin from their seats in an attempt to pass some rival. The sweethearts, dressed in white, lolled at ease and dabbed their hands in the then clean waters of the river. It was a romantic age and a romantic setting. The marriage license clerk in those days owed half of his business to the Mahoning Pleasure Boat Co. There may be a close connection between wet feet and warm hearts, I don’t know. I do know, however, that the girls experienced little, if any, difficulty in getting the boatman to pop the question after 25 worth of pleasure cruising. I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion a man is safe from sentiment as long as he rows; let him pause after a strenuous battle with the oars, however, and he is lost. He is all ‘het’ up with exercise, has nothing to talk about. There is the girl, and no woman appears to better advantage than when posing in a boat in the moonlight; there is the man, impelled by the violence of his labor, to dare, to do, and to talk; there is the time, the place, and – well its all over but the charivari. Why, they even held hands in the “City of Youngstown” in the middle of the ninth decade of the nineteenth century.

Cut Rates For Fishermen

But not all the boats were ‘let’ to lovers. Cut rates were made to the fishermen. Now don’t laugh! There were fish in the Mahoning in 1895: catfish, croppies, and bass. Of course there were, even as today, people who thought the term ‘lazy loafer’ was a synonym for fishermen. But I pause to ask you a question:

Has laziness a place in the constitution of a man who digs worms by candlelight: beds them down in a mixture of soil that can be obtained only by scouring three counties: set his alarm clock for three a.m.; arise before the milkman; tramps six miles through the cold dew; and packs a minnow bucket, can of worms, three fish poles, a stringer, tackle box, reel, landing net, hip boots, a world of hope and an entire day’s rations consisting of a single ham sandwich wrapped in the first thing his hands touched before the dawn’s early light - usually the market page of the Vindicator.

Can a man be called ‘lazywho will spade three city lots for six anemic earth worms; who for twelve hours at a stretch will climb barbed wire fences, wade streams waste deep, stumble over slippery stones, scale deep clay banks, fight mosquitoes, dodge irate bulls and voluntarily stand unsheltered through three rain squalls?

Youngstown in 1895 was a thriving city of 35,000 inhabitants. It had just outdistanced New Castle, Pa., in size and population, and was beginning to gain a name and reputation for itself as the state’s wickedest city. People came from miles about to sample its night life and take in the sights.

First Political Club

I remember that the building shown in the upper right hand corner of our picture was fitted up as the headquarters of the Muskrat Club (The river boat picture), that I was a charter member, the first political organization of the Fifth Ward, if not of the city. Tony Calvin, a rising young attorney of the time, got us the charter for our Muskrat Club, which numbered on it’s roster the names of John Hanna, George Blunt, F. A. Kearcher and John Wahn. Later on a rival organization known as the Groundhog Club was formed by John Moore. It met at Westlake Crossing. Our members carried celluloid buttons on which were pictures of Muskrats; members of the Groundhog Club paid $5.00 for a live Groundhog, had his picture taken and used the likeness on all campaign banners and membership buttons. Our club eventually broke up as a result of too great an expense, and the admission to membership of a score or more political candidates who joined but never paid their dues.

You see, Youngstown was just beginning to be politically conscious. It was in September, 1894, John F. Cantwell the city’s first police chief, was succeeded by W. W. McDowell, who was to hold the office for 20 years. The Rayen Club also came back into being about this time, a club that was destined to become the parent and forerunner of the present day Youngstown Club.

Youngstown published it’s third annual report of city activities. In the booklet one learns that we had 10.25 miles of paved streets, and that the total number of graded streets in the was 56.45. We also possessed four or five miles of sewers that started almost anywhere and ended wherever the appropriations ran out.

This was the year when William Jennings Bryan on a Free Silver platform, ran against William McKinley with his campaign slogan of the “Full Dinner Pail”. Never before nor since that time has Youngstown become so stirred up about politics. We had political rallies, torchlight parades, mass meetings and barbecue picnics.

Held All Titles

So many political fights broke out in the boats of the Mahoning Pleasure Boat Co. That Captain McDowell as a courtesy to Captain Miller presented the latter with a tin badge and a police commission.

This in addition to being captain, mate, crew, stoker, engineer, ticket seller, ticket taker, steward, pilot, navigator, superintendent and bosun, the almost idol harbor master became defender of the oppressed, protector of the defenseless, and guardian of the peace Incidently, he fished a few fighters out of the river, salvaged several overturned boats and patrolled the channel in the guise of a night watchman.

During Captain Miller’s idle hours he counted money, kept the books of the company, painted rowboats, caulked leaking joints and shined up his brass buttons and gold-laced cap.

At the Baldwin - Morgan - Karnahan upriver, there were picnic tables. One of the political barbecue picnics was held there in 1896. Never in all his life did Captain Miller of the “City of Youngstown” put in such a strenuous day. Tom shoveled coal, blew the whistle, took the tickets, made change, bailed the boat, ran the engine, and steered the vessel from morning until night. But the “Full Dinner Pail” won, and even then the industries were taking their toll of river life and river customs. There is a lot of talk nowadays about the canalization of the Mahoning River. The day may come when steamboats will again plow the currants of this once mobile stream, but never again will the “City of Youngstown” haul passengers to the upriver dance pavilion; and never again will the young men of our city raise their baritone voices from the rowboats on the river in the dusk, announcing the fate of “Two Little Girls in Blue” and that peculiar biological fact that “Daisies Won’t Tell”.


Youngstown Vindicator, January 17, 1932