Bells and Whistles of the Steamboats on the Rock River

In 1900, the Rock River was alive with parties from Friday to Sunday evening.  From the riverbank, you would be able to hear music playing and see the silhouettes of dance partners wearing out the top decks of the steamboats.  These riverboats were used all summer long for fun leisure activities, like traveling to parks for a picnic, including Harlem Amusement Park.  The day-long excursions were grand events that were discussed for weeks.

The steamboat made a huge impact on the growth of the Midwest in early 1800.  It could cut travel time by half through the use of steam-power, rather than man-power and the natural flow of the river.  To travel by wagon from New York City to Rockford took six weeks.  In 1830, it only took three weeks by steamboat.  In 1810, flatboats travelled for three to four months on the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans.  In 1834, steamboats made the trip in only two weeks.  The shorter travel time and lower cost fueled economic growth and opportunity.

Handwritten Engine Room Signals from the Steamer Transit

In May 1838, the Gipsy became the first steamboat to enter Rockford on the Rock River.  It carried many early settlers, including Dr. George Haskell.  That June, Rockford had a visit from another steamboat: St. Louis’ Lighter.  To make way for other steamboats, a channel was excavated in the river during the fall and winter of 1845, which ultimately ruined the ford for which Rockford is named.  In this way, goods were shipped quickly to cities like St. Louis, New Orleans, and New York City by connecting the Rock River to the Mississippi River.  But when the railroad came to Rockford, these goods were more easily sent to Chicago and other cities, and the steamboats were used for pleasure.

Rockford launched its first steamboat, the Arrow, in 1885.  Unfortunately, it sank in 1900.

The Queen was built in 1891 and owned by Theodore O. Largent.  Its landing was one block north of the State Street Bridge on the east side of the Rock River.  For a quarter you could enjoy a 32 mile ride on the Rock River, which included stops at Harlem and Illinois Parks.  Largent owned a second steamboat in 1896, the May Lee, which he named after his daughter, May, and his son, Lee.  It was cut in two when the steamboat proved too small to keep up with the large demand, and a middle section was added, allowing it to carry up to 400 passengers.

After the Arrow sank, its owners John T. Buker and former mayor Amasa Hutchins had a new steamboat built.  The steamer Illinois quickly became the most locally known and popular steamboat on the Rock River.  Modeled after a Mississippi steamer, it was 125 feet long and 26 feet wide with a maximum speed was 10 mph.  Its baritone whistle was a familiar sound on the river as it travelled from Mulberry Street seven miles up the river.  Able to carry 1,000 passengers at once, it carried a record number of 50,000 passengers per year.  Its top deck could hold an orchestra and was used for dancing.

Concession sales on the steamboats included drinks and snacks.

Lantern from Steamboat Illinois

An accident on July 19, 1908 caused the Illinois to partially sink into the river.  The accident may have been caused by an excess of passengers.  In 1917, it was purchased by the Excursion Amusement Co., given a make-over, and renamed the City of Rockford.  It continued to make two trips a day with music, dancing, and “high-class amusements.”  Sadly, as automobiles grew in popularity, the steamboat was forgotten.  For years, it was tied up south of the Whitman Street Bridge, only to be visited by ruffian kids and drunkards.  The steamboat caught fire in March 1924.  There was no want or need to salvage it, so it was dragged up the river to the site of the current YMCA and sunk.  There it remained, forgotten.  In 1976, work on the Fordam Dam lowered the river to record shallowness and the rotted planks and cast iron pipes of the steamboat’s hull resurfaced.  Some parts of the boat were removed, but most of the hull still rests in the Rock River.

Steamboat City of Rockford

Just like the people of Rockford took trips to Harlem Park on a warm summer’s evening, you too can enjoy the park’s festivities here at Midway Village Museum at our annual fundraiser A Night in the Museum. 

Saturday, August 13 @ 7 pm  $40 advance tickets, $45 at the door

Click here for more information:

To learn more about early Rockford, visit our Queen City of the Prairies exhibit!

Click here for hours and admission:


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