Riverboats and Steamships

Kissimmee River Steamboats

Riverboats were a lifeline to commerce and travel in the pioneer days of Florida, and anywhere there was a river, you could find a captain piloting his boat to the next town or landing. The Kissimmee River was no exception. From the headwaters of the Florida Everglades, Reedy Creek, Shingle Creek, Boggy Creek and others supplied Lake Tohopekaliga with a constant flow of water that meandered a slow and winding path all the way to the southern tip of Florida.

During the 1880's, riverboat builders, including my maternal great-grandfather, Addison Starr Gilbert, along with three of his brothers, began building boats on the shore of Lake Toho in Kissimmee. This post includes the only three photographs I know to exist of the Gilbert Brothers riverboats.

The Kissimmee River is a winding and shallow river that required a low draft boat, and smaller in size than the boats of the St. Johns or Oklawaha Rivers.

Scenic view of the Kissimmee River c.1920
Scenic view of the Kissimmee River c.1920 - Florida Memory

My great grandfather made a weekly trip between Kissimmee and Okeechobee with a stop in Bassinger and twenty other spots along the way. Places with colorful names like Turkey Hammock, Rattlesnake Hammock, Cabbage Bluff, Alligator Bluff and Orange Hammock. By land, the trip from Kissimmee to Bassinger was about 80 miles. The winding Kissimmee River turned it into nearly 160 miles.

I like to think the quote below, from an 1899 article in the Kissimmee Valley Gazette, could have been written after a trip on one of his boats.

"There is no more pleasant way of spending a week than to take the trip to Bassinger. Birds of all kinds are in sight the whole way: flocks of ducks, coots, herons, cranes, limpkins, curlews, plume birds and water turkeys without end; also alligators, rabbits and water snakes, and plenty of fish, too.

In its narrowness, in the rampant growth of water plants along its low banks, in the unbroken flatness of the landscape, in the labyrinth of by channels and cut-offs and above all in the appalling, incredible, bewildering crookedness of its serpentine body, it is indeed an extraordinary river." 

Kissimmee River near Fort Basinger Station  Florida. May 1919.
Kissimmee River near Fort Basinger Station Florida. May 1919. Florida Memory

The Gilbert Brothers who built boats included Sam, Jim, George and Addison. They named one of their boats Tallulah, after their sister. The family, which had seven brothers and one sister in total, moved to Kissimmee in 1886 from Leesburg, GA. Addison would become mayor of Kissimmee in the 1920s.

City of Athens Riverboat on the Kissimmee River. Florida Memory
City of Athens Riverboat on the Kissimmee River. Florida Memory

The steamboats supplied the settlers with needed food, goods and even livestock. The photo above shows firewood stored near the landing, used to replenish the fuel for the wood-burning steamboat.

 
Steamboat Bassinger at Kissimmee. Florida Memory
Bassinger Steamboat on her Maiden Voyage. Florida Memory
 
Bassinger steamboat in Kissimmee. Personal Collection.
Bassinger steamboat docked in Kissimmee. Personal Collection
 
87 year old A. S. Gilbert at the Kissimmee River boat-a-cade in 1951. Florida Memory
87 year old A. S. Gilbert at the Kissimmee River boat-a-cade in 1951. Florida Memory
Gilbert Brothers Article in Orlando Sentinel
Gilbert Brothers Article in Orlando Sentinel. Personal Collection

I found this flyer online, produced by the South Florida Water Management District, which quotes my great grandfather at the bottom.

Kissimmee River History Brochure SFWMD
Kissimmee River History Brochure - SFWMD. Personal Collection

Old Florida was, for a time, a haven for boats built by local entrepreneurs to ply the rivers near their home. Their success could be tied to the size of their fleet, the towns and outposts they served, and the people and goods they carried. Navigating the Kissimmee River was a skill that a captain also needed to possess, for it could be unforgiving if you ran aground.

As the Orlando Sentinel article states, my great grandfather saw the writing on the wall for steamboats, and opened Kissimmee's first gas station. While he passed away before I was born, I remember the old gas station on North Main Street stood for many years before it was demolished.

There are online articles detailing the history, and the operators, of the Kissimmee River steamboats, including those owned by Captain Clay Johnson and Captain Rufus Rose, both residents of Kissimmee. It's a fascinating part of Central Florida history.

If you have photos or information to share about the Kissimmee River steamboats, please leave a comment below and I'll be in touch. Thank you!

Sources:
Personal collection
Florida Memory
Orlando Sentinel
South Florida Water Management District
Reminiscing in the Valley of the Tohopekaliga