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Carnegie Center for Art and History: Nautical Nostalgia: New Albany and the Steamboat Era

Strategically situated on the Ohio River, New Albany, Indiana, was once one of the nation’s most prolific steamboat-building cities. While the industry quickly faded, the steamboat as symbol of New Albany’s identity has endured many generations. Through material culture—artworks, photographs, ephemera, and other objects—discover the history of the steamboat in New Albany from its heyday in the nineteenth century, to the twenty-first century nostalgia for a mighty bygone Steamboat Era.

From 1818, when the first steamboat was built in New Albany, through the 1870s, the steamboat was the core industry for this bustling river town. At least 290 boats were built in New Albany, but only one was built in the 20th century in 1904. New Albany artist George W. Morrison’s (1820-1893) paintings, both portraiture and landscapes, offer a glimpse into the social and economic role steamboats played during the height of the Steamboat Era. In his portrait of George Lee and Pamela Maynard Williams Hosea, the Kentucky couple’s farmhouse window looks out upon the Ohio River, New Albany’s fire house, and New Albany steamboat the Alex Scott. 

This exhibition features many never-before exhibited objects from the Carnegie Center’s collection, as well as the Floyd County Library Stuart B. Wrege Indiana Room. Among the highlighted subjects will be the great steamboat Baltic that was built in New Albany and captained by the Meekin family. New Albany artist Ferdinand Graham Walker (1859-1927) captured the famous 1858 race between the Baltic and the Diana in his painting A Steamboat Race on the Mississippi. Other memorabilia include furniture that was aboard the same ship.

While the show features many objects from the 19th century, man other items, such as a photograph of the Robert E. Lee steamboat replica tour bus from the 1966 Floyd County, Indiana Sesquicentennial parade, illustrate the endurance of the steamboat as both symbol of the community and economic driver.

From social status marker to kitschy marketing gimmick, images of the Ohio River steamboat are rooted in a shared sense of pride in place that is distinctly New Albany. 

Carnegie Center for Art and History - Sally Newkirk Gallery

Image credit: George W. Morrison, George Lee and Pamela Maynard Willaims Hosea, 1848. Oil on canvas. Floyd County Library Collection.