The Rambler in North America, by Charles Joseph Latrobe

extract from
The Rambler in North America:
By Charles Joseph Latrobe
(2nd edition)
London (1836)

Letter VIII

I now resume the thread of our personal adventures. Our stay at Cincinnati was only of two days' duration. We found the good citizens of that rising and flourishing city busily ruminating over the first edition of a well-known picture of their domestic manners, which the English press had just sent forth for their especial benefit. Whether the compote was justly and wisely compounded, I was in no way enabled to judge at the time, but it was very evident from the wry faces on all sides, and the aroused spirit of indignation, that the bitter herbs predominated over the sweet. For the rest, such was the crowded state of the only large hotel in the place, two having been burnt in the course of the spring, that we deemed ourselves fortunate to find a speedy opportunity of departure on one of the splendid steam-boats with which the landing place was crowded.

Our next halting-place was Louisville, another large and thriving city, situated on the Kentucky shore, just above the Falls of the Ohio. Its position on one of the great bends of the river, with the islands and rapids below, forms one of the most striking among all the beautiful scenes with which the Ohio abounds. Here we immediately took our passage for St. Louis on the Mississippi, seven hundred miles distant, on board another steam-boat, but were ultimately detained two or three days by some disarrangement in the machinery.

The Ohio truly merits the title of 'La belle Rivère,' which was bestowed upon it by the first French settlers. Whether you see it from the summits of the little bluffs, through which it has delved a deep broad bed in this upper part of its course, filling the vale with its expanded waters, and laving the edge of those rich patches of alluvial ground on which the hand of man has spread the sunshine of cultivation among the overshadowing woods, or from the deck of the floating palace, which bears you with marvelous rapidity from basin to basin, and point to point, it is always 'the beautiful river.' Its current, at the time we descended it, was gentle, and comparatively clear, the waters being very low. Yet six months earlier, the whole of the valley of the Ohio, from Pittsburg to the Mississippi, had been the theatre of such devastation and distress, from the extraordinary floods, as to be almost incredible to those who, like ourselves, only saw the river flowing gently within her ordinary bounds. It was difficult to conceive, that such a wide broad bed, sunk thirty or forty feet below the edge of the perpendicular banks of the levels, should be insufficient to contain its water. But in the month of February of this year, after the fall of excessive rains in the mountains, at the head of the Allegheny river, the junction of which, with the Monogahela at Pittsburg, forms the Ohio, the waters rose foot by foot and hour by hour, till the whole country was inundated. The flood attained its height at Pittsburg on the 11th, and at the Falls on the 19th, moving at the rate of about one hundred miles each day, and bearing forward the accumulated produce of a thousand farms, mills, and villages. At Cincinnati, the waters rose sixty-four feet perpendicular above low water mark. A still greater flood is on record, as having happened in the year 1772, before the settling of the country, but none since. The fertility of spring and summer had done much to remedy and conceal the devastation caused by this terrible visitation, yet many convincing signs remained of its power.

The time of our detention was as pleasantly spent as circumstances admitted of, but we were anxious to proceed, having much in prospect in another region before the close of the year. The shallowness of the water in the Rapids not admitting the descent of even the smaller stream-boats, we were constrained to pass through the newly-constructed canal, which, by the aid of three noble locks at the lower end, secures the uninterrupted navigation of the entire river, for vessels of moderate burden, without the delay of unloading, portage, and reloading, which was formerly necessary. All obstacles overcome, we found ourselves once more fairly afloat on the bosom of the river again, and straightway proceeded on our voyage. At the lower extremity of the canal, and before the small towns in the immediate vicinity, we left thirty or forty of the most splendid steamers of the first class, waiting for a rise in the water.

The changes which the successful adoption of navigation by steam has operated in a very limited space of time, upon the face of the wide regions watered by the Mississippi and its tributaries, are doubtless among the most extraordinary ever achieved by human agency.

Many things combined to make the year 1811 the Annus Mirabilis of the West. During the earlier months, the waters of many of the great rivers overflowed their banks to a vast extent, and the whole country was in many parts covered from bluff to bluff. Unprecedented sickness followed. A spirit of change and a restlessness seemed to pervade the very inhabitants of the forest. A countless multitude of squirrels, obeying some great and universal impulse, which none can know but the Spirit that gave them being, left their reckless and gambolling life, and their ancient places of retreat in the north, and were seen pressing forward by tens of thousands in a deep and sober phalanx to the South. No obstacles seemed to check this extraordinary and concerted movement: the word had been given them to go forth, and they obeyed it, though multitudes perished in the broad Ohio, which lay in their path. The splendid comet of that year long continued to shed its twilight over the forests, and, as the autumn drew to a close, the whole Valley of the Mississippi, from the Missouri to the Gulf, was shaken to its centre by continued earthquakes. It was at this very epoch in which so many natural phenomena were combining to spread wonder and awe, that man too, in the exercise of that power with which he Creator has endowed him, was making his first essay in that region, of an art, the natural course and further perfection of which was destined to bring about yet greater changes than those effected by the flood and earthquake: and at the very time that the latter were agitating the surface, the very first steam-boat was seen descending the great rivers, and the awe-struck Indian on the banks, beheld the Pinelore [footnote: The Chocktaw name for the steam-boat, literally 'fire-canoe.' end footnote] flying through the turbid waters.

