P-3: Ruth Ferris Collection of River Life and Lore | UMSL

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P-3: Ruth Ferris Collection of River Life and Lore

ABSTRACT: The Ruth Ferris Collection of River Life and Lore is a benchmark collection of the Pott Library. The collection consists of the materials and personal research of noted St. Louis river historian Ruth Ferris, a friend to many river residents, workers, and enthusiasts alike. The collection consists of photographs, publications, personal ledgers, and large-scale ephemera including pilot wheels and boat parts. Significant portions of the Ferris Collection are available on the digital library (see link below.) 

Image: Str. Pilothouse of the IDLEWILD. (Ruth Ferris Collection)

SCOPE: This collection covers many aspects of inland river history, particularly on the Mississippi River.Included are extensive research files on vessels, particularly the famous steam packets and excursion boats; river locations and communities; and biographical information on hundreds of individuals associated with the rivers. 10,000 photographs dated from 1870 to the 1970s, include rare images of steamboats, river, communities, landings, and people.

EXTENT: Approximately 200 linear feet; 300 volumes. This is a varied collection of books, photographs, artifacts, manuscripts, prints, and ephemera. It is literally anything that pertained to steamboats including pilot licenses, bills of lading, boat tickets, gingerbread trim and decoration, bells and whistles, china, silver, and gambling devices. Miss Ruth Ferris accumulated her research files and manuscript collections, which encompassed information concerning river history, boats, river people, companies, floods, folklore, art and statistics.

Detailed Finding Aids for the complete collection are in process. Currently, the following are available:

Bills of Lading & relating courier papers: 

Alphabetical (.pdf)


Research notes & files, general river subjects:

Alphabetical (.pdf)

Research notes & files, people in river history: 

Alphabetical (.pdf) - this file is currently completed "AA" through "SCOTT" - for assistance with your research in files "SCOTT" through "Z", please contact the curator.

Research notes & files, boats:

This finding aid is currently under construction. For assistance with your research, please contact the curator.


HISTORY: Miss Ruth Ferris was a river and steamboat historian and writer, and one of the most respected educators of St. Louis for over a half century. Besides her excellent scholarship, she traveled on the rivers, recording these experiences, and she was a life-long friend to river people, and those interested in the river. Her collection of river objects and papers expanded out of her basement to the River Room at the Missouri Historical Society, to the Becky Thatcher Museum, and to their final home at the Mercantile Library.

ACCESS: This is collection P-003. This collection is available for on-site use only in the Rare Book and Manuscripts Reading Room. Some of the collection may be photocopied, digitally scanned or photographed, depending on condition. Researchers are advised to call ahead concerning changes in hours due to University intersessions and holidays. The St. Louis Mercantile Library is located on levels one and two of the Thomas Jefferson Library building. More information about conducting research with the archival collections of the Library, including current building hours and reading room policies, can be found on our Research page.

Preferred Citation note: The preferred citation for this collection is "From the collections of the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.”

Portions of this collection are available for remote & online viewing on the UMSL Digital Library as the P-003 Ruth Ferris Collection.

There are two listings available of the many Bills of Lading and related courier papers: one Alphabetical (.pdf) and the other Chronological (.pdf). These documents are located in folders labeled for instance, "Courier - Realia," and a folder-level finding aid is in process.

Until this aid is completed, please contact the Curator of the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library for questions regarding this collection.

Image: St. Louis Levee and Eads Bridge. February 17, 1934,
from the Str. BETSY ANNs pilothouse. (Ruth Ferris Collection)

(Image: Str. Betsy Ann at the St. Louis Levee and Eads Bridge. February 17, 1934)