Ohio River Showboats

Some Folks Remember Them – They Now Belong to the Past
                                         by Gary Kempf

Kentucky, and in particular our Ancestral Trails Historical Society family of counties, was – and continues to be – profoundly affected by the Ohio River and its tributaries.  Much that once affected the areas along the river remain no more.  Much that once was remains only in memories.  The Showboat is one such part of the river history that is no more.


A showboat, or show boat, was a form of theater that traveled along the waterways of the United States, especially along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. A showboat was basically a barge that resembled a long, flat-roofed house, and in order to move down the river, it was pushed by a small tugboat (misleadingly labeled a towboat) which was attached to it. It would have been impossible to put a steam engine on the showboat, since it would have had to have been placed right in the auditorium. However, since the box-office success of MGM's 1951 motion picture version of the musical Show Boat, in which the boat was inaccurately redesigned as a deluxe, self-propelled steamboat, the image of a showboat as a twin-stacked steamboat with a huge paddle wheel has taken hold in popular culture. Earlier film versions of Show Boat, and most stage productions of it, feature a historically accurately designed vessel, rather than the kind built for the 1951 film. Modern-day showboats, however, with their more advanced technology, are designed as steamboats.

British-born actor William Chapman, Sr. created the first showboat, named The Floating Theater, in Pittsburgh in 1831. He and his family performed plays with added music and dance at stops along the waterways. After reaching New Orleans, they got rid of the boat and went back to Pittsburgh in another steamboat in order to perform the process once again the next year.  For many years the showboat came to be a regular feature on the Ohio River.  Their popularity declined and in 1931 Who’s Who On the Ohio River listed only 18 showboats as still actively engaged in business.  Today none travel the river to bring their shows to the public.

Showboats had declined by the time of the Civil War, but began again in 1878 and focused on melodrama and vaudeville. Major boats of this period included the New Sensation, New Era, Water Queen, and the Princess. With the improvement of roads, the rise of the automobile, motion pictures, and the maturation of the river culture, showboats declined again. In order to combat this development, they grew in size and became more colorful and elaborately designed in 1900s. These boats included the Golden Rod, the Sunny South, the Cotton Blossom (this boat had a seating capacity of 1300), and the New Sensation.

The Reynolds family was heavily involved in the showboat business. Catherine Reynolds King was born on the river. In fact, she was born on her father’s showboat, the American, as it drifted down the Ohio in the clutches of an ice flow. The doctor who had come to deliver her watched helplessly from the West Virginia shore.

Ms. King spent her early years on the Ohio and the rivers that feed it on board the family showboats. Catherine’s father, Thomas Jefferson Reynolds, built and captained three showboats on the Ohio River and its tributaries from 1910 to 1959. The first was the Illinois, a dish and tin- ware shop and silent moving picture showboat. Bench seating capacity was 200, and admission was 10 cents. But the Illinois burned at Foster, Kentucky, in 1916, and Catherine's youngest brother, Norman, lost his life in the fire.

The Reynolds family's next showboat, the America, presented live drama and vaudeville. It had a main floor and balcony seating with a capacity of 300.  FACTOID:  “Red” Skelton after graduation from Vincennes University started his acting career on a showboat.

In the fall and winter of 1922, the Reynolds family built the Majestic with seating capacity of 425. The Reynolds family broke records in their operation of the Majestic, the longest running showboat on the river under the same owner. They carried the largest professional crew each season, eight or more, in addition to the family of actors and musicians. Catherine Reynolds King, who passed away in 1998, recorded her experience on the Majestic in her book, Cargo of Memories.  This book can be found in some used bookstores or from internet booksellers (Amazon.com) and is wonderful reading for people who were around in the 20s, 30s 40s and 50s and anywhere near the Ohio River. It's a true to life story of the T.J. Reynolds family who brought old time showboat entertainment to thousands of people along the river. It is a fascinating glimpse of life aboard showboats and the trials and tribulations of this Reynolds family. What's interesting is that after reading the book one can actually experience seeing a play on one of the last showboats, Reynold's Majestic, in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The boat stays bound to the shore and does not travel the river.

The 75 year old steam wheeler, showboat Majestic, is the last original floating theater and is permanently moored within Sawyer Point at Cincinnati, Ohio’s Public Landing.  The Showboat provides first-class entertainment with its full season of musicals, comedies and other entertainment.  The Showboat has been entertaining visitors for 80+ years and is a National Historic Landmark.

In bygone time some riverboats ran on regular schedules and docked for specified periods of time at specified locations.  Other showboats followed no fixed schedule.  Their schedule of arrival and departure depended upon weather conditions and crowd turnout at their performing site.  These “nonscheduled” showboats ran the navigable rivers and simply announced their arrival with the sound of a loud whistle or more likely the sound of a calliope.  The calliope became closely associated with the showboat, and its sound as it approached a town, generated great excitement and anticipation within the river town.  The calliope signaled that something special was arriving.  The showboat brought “big city” entertainment to the rural towns along the American waterways.

