The Way It Was — Suwanee Steamboat

Take a closer look at a 1958 photograph of the steamboat that once offered rides at Greenfield Village in Dearborn.
Photograph courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

1958 For several decades, a favorite summer pastime for visitors at Greenfield Village in Dearborn was taking a ride on the Suwanee steamboat that circled around a small island in the middle of an artificial lagoon as the rear paddle wheel churned through the murky waters.

The intermittent blowing of the boat’s piercing steam whistle was a distinctive sound fondly associated with one of the country’s favorite tourist destinations.

After Robert Fulton successfully developed his steamboat, which first journeyed up the Hudson River in New York
in 1807, steamboat traffic grew steadily on the Mississippi River and other river systems in the United States.

While vacationing in Florida, Thomas Edison often traveled the inland waterways on a 19th-century steamer named the Suwanee.

Because of Henry Ford’s admiration for the inventor, to whom the Henry Ford Museum and adjacent Greenfield Village outdoor museum were dedicated in 1929 as the Edison Institute (now called The Henry Ford), Ford salvaged the boat’s engine and had a 60-foot-long replica built for tourists to ride and enjoy.

The original Suwanee replica built in 1929 had eight cabins on its boiler deck, but due to its ungainly appearance, Ford had the Suwanee rebuilt without cabin accommodations.

On July 4, 1935, the boat, along with the Stephen Foster House, which lies above the banks of the lagoon, were dedicated.

Walt Disney, who had visited Greenfield Village in the 1940s, borrowed Ford’s idea and built a similar but larger steamboat called the Mark Twain that began giving guests rides when Disneyland opened in 1955.

The Suwanee was one of the last things Henry Ford saw on his final visit to Greenfield Village, when he observed the boat submerged at its dock during heavy rainfall and flooding on April 7, 1947, the day he died.

The boat was repaired and renovated more than once over the years, but it was finally taken out of service in 2004 and later dismantled.

The Henry Ford, the largest indoor-outdoor museum complex in America, hosts more than 1.5 million visitors annually.

This story is from the July 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition. Plus, find even more The Way It Was articles at