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More About Kansas River Steamboats: The First Kansas-Built River Steamer

by Edgar Langsdorf

November 1950 (Vol. 18, No. 4), pages 405 -
Transcribed by Pat Russell

In my article, "Early Navigation on the Kansas River," which appeared in the May, 1950, number of The Kansas Historical Quarterly, the statement was made (p. 144) that the steamer Lightfoot was "said to be the first boat built in the Territory" of Kansas. The authority cited was Albert R. Greene, "The Kansas River--Its Navigation," in The Kansas Historical Collections, v. p (1905-1906), p. 338. The fact is that the Lightfoot was not built in Kansas, but at Pittsburg, Pa., and the story that it was of home manufacture is a fabrication which has been carelessly continued through the years.

Thaddeus Hyatt, a member of the Kansas National committee widely known for his activities in forwarding the Free-State cause, purchased the Lightfoot for the purpose of assisting immigration into the territory. He started east on January 12, 1857, reported the Lawrence Herald of Freedom of January 17, "conscious of the great want on Kansas," and "determined to supply that want by placing two steamers on the Kansas river on the opening of spring, to ply between Lawrence and Quindaro." On February 11, 1857, he wrote from New York to H. B. Hurd, secretary of the Kansas National committee, explaining that he would be in Cincinnati about March 1. "I have purchased a steamer (the Lightfoot of Quindaro) to run on the Kansas river. She will leave Cin. March 1-10th passage $20.00 from Cin. to Quindaro, $3.00 from Quindaro to Lawrence." On March 11 he wrote again to Hurd: "I must rush into Kansas in time to meet my Boat which started from Cincinnati Tuesday morning 10th inst. . . ." And on March 19 he wrote Hurd that the boat had reached St. Louis. All these letters are in the "Hyatt Papers," in the Manuscripts division of the Kansas Historical Society.

On April 2 the Lightfoot arrived in Kansas City, Mo. Two days later the Kansas City (Mo.) Enterprise, a weekly newspaper, printed the following notice:

STEAMER LIGHTFOOT.--A neat little steamer with the above name arrived at out wharf on Thursday under the command of our old friend Capt. Mott Morrison. She is intended for a Kansas River Packet. . . . This makes the fourth boat for the Kansas River the present season. . . .
The steamer went on to Lawrence, arriving on April 7. From that date little was heard of her until Hyatt informed Hurd. in a letter of May 30, of "a series of untoward events and misfortunes connected with my boat. . . ."

Final proof of the origin of the Lightfoot is supplied by Hyatt in a letter of June 29 to Charles Robinson, treasurer of the Quindaro company and later the first governor of Kansas. Hyatt proposed to erect a block of buildings in Quindaro, preferably in cooperation with the company, and told Robinson that if his proposition was accepted he would immediately sell his boat. Since he was in New York and could not start for Kansas for a month, he asked that someone advertise the boat for him, suggesting the following form of notice:


The new and elegant Steamer Lightfoot (built last year in Pittsburg, and drawing 13 in water) now lying in the Kansas river will be sold low for cash. For particulars enquire of the subscribers No St. Louis


According to Greene, the Lightfoot made only one round trip on the Kansas river. The return journey from Lawrence was not completed until May 9, "the greater part of the time being spent upon sand-bars." The Quindaro Chindowan, in its first issue, May 13, 1857, reported that "the Kanzas river is very low. We understand that the Lightfoot is aground near Eureka Ferry."

Her subsequent career has not been traced with certainty, though it is likely that she was transferred to the Missouri river trade. However, it is known that she was still owned by Hyatt nearly two years later. S. C. Pomeroy wrote him on January 17, 1859, asking if he still owned the boat, and proposing to put her on the Missouri river to run daily from Atchison to St. Joseph as an adjunct of the Hannibal and St. Joseph railroad and the "North Missouri Road," both of which were nearly completed to St. Joseph. Hyatt replied on February 2, and Pomeroy acknowledged both this letter and a telegram about the Lightfoot on February 14. He said that he was delighted to handle the transaction, and had an appointment on the 22d with the general agent of the Hannibal and St. Jo to discuss the sale of the boat. "I will sell it if there is any such thing. . . ," he promised.

The collapse of the Lightfoot legend leaves the question of the "first Kansas-built steamboat still to be settled. It may be that the first steamer actually built in Kansas was the Wyandott City. The Weekly Western Argus, of Wyandott, March 21, 1860, carried this item:


Yesterday the steamboat "Wyandott City" was launched at our Levee. She is a most beautiful craft, intended for the Kaw river trade, 90 feet keel, 18 feet beam, and 4 feet hold, and as she now sits in the water, draws but about 3 inches. When her machinery shall be in, she will draw but about 6 inches.

Capt. Wiltz is well deserving of the credit which he receives for building the largest and most handsome boat ever launched into the waters of the Kaw.

A large assembly of our citizens witnessed the launch, with a fair proportion of the fair sex. We shall soon see the Wyandott City "walking the waters like a thing of life."

Another newspaper account of what was erroneously called the first steamboat built in Kansas appeared in the Kansas Tribune of Quindaro on July 30, 1860, and was reprinted in the Leavenworth Daily Times, August 7, and the Emporia News, August 11, 1860, as follows:


We to-day stood on the deck of the first steamboat ever built in Kansas. The Messrs. Nelson & Simpson have just completed their splendid little steamer, the Kansas Valley, and are now ready to enter heartily into the freighting business on the Kansas river. This little packet now draws only eight inches of water, and when loaded to the capacity of 14 tons, will only draw one foot of water. She is ninety feet long, thirteen feet beam, with side wheels, and sits upon the water like a thing of life.