In bygone time the showboats brought theater, circus, religious services, revivals, and vaudeville to river towns.  Some brought special/unusual attractions.  One such special attraction arrived in West Point and Brandenburg, Kentucky in the 1880s.  Its calliope announced its arrival.  It arrived with a stuffed whale on a barge, in which a living room suite was located within the body.  Wide-eyed country boys and girls would pay to walk through the whale’s mouth to the living room suite.  It has been said that a marriage took place within the whale.   The calliope was so closely associated with the showboat that some of the history of this musical instrument is presented herein.

A calliope is a musical instrument that produces sound by sending steam through whistles, originally locomotive whistles. The calliope is also known as a "steam organ" or "steam piano". It was often played on riverboats and in circuses, where it was sometimes mounted on a carved, painted and gilded horse-drawn wagon in a circus parade.

Joshua C. Stoddard of Worcester, Massachusetts patented a calliope on October 9, 1855, although it is based on previously known concepts (e.g. in 1832, a musical instrument designer made a "steam trumpet" later to be known as a train whistle).

While Stoddard had originally intended the calliope to replace bells at churches, it found its way onto riverboats during the paddlewheel era. While only a small number of working steamboats still exist, each one has a steam calliope. Many of the surviving calliopes were built by Thomas J. Nichol, Cincinnati, Ohio, who built calliopes from 1890 until 1932. These boats include the Delta Queen and President. Their calliopes are played regularly on river excursions. The Thomas J. Nichol calliopes featured rolled sheet copper (as used in roofing) for the resonant tube (the bell) of the whistle, lending a sweeter tone than cast bronze or brass which was the common material for steam whistles of the day. David Morecraft pioneered a resurgence in the building of authentic steam calliopes of the Thomas J. Nichol style beginning in 1985 in Peru, Indiana and is still in business today, the last commercial authentic steam calliope builder in the world. These calliopes are featured in Peru's annual Circus City Parade.

Stoddard's original calliope was attached to a metal roller set with pins in the manner familiar to Stoddard from the contemporary clockwork music box. The pins on the roller opened valves which admitted steam into the whistles. Later, Stoddard replaced the cylinder with a keyboard, so that the calliope could be played like an organ.

Starting in the 1900s, calliopes began using music rolls instead of a live musician. The music roll operated in a similar manner to a piano roll in a player piano, mechanically operating the keys. Many of these mechanical calliopes retained keyboards, allowing a live musician to play them if needed. During this period, compressed air began to replace steam as the vehicle of producing sound.

Most calliopes disappeared in the mid-20th century, as steam power was replaced with other power sources. Without the demand for technicians that mines and railroads supplied, no support was available to keep boilers running. Only a few calliopes have survived, and these are rarely played.The Steam Calliope is a uniquely American instrument, a 32-note steam pipe organ. It has been identified with steamboats since 1865. Today, only four steamboats operating on the Mississippi River have Steam Calliopes. The Steamboat Natchez, christened in 1975, has a Steam Calliope which is an exact copy of those original instruments built 100 years ago.


This is an early portable steam calliope é.  Such an instrument would have been within the show boat stage area.  A calliope announcing the arrival of a show boat would have been much larger and the “pipes” through which steam was directed via a keyboard would be outside on the deck of the boat – and might be four or five feet tall.  In playing the smaller portable calliope the player at the keyboard would wear heavy gloves to keep fingers from being burned by the steam.


The photograph above shows the Majestic in 1943 along with its companion towboat, Attaboy. In 1923, Tom Reynolds' new Showboat Majestic slid into the water near Pittsburgh. This started the Majestic on a career that carried her over the Ohio River and it's tributaries for the next 20 years. The Reynolds family lived, played and performed on the boat until World War II, when it was tied up at Henderson, West Virginia for three long years.

In 1945, Hiram College and Kent State University leased the Majestic from the Reynolds family as a summer theatre experience for students. This academic alliance revived the concept of ‘Showboatin’ and tramped the inland waterways once again. In 1960, Indiana University took over and maintained the tradition.

The "Safety at Sea Act" of 1965 finally prohibited the wooden-hulled Majestic from transporting its company town to town. It was tied up and dry-docked, this time in Jeffersonville, Indiana.

The City of Cincinnati purchased the Showboat Majestic in 1967 to serve as a focal point for the developing Central Riverfront. Until 1988, it was leased to the University of Cincinnati as a summer stock theatre for its students. Now, under the administration of Cincinnati Landmark Productions, in cooperation with the Cincinnati Recreation Commission, the Majestic is a professional summer stock theatre utilizing local performers, providing them opportunity and experience in a theatre rich with history, nostalgia and river romance!

While there are newer boats on the Ohio today, the Majestic was the last of the purpose-built "floating operas", the last to make one-night stands, the last to actively travel, the longest-lived under one owner and home of the largest family - the eleven Reynolds children - ever reared on a showboat.
With the burning of the original showboat, Goldenrod, in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 1, 1962, the Showboat Majestic became the last survivor of the singularly American tradition of floating theatres. On December 20th 1989, the Showboat Majestic became an official National Historical Landmark.