Excursion steamboats were a fashionable form of entertainment in the local area in the early 1900s. The steamboat companies found it necessary, however, to reinvent and renovate the boats to remain popular. Steamboat companies at times faced fierce competition, low water and accidents.

The Sidney, built in 1880, first became a passenger boat. On March 10, 1882, she burst a steam line at Goose Island, Ohio River. Four people died and 16 were scalded.

The Diamond Jo Line bought the Sidney and ran her on the Upper Mississippi from St. Louis-St. Paul. She became a strong competitor of the Keokuk Northern line for passengers between St. Louis and St. Paul.

The boat was bought by the Streckfus Line to replace the steamer, the J.S., which had burned. She was the first commercial boat to enter the newly built Keokuk Lock in 1913. The G.W. Hill was right behind her. (There is a well-known photo of the two in the lock.)

In July 1910, the Sidney was prevented from making her run to the Quad-Cities due to a low water stage of one foot.

In 1914, the packet boat was overhauled during winter months. It was painted and redecorated. Every post was removed from the main cabin creating the largest hardwood dance floor of any steamer on the Upper Mississippi. An extension of a deck over the hurricane deck added considerable deck space. Two professional dancers were hired to give dance instruction, free of charge to young people who wished to learn the new dances -- tango, hesitation waltz, etc.

“Five hundred Moliners packed basket dinners and went to the river front this morning, bent on taking in the excursion to Clinton on the Steamer Sidney, an extensively advertised all-day outing on the river. And as many Moliners were disappointed, for the boat did not halt here,” wrote the Daily Dispatch.

“Yesterday it was announced that the Sidney would leave Davenport at 8 this morning; Rock Island at 8:15; and Moline at 9:30,” said the newspaper on July 27, 1919. “It was announced that the landing at Moline was to be in the nature of an experiment and that if patronage from this city proved sufficient to warrant the additional expense this city would become a regular landing place for Streckfus excursion boats.”

There were enough people on hand that day at the Moline landing to convince Streckfus officials that they wanted home service. But Streckfus was a victim of circumstances that day “swamped under an avalanche of business.”

Their government license permitted the carrying of a certain number of passengers, and no more, according to the newspaper. Too many passengers would be a violation of their federal permit to operate, which would then be revoked.

Davenport and Rock Island also turned away excursionists in excess of the number allowed for the trip. The boat was loaded by the time it passed Moline. It did not stop.

An announcement for the reason the steamer failed to land at Moline was made by megaphone. “But disappointed Moliners, with plans for the day all made, could find little solace in that courteous announcement,” the Dispatch said.

In 1921 the Sidney was rebuilt at Mound City and renamed Washington. She was still owned by Streckfus Steamers, Inc., St. Louis, Mo. The first moonlight excursion took place at Rock Island, May 21, 1921. Under the auspices of Mohassan Grotto, No. 22, the Washington left Rock Island at 8:30 p.m. for a three-hour moonlight excursion.

The Washington was a six-decker and had a roof garden. There was a lounging deck, ice cream salon, promenade cafeteria, observation deck and the huge rainbow dancing pavilion. The dancing rainbow deck was illuminated by 1,500 hidden electric globes.

While on the Ohio River, the Washington damaged her bow when she struck the lower lock gate at Dam No. 8 on Aug. 16, 1936. She operated part of the 1937 season, but was dismantled in St. Louis in 1938.

Both boats were known for the many famous musicians who got their start on her, bringing the popularity of New Orleans Jazz to the northern climes.

(Sources: newspapers, postcards, and Ways’ Packet Directory 1848-1994.)

Marlene Gantt of Port Byron is a retired Rock Island teacher.


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