By Mary Giorgio

A prominent shipbuilder for over a century, the Howard Shipyard in Jeffersonville, Indiana, once carried the distinction of being the largest inland shipbuilder in the United States and the second largest builder of barges. Located along the banks of the Ohio River, the shipyard became known for its quality and attention to detail.

The company was founded in 1834 by James Howard, a 19-year-old Englishman who had learned shipbuilding while employed as an apprentice in Cincinnati. Howard initially only manufactured steamboats, but the company later evolved to include other types of ships as technology changed. The first steamboat to be completed at the shipyard was The Hyperion.

The shipyard was often simply stacked lumber, tools, and workers

After two years, Howard relocated his shipyard to nearby Madison, Indiana. It remained there until the Panic of 1837-1844 forced him to close his business. For several years thereafter, Howard worked as an engineer and carpenter before collaborating with his brother to reopen the shipyard in 1849. The brothers decided to reopen their business on its original site in Jeffersonville.

From 1849 until his death in 1876, Howard worked to create the best boats on the market. He succeeded in earning a reputation for building the finest steamboats available. In fact, his boats were in such demand that Howard occasionally had to turn down new orders.

After Howard’s death, his brother and son, Edmund, continued to run the business. In 1878, they produced the J.M. White, a luxury packet that went on to achieve the speed record for travel on the Ohio River. In 1888, a mail carrier, the Joe Fowler, was also built at the shipyard. The Joe Fowler earned fame after being retrofitted to become an early cruise ship.

The Howard family continued to own the shipyard into the early 1940s. In 1942, the U.S. Navy purchased the shipyard and reorganized it as Jeffersonville Boat & Machine Co. During World War II, the facility made landing ship tanks, submarine chasers, and other warships.

After the war, the shipyard changed hands several times. It was eventually renamed JeffBoat (one word). In its peak years immediately following the war, the shipyard employed around 1,300 people. The shipyard mostly built custom barges, town boats, and other vessels. The company ceased operations in 2018.


At the time JeffBoat closed in 2018, it was the oldest continually operating shipyard in the United States. The city currently has plans to redevelop the abandoned site into a mixed-use property.

Today, those interested in the history of the Howard Shipyard can visit Jeffersonville’s Howard Steamboat Museum. The museum is in the old Howard Mansion, a family home that was built near the shipyard in 1894. The house museum contains original furnishings, along with shipyard artifacts and tools, ship models, photographs, and even a shaft from the original paddlewheel of the Delta Queen.


Want to Know More?

Browse this comprehensive Howard Steamboat Museum photo collection from the University of Louisville. You’ll find hundreds of high-resolution photos just a click away!

Watch the “A River, a Family, and a Shipyard” available at the Howard Steamboat Museum’s website. This 14 minute video covers the ambitious Howard family’s ship-building legacy