Our History

Short History of Steamships and Sternwheelers on The Historic St. Johns River


The Rivership Barbara-Lee is the only authentic sternwheeler sailing the St. Johns River. Measuring 105 feet from stem to stern, the ship was built in 1986 and was extensively refurbished prior to its inaugural St. Johns River cruise in 2012.

Featuring ornate wrought iron railings and massive wooden paddle wheels, the Barbara-Lee recalls the elegance of the steamers that once plied the St. Johns River between Jacksonville and Sanford.

​With five decks, the Barbara-Lee can accommodate 194 guests and is ideally suited to host events of varying sizes. Plus, all enclosed decks are climate-controlled with air conditioning and heating.

The Barbara-Lee uses diesel engines, which are much safer than steam engines, to turn its massive twin paddlewheels.

Sternwheelers on the St. Johns River

The St. Johns River was one of the earliest routes used by Europeans to explore Florida, having first been mapped by the Spanish in the early 1500s. The French Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution at home, established a colony at the mouth of the river in 1562. They called it “The River of May” because they arrived on the first of May. It was the presence of this colony, named Fort Caroline, that provoked the Spanish commander Pedro Menendez de Aviles to attack the French, resulting in the massacre of Huguenot soldiers at Matanzas Inlet and the establishment of St. Augustine in 1565.

Nearly five centuries later, the St. Johns remains a vital link between north and central Florida.

In 1765, botanist William Bartran traveled the St. Johns River when he explored Florida with his father. He would return in 1774 to

formally document the river’s little-known plants and animals. His poetic and vibrant descriptions of the springs would inspire many English Romantic writers of the 19th century, including William Wordsworth and Lord Byron.

The imagery used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his epic poem Kublai Khan was borrowed from Bartram’s observations and are apparent in the work of American Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The first steamboat known to regularly sail the St. Johns River beginning in 1830 was the George Washington. By 1834, the steamer Florida was sailing between Savannah, Georgia and Picolata, about 60 miles north of Sanford. During the Civil War, it was the Union Navy that ruled the river while Confederate troops occupied all but a few forts. One of the river’s most famous commercial steamboats, Capt. Jacob Brock’s Darlington, was captured by the Union while evacuating women and children from the besieged town of Fernandina. It was then used to carry Union raiding parties to attack Palataka and other towns along the river.

After the war, tourism to Florida boomed and Jacksonville became the gateway to the warm winter retreats in Central Florida. Tourists arrived from the north aboard oceangoing steamers called “side-wheelers” because they had a paddlewheel on each side. In Jacksonville, most transferred to smaller sternwheelers, like the Barbara-Lee. These sternwheelers could maneuver in very shallow water, making them ideal river vessels. Sternwheelers also moved produce such as celery, and especially citrus fruit, north to be loaded onto ships headed to the northeast.

In 1870, General Henry S. Sanford purchased 12,548 acres of land on Lake Monroe and created a river port city and transportation hub that he named “The Gate City of South Florida,” which would eventually become the City of Sanford.

By the late 19th century, there were about 150 steamships operating on the St. Johns, more than any river south of New York’s Hudson River.

Each week, they carried nearly 100,000 tons of freight. At first, the steamboats sailed only as far south as Enterprise, which is on the north shore of Lake Monroe. Eventually, docks were built on the south shore of the lake near the berth of the Barbara-Lee. Tourists flocked to hotels like the Forrest Lake in Sanford, which opened in 1925 and today serves as a retreat for religious missionaries—the large white mission-style building on the south shore of Lake Monroe can still be seen from the Barbara-Lee when leaving or entering the marina basin.

Today, the St. Johns Rivership Co. is proud to revive the traditions of the great ships that called the St. Johns River their homes. Happy to continue not only our family’s own legacy, but also add to the history of America’s great sternwheeler heritage.

There's no better way to learn more about sternwheelers than to cruise on one! Book your reservations today!