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Steamboats revolutionized river travel during the first half of the nineteenth century. Although early Ohioans used the Ohio River to transport agricultural goods and manufactured products even prior to the invention of the steamboat, certainly their advent made travel easier. The steam engine meant that humans no longer had to power the boat themselves, and movement upstream became much easier. As a result of this new technology, river travel increased even more over time.

The first steamboat to travel on the Ohio River was named the New Orleans. Although not as well-constructed as later vessels, it managed to steam its way from Pittsburgh to the city of New Orleans in 1811. Within the next few years, many additional steamboats were built in the East. Probably the most famous builder was Robert Fulton, who often receives credit for inventing the steamboat. In reality, other entrepreneurs were also involved in building steamboats during this era. Although most of the earliest steamboats came from Pittsburgh or Wheeling, within a short period of time Cincinnati had also emerged as a significant part of the industry. Cincinnati shipyards launched twenty-five steamboats between 1811 and 1825, and the number only increased after that period. The industry and the transportation system that it developed helped Cincinnati to become one of the most important cities in the West prior to the Civil War.

Although steamboats were most common on the Ohio River, they utilized other waterways as well. The Muskingum River, with the help of a series of locks and dams, was the only river within Ohio that steamboats could access. Beginning in 1818, steamboats also traveled on Lake Erie, decreasing the time it took to travel on the Great Lakes. The first steamboat on Lake Erie was known as the Walk-in-the-Water. Lake Erie proved treacherous for steamboats, and there were some spectacular shipwrecks in the early years. The lake became safer once a number of lighthouses were built along the shore in the 1820s. A steamship-building industry emerged in some northern counties as a result of the increase in traffic. Many people migrating to Ohio from the East chose to come by steamship during this era. Canals did not see steamboat traffic-the paddlewheels' wake could severely damage the sides of the canals.

Beginning in the 1850s, railroads provided competition for the Ohio River trade but never replaced it entirely. In the twentieth century, barges carrying coal and other materials replaced steamboats. Now steamboats are primarily a tourist attraction, carrying passengers on short trips along the river.

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