Riverboats part of Kaw River scene in De Soto’s early days
De Soto is the only Johnson County town founded on the banks of the Kansas River. An excerpt from Childhood Memories by Alice Smith Dow 1854-1943 describes De Soto on her family's arrival from Missouri as, "A very small village on the banks of the river. It was big with hopes and ambition to become a "River Town", where boats might come and go loaded with freight for the West."
Kansas River navigation began in 1854 with the steamer Excel. Thirty-four different steamboats plied the river, ending with the Alexander Major's final trip in 1866. The Excel on one trip carried 1,100 barrels of flour to Fort Riley. Once, on returning, the distance from Fort Riley to Kansas City was covered in 24 hours with 30 landings made. De Soto's river landing was probably one of those stops.
The steamer, Lightfoot was the first boat constructed specifically for Kansas River navigation. It was a stern-wheeler 100 feet in length with a 24-foot beam. There were a few staterooms and the freight capacity of the boat was 75 tons with a draft of only 18 inches.
On April 7, 1857, the Lightfoot arrived at Lawrence, having left Wyandotte (Kansas City, Kansas) on April 4. The trip 60 miles upstream was delayed one day in consequence of a strong head wind, causing the boat to run afoul of the ferry boat rope at De Soto, which pulled the smoke stacks down and forced her to remain tied to a walnut tree while repairs were made. It being Sunday, church services were conducted on deck.
The Lightfoot remained a few days in Lawrence as it was considered at the time a great event in the history of the city. The free-state cannon called Old Sacramento was fired as a salute in honor of the formal opening of steamboat navigation on the Kaw.
The return trip to Wyandotte, which owing to low water and ignorance of the channel, consumed the time until May 9 with the greater part of the time being spent on sandbars.
Kansas River steamboats transported a variety cargo, including complete sawmills, printing presses, fruit tree seedlings but the most significant function was bringing immigrants to Kansas. Those new immigrants were ill-prepared for the severe drought with no reserves of food available. A boatload of dry beans was purchased in the East and shipped upriver to Topeka where they were off-loaded to supply the near-starving population.
The completion of the major rail lines brought the demise of steamboat traffic in Kansas. In addition to providing more reliable transportation, the railroads slipped through legislation that declared the Kansas River as not being navigable. This allowed the river to be bridged or damned without any regard to steamboat traffic. The law was rescinded in 1912 that returned the Kaw to its navigable status.
Major reference has been Chapter XII of the History of Wyandotte County Kansas and Its People published 1912.