Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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River Steamboats
Nature Bulletin No. 628-A   February 12, 1977
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The westward migration of the pioneer settlers and the rapid growth of agriculture, commerce and industry in the Middle West is in large part the story of water transportation on our inland waterways. The two main water routes were the chain of Great Lakes on the north and the Ohio River on the south. Sailing vessels carrying hundreds of tons were able to navigate on the Great Lakes almost as freely as on the ocean. Also, on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers heavy loads could be floated downstream from Pittsburgh to New Orleans -- almost 2000 miles. But boats had to be hauled back upstream by manpower -- grueling labor, stretching over weeks or months to move a few tons a few hundred miles. The coming of the steamboat a century and a half ago changed all this.

The steamboat is strictly American. In 1807 Robert Fulton's "Clermont" began to haul passengers and freight on the Hudson River between Albany and New York. Later, he and his associates sent young Nicholas J. Roosevelt to survey the opportunities for steamboats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. As a result the side-wheeler, "New Orleans, " was built at Pittsburgh in 1811. It was 138 feet long and made eight miles per hour downstream. In the autumn of that year during high water it ran the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville, where the river drops 22 feet in two miles, then on to the Mississippi and down to New Orleans.

Beginning in 1815, Captain Henry M. Shreve gave the final proof that the steamboat was the answer to upstream navigation, steaming the 1500 miles from New Orleans to Louisville in 25 days. The same trip downstream was made in seven days. With improvements in the design of large shallow-draft hulls and the adoption of high-pressure engines for both side-wheelers and stern-wheelers -- and the mounting profits from hauling cargo and passengers -- the boom era of the river steamboat was on. For example, freight charges on goods delivered at Cincinnati dropped from eight dollars to one dollar per hundred pounds when brought by steamboat up from New Orleans. By 1830, more than 200 of these boats were churning the Ohio and the Mississippi.

St. Louis became the steamboat capital of the western waters with packets lined up for miles along its levee and the water front a bedlam of noise and activity -- bells ringing, whistles blowing, stevedores rushing bales and barrels over gangways, the clatter of horse-drawn drays, chatter and shouting. Now the steamboats became floating palaces, sometimes 300 feet long and five decks high -- the uppermost was called the Texas deck and topped by the glassed-in pilot house. Elaborately painted and decorated with scrollwork, they looked like nothing so much as gigantic wedding cakes. Inside they were no less luxurious with mahogany woodwork, glass chandeliers, mirrored walls and oriental rugs.

The greatest river race of all times, made famous in song and story, was run between the packets "Robert E. Lee" and the "Natchez. " The race started at New Orleans on the afternoon of June 30, 1870 and ended July 4th at St. Louis. The Lee won in the record time of 3 days, 18 hours and 13 minutes.

The Sprague, or "Big Mama, " largest of all the stern-wheelers, is permanently tied up at Vicksburg as a river museum. A St. Louis schoolyard is the final resting place of the pilot house of the Golden Eagle which plied between there and Peoria for forty years.

The steamboat was invented by John Fitch of Pennsylvania in the late 1780's. He died heart-broken and poverty-stricken. He blamed his troubles on "steamboats and a turbulent wife. "

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