I read with great interest your writing project. Remember the old adage, 'Truth is stranger than fiction.' Writing a novel is vastly more difficult than writing history. My own research has been mostly in deep sea ships, Imperial Russia and the British Empire. I'd respectfully suggest the following:
1. Totally 'bury' yourself in as much of the documented history you can pull from libraries, archives, biographies/autobiographies etc. Sleuth as many of the old photo/drawings/painting collections you can for 'mental pictures.'
2. You may have to visit the locales of your novel in person to get a 'feel' for the place and region then vs. now.
3. Construct you main character in his position as being 'upwardly mobile' in his craft. Is there a 'romantic angle--like falling in love with the owner's daughter? I'd suggest reading From 'PADDLEWHEELS to PROPELLERS' by Charles Preston Fishbaugh, Indiana Historical Society, 1970. Fishbaugh wrote on the fascinating history of the Howard family of Jeffersonville, Ind., premier steamboat builders. The region may not be the same but the history of the Howards pretty much runs in tandem with your desired 'feel' for the subject. Also visit the Howard Steamboat Museum in Jeffersonville to see what the mansion of a successful steamboat tycoon family was like in the 'Gilden Age.' Mariners Museum in Newport News, Va., along with the Smithsonian in D.C. You also know as a writer that your vocabulary, dialogue and usage must match the period perfectly.
4. You're on the mark as far as many steamboat builders hailing from the East Coast or even Great Britain, where many learned their craft in ship construction, machinery and steam propulsion.
5. You main character probably will be a 'cheeky' young guy with moxey and brains to 'see where he's come from, where he is now and where he's headed.' Read the Capt. Mary B. Greene story from Part I to IV on this web for additonal applicable data and 'atmosphere.'
6. Get/read Alan Bates' The Western Rivers STEAMBOAT CYCLOPEDIUM,' Hustle Press, 1981, for the sense of steamboat construction. Also Stan Garvey's 'KING & QUEEN of the River.' This traces steamboat building in California along with the life and career of old Jim Burns, builder of the DK/DQ.
7. Contact Mrs. M'Lissa Kesterman, Rare Books/Inland Rivers Library, Cincinnati Public Library here in Cincinnati. I'll give you her business E=Mail later.
8. People on the web: Jane Greene, Judy Patsch, Keith Norrington, etc., etc., could provide far more ideas and information. There are museums and libraries from St. Louis to New Orleans that thay have far more knowledge of than I do.
Good luck and just "hollar" if you need any additional leads. I'll get my thinking cap on more here in time. I promised to back off posting, but when I read your appeal, I couldn't resist.
R. Dale Flick