Dubuque County Historical Society Images

The Builders

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William Peter Sprague

Peter Sprague was one of the most prolific boat builders of the 19th century. William Peter Sprague (1828-1900) was a boat builder, as was his father and family before him. He spent his early years around Elizabeth and Shousetown, Pennsylvania, practicing his trade.

Sprague built so many steamboats that he became known for having built or repaired one for every year of his life. Towards the end of the 19th century, Sprague could look from one end of Pittsburgh Harbor to the other and note that he had built, designed, repaired, or rebuilt nearly every boat.

Peter Sprague was a perfectionist. It was said that he made his own drawings and never allowed a piece of lumber to go into a boat he was building without his inspection. The boats commonly attributed to him include Joseph B. Williams, 1876; Russell Lord, 1892; James Moren, 1896; and Sprague, 1902, the worldÕs largest steam towboat ever.

He was associated with the Grand Lake Coal Co. and was an accomplished boat builder and repairman. He was known to have done repair work on the John A. Wood and the Jim Wood. He clearly knew all aspects of steamboat construction. In October 1899, the 90+ independent coal operators of Pittsburgh were consolidated into the largest river operation of all time. This created a fleet of over 100 steam towboats and the company needed a man to oversee their maintenance. Sprague undertook this new job with enormous responsibility at the age of 71. When the towboat Smoky City went up in flames at Pittsburgh on October 24, 1900, there was a desperate need for a replacement to bring up empty coal boats from New Orleans to Louisville. Plans were then set to construct the Sprague. This was Peter SpragueÕs crowning achievement. With his final and finest design, the sternwheel steamboat had reached its pinnacle. The steamer Sprague went on to set innumerable records in its illustrious career.

Captain Peter Sprague was said to be "the patriarch among the boat builders of the west" by the Dubuque Sunday Globe-Journal. The boat that he manifested, the boat that carried his name, was perhaps the most famous towboat of the 20th century. Peter Sprague was inducted to the National Rivers Hall of Fame September 29, 2000. Jack Custer, editor of the Egregious Steamboat Journal, nominated him.

Inducted in 2000.



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