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Oct. 1, 1838: First law in the U.S. to regulate steamboats takes effect

Submitted by Marc Cruder, Coast Guard Traveling Senior Marine Inspector

The Coast Guard’s Marine Inspection Program dates back to 1838 when the 25th Congress signed the Congressional Act of 1838 (5 Stat. L., 304). Effective October 1 of that year, it was the first legislation enacted by the national government to “provide for the better security of the lives of passengers on board vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam.”

Under the law, U.S. district court judges appointed persons to begin inspecting ships. The law required steamship operators to employ persons skilled and competent to make inspections and issue certificates; cause a hull inspection to be made at least annually; cause the examination of boilers to be made every six months; and post inspection certificates for the information of the public.

Before carrying passengers, steamship operators had to prove compliance with the new safety law. Additionally, every captain, engineer, pilot or other person employed on board a boat in which lives were lost due to misconduct, negligence, or inattention to duty could be found guilty of manslaughter.

Although steamships are a rarity in today’s modern maritime environment, over the last 181 years, the Coast Guard has continued to serve the professional seagoing community. Coast Guard marine inspectors nationwide conduct over 19,000 inspections on U.S. flagged commercial vessels and over 9,600 Port State Control foreign vessel exams annually to ensure the safety of passengers, merchant mariners, cargo and the integrity of the marine environment. Every day, our inspection workforce encounters professional mariners, class societies, industry-focused organizations, and other government partners who share our focus on marine safety, and it is humbling to see the commitment and dedication to our mutual cause.

This blog is not a replacement or substitute for the formal posting of regulations and updates or existing processes for receiving formal feedback of the same. Links provided on this blog will direct the reader to official source documents, such as the Federal Register, Homeport and the Code of Federal Regulations. These documents remain the official source for regulatory information published by the Coast Guard.

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