River Ports in Elkhart County

by Tim Ashley

An image from "Taproots of Elkhart History," p. 25.

One of the earliest forms of local transportation was steamboats, arks, and keel boats. They navigated the St. Joseph and Elkhart rivers in Elkhart County. Prior to the railroads, they were the major option to move goods, products, freight and people from point to point.

Bob Owens of the Friends of the St. Joe River Association is one of the most knowledgeable people about the history of the St. Joseph River Watershed. He’s paddled the entire length of the St. Joe River several times and knows all the creeks, tributaries and just about anything associated with the waterways.

The 1830s and 1840s were the heyday of the boats and river ports. This was before the first railroad entered Elkhart County. If something needed to be shipped somewhere, it was done more than likely via one of the rivers.

Rivers ports were located along the St. Joe and Elkhart rivers. From these ports, the boats departed on their journeys.

A depiction of a river boat similar to one which may have traveled the St. Joseph River.

Locations of Major Ports

  • A major port was located east of what is now Main Street in Elkhart where the Elkhart River dumps into the St. Joe River.
  • Another port was located east of Elkhart near the community of Nibbyville.
  • West of the Beardsley Mill another port was located along the south side of the St. Joseph River.
  • One was located by a mill at Cobus Creek near the St. Joseph County line.
  • A small port was located at the mouth of the Little Elkhart River in Bristol.
  • Ports were also located along the Elkhart River and were used by keel boats.
  • Ports were located in Waterford Mills before the dam was built, Baintertown and Benton.

Depiction of a river boat arriving at port on the Saint Joseph River. From the 1958 Elkhart Centennial Program. Art by Hal Bessmer.

When we think of boats navigating rivers in the early days of the county, we most often would think of steamboats. According to the book “Taproots of Elkhart History” by Emil V. Anderson, steamboats came up the river as far as Elkhart by the names of Matilda Barney, Pocahontas, Algona, Indiana, Mishawaka, South Bend, Bertrand, Niles and Berrien Springs. Matilda Barney was built in 1835 in St. Joseph, Michigan, and was a flat bottom stern wheeler. It was one of the first steamers to navigate up the St. Joseph River as far as Elkhart.

Steamboats were open amidship (middle section of the ship), low, and the engine room was in the stern. Paddle wheels were built on either side. Steamboats only drew about 18 inches of water when loaded. Wood was used to fuel the boilers on the boats and it was necessary to take on a new supply of wood at the various stops along the river.

Steamboats would tow from three to four keel boats and made better time going up and down the St. Joseph River than keel boats alone. Anderson said in his book from the point on the island in Elkhart, it was 96 miles to Lake Michigan by the river. Freight was carried to Lake Michigan where it was then transferred to larger boats for shipment to Chicago or east to Buffalo.

During the later 1830s and 1840s, it was the prime period for steamboats. Nearly all merchandise and produce was transported to and from Elkhart by way of the river and traffic increased every year. Wharves were located on the Elkhart River opposite the island near the east end of Sycamore Street. Many wagons would bring in flour and produce to be shipped on the boats and then haul away merchandise for the farm, home, and store.

So what exactly was transported on the river? Between 1835 and 1850 large crops of wheat were raised in the area. Wheat was converted into flour by the numerous mills throughout the county. Most of the flour was then hauled to Elkhart to be shipped down the river. Pork and wines were also often shipped from Elkhart.

Owens noted arks were mostly used for transporting flour. They looked like a big box and were waterproofed before floated down the river. Keel boats hauled almost as much as the steamboats did and that typically included farm produce, lumber, sacks of grain and merchandise. Six people operated a keel boat and they could be up to 80 feet in length and 8 feet wide. Keel operators would pay the steamboat operators to take them back home.

Boats were equipped with a windlass to pull over the riffles in the river. One end of the rope was fastened to a large tree along the bank of the river. Boats were rowed down the river and 18-foot oars were common. Against the current on the return trip, it was necessary to pole the boats. One can imagine how labor intensive this was, as well as tedious.

It should be noted, too, supplies were transported by river that were brought to the ports by wagon from Fort Wayne. Fort Wayne was the chief commercial center of northern Indiana and that was where the land office was located too. So if anyone had any business to do with land ownership, they had to go to Fort Wayne.

But when the first railroad line came through Elkhart County in the early 1850s, it eventually eliminated the need to ship goods via the river. River boats and ports would now be considered ancient history, though still a vital part of local transportation history in Elkhart County.


Emil Anderson, Taproots of Elkhart History, 1940,

H.S.K. Bartholomew, Pioneer History of Elkhart County, Indiana, with Sketches and Stories, 1930, Elk Co 977.281 BaP Elk 977.281 An