Return to History

Steamboat Inspection Service

1852 – 1948

America has always been a seafaring country. The Europeans that molded the country came by sea. They built large fishing fleets. They traded with their mother countries by sea. They built a Navy to gain their independence. They built smuggling ships to defeat the blockade imposed by their enemies. Recognizing the importance of sea trade, in 1789 Congress passed acts imposing a duty on vessels, providing for the registration and clearing of vessels, and regulating of coastwise trade. The acts were enforced by the Revenue Cutter Service, established in the Treasury Department.

By the 1860s, American clipper ships roamed the world’s oceans. A seafaring career was one of the most prestigious a man could attain. So many men aspired to the sea that there was no lack for crews. Most shipping companies treated their crews and junior officers as little more than slaves. Safety was nonexistent. A seaman killed in an accident was easily replaced. Accidents happened on even the best-built and best-crewed ships. Fire was the sailor’s worst enemy. Ships were constructed of wood and covered with pitch to keep them from leaking. A hot ember or spark could start an inferno. A haste to build more ships sometimes led to shoddy construction. This was not true of the renowned shipbuilders like Donald McCabe, but the smaller yards were occasionally not up to standards. Americans in general seemed apathetic to the dangers of the sea. Sinkings and groundings were commonplace occurrences and became accepted hazards of sea travel.

In 1807, Robert Fulton began a new era with his steam-driven Clermont. The advantages of steam were apparent and the new technology quickly spread. But the technology was difficult to master. In 1832, 14% of all steamboats in the U.S. exploded due to faulty construction. More than one thousand lives were lost. Congress hesitated to pass safety laws for fear of interfering with the growing industry, which was playing a big part in the country’s economic growth. But as the industry grew, public safety became an issue and Congress passed a law on 7 July 1838 to “provide better security of the lives of passengers on board of vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam”. The law was enforced by the Justice Department. Experience showed the greatest casualties were caused by boiler explosions and by fire aboard ship. The law required periodic inspection of hulls and boilers to determine their strength and durability. A requirement for certain safety devices such as lifeboats and fire fighting equipment was established. Engineering watches were to be stood by qualified personnel.

Disasters continued to increase in volume and severity. The Steamboat Act of 30 May 1852 placed enforcement powers under the Treasury Department. This law formed the organization of a federal maritime inspection service. Nine supervisory inspectors responsible for a specific geographic region were appointed. There were provisions for the appointment of local inspectors by a commission consisting of the local District Collector of Customs, the Supervisory Inspector, and the District Judge. The law required hydrostatic testing of boilers and boiler steam safety valves. This law further required that both pilots and engineers be licensed by the local inspectors. But the law exempted freight boats, ferries, tugboats and towboats, which continued to operate under the 1838 law. Disasters and high loss of life persisted.

On 28 February 1871, Congress created the Steamboat Inspection Service and provided a comprehensive Marine Safety Code. The new law sought to protect the crew as well as the passengers and applied to all steam vessels. It established a Supervisory Inspector General directly responsible to the Secretary of the Treasury, extended licensing requirements to all masters and chief mates, provided for the revocation of licenses, authorized periodic inspection and gave the Board of Supervisory Inspectors the authority to prescribe nautical Rules of the Road. On 14 February 1903, congressional action transferred the Steamboat Inspection Service to the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor.

By 1884, navigation issues and regulation enforcement had become increasingly complex. A Bureau of Navigation was added to the Treasury Department. In 1903 both the Bureau of Navigation and the Steamboat Inspection Service were transferred to the Department of Commerce and Labor. An annual increase of 45% in motorboat accidents from 1904 to 1910 resulted in inspection of small pleasure craft as well as steamboats. The Bureau of Navigation and the Steamboat Inspection Service were merged in 1932 to form the Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection.

The Morro Castle fire off the coast of New Jersey in 1934, which caused the loss of 124 persons, paved the way for the Act of 27 May 1936. The law reorganized the Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection Service and renamed it the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation. The Bureau remained under Commerce. The law required structural fire protection on passenger vessels and required the Bureau to approve plans for passenger vessels.

The Motorboat Act of 1940 covered safety of vessels less than 65’ and gave the Bureau the authority to examine the operators of these boats and issue licenses if they carried passengers for hire.

On 28 February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, as a wartime measure, signed Executive Order 9083, which transferred the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation temporarily to the control of the Coast Guard. This transfer was made permanent by Reorganization Plan Number 3 on 16 July 1946. This marked the first time in the nation’s history that all functions of maritime safety came under one agency.

The work begun in 1789 by customs inspectors and expanded in 1852 by the Steamboat Inspection Service continues today as the commercial vessel safety (CVS) mission of the Coast Guard.

There are no models associaated with the Steam Boat Inspection Service.