From the time of the battle of the Miami, to which I alluded in my last, up to this epoch, the number of inhabitants in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and the adjoining States, had gone on increasing with astonishing rapidity, and swarms were pressing forward from the new settlements even beyond the Mississippi. The banks of the Ohio and its tributaries were covered with innumerable farms; and rafts, and flat boats, and barges of every description, laden with the produce, floated upon its wide surface, towards the general market of the West, New Orleans.

Besides the barges and vessels of heavy burden, which made their long annual voyage to and from that city, the river was covered, particularly in time of flood, by thousands of whimsical machines, for boats they can hardly be called, most of which have not disappeared. The greater part of these rude constructions were broken up, sold, or abandoned when the end of the voyage was attained, and the produce which they bore down to the general market disposed of; after which the settler returned to his farm a thousand or fifteen hundred miles off as he could. From seventy to eighty days were consumed in thus effecting the long and monotonous voyage from Pittsburg to New Orleans. But now a change was to be wrought in the facilities of communication between countries so far apart, upon which no one could have calculated, and the vast results of which are not yet fully developed.

Circumstances gave me the opportunity of becoming acquainted with the particulars of the very first voyage of a steamer in the West, and their extraordinary character will be my apology to you for filling a page of this sheet with the following brief relation.

The complete success attending the experiments in steam navigation made on the Hudson and the adjoining waters previous to the year 1809, turned the attention of the principal projectors to the idea of its application on the Western Rivers; and in the month of April of that year, Mr. Roosevelt of New York, pursuant to an agreement with Chancellor Livingston and Mr. Fulton, visited those rivers, with the purpose of forming an opinion whether they admitted of steam navigation or not. At this time two boats, the North River and the Clermont, were running on the Hudson. Mr. R. surveyed the rivers from Pittsburg to New Orleans, and as his report was favourable, it was decided to build a boat at the former town. This was done under his direction, and in the course of 1811 the first boat was launched on the waters of the Ohio. It was called the 'New Orleans,' and was intended to ply between Natchez in the state of Mississippi, and the city whose name it bore. In October it left Pittsburg for its experimental voyage. On this occasion no freight or passengers were taken, the object being merely to bring the boat to her station. Mr. R., his young wife and family, Mr. Baker the engineer, Andrew Jack the pilot, and six hands, with a few domestics, formed her whole burden. There were no wood-yards at that time, and constant delays were unavoidable. When, as related, Mr. R. had gone down the river to reconnoitre, he had discovered two beds of coal, about one hundred and twenty miles below the Rapids at Louisville, and now took tools to work them, intending to load the vessel with the coal and to employ it as fuel, instead of constantly detaining the boat while wood was procured from the banks.

Late at night on the fourth day after quitting Pittsburg, they arrived in safety at Louisville, having been but seventy hours descending upwards of seven hundred miles. The novel appearance of the vessel, and the fearful rapidity with which it made its passage over the broad reaches of the river, excited a mixture of terror and surprise among many of the settlers on the banks, whom the rumour of such an invention had never reached; and it is related that on the unexpected arrival of the boat before Louisville, in the course of a fine still moonlight night, the extraordinary sound which filled the air as the pent-up steam was suffered to escape from the valves on rounding to, produced a general alarm, and multitudes in the town rose from their beds to ascertain the cause. I have heard that the general impression among the good Kentuckians was, that the comet had fallen into the Ohio; but this does not rest upon the same foundation as the other facts, which I lay before you, and which I may at once say, I had directly from the lips of the parties themselves. The small depth of water in the Rapids prevented the boat from pursuing her voyage immediately, and during the consequent detention of three weeks in the upper part of the Ohio, several trips were successfully made between Louisville and Cincinnati. In fine the waters rose, and in the course of the last week in November, the voyage was resumed, the depth of the water barely admitting their passage.

When they arrived about five miles above the Yellow Banks [now called Owensboro, KY -- KWD] they moored the boat opposite to the first vein of coal, which was on the Indiana side, and had been purchased in the interim by the State Government. They found a large quantity already quarried to their hand, and conveyed to the shore by depredators who had not found means to carry it off, and with this they commenced loading the boat. While thus engaged, our voyagers were accosted in great alarm by the squatters in the neighbourhood, who inquired if they had not heard strange noises on the river and in the woods in the course of the preceding day, and perceived the shores shake; insisting that they had repeatedly felt the earth tremble.

Hitherto nothing extraordinary had been perceived. The following day they pursued their monotonous voyage in those vast solitudes. The weather was observed to be oppressively hot; the air misty, still, and dull; and though the sun was visible, like a glowing ball of copper, his rays hardly shed more than a mournful twilight on the surface of the water. Evening drew nigh, and with it some indications of what was passing around them became evident. And as they sat on deck, the ever and anon heard a rushing sound and violent splash, and saw large portions of the shore tearing away from the land and falling into the river. It was, my informant said, 'an awful day; so still, that you could have heard a pin drop in the deck.' They spoke little, for every one on board appeared thunderstruck. The comet had disappeared about this time, which circumstance was noticed with awe by the crew.

The second day after their leaving the Yellow Banks, the sun rose over the forests the same dim ball of fire, and the air was thick, dull, and oppressive as before. The portentous signs of this terrible natural convulsion continued and increased. The pilot, alarmed and confused, affirmed that he was lost, as he found the channel everywhere altered; and where he had hitherto known deep water there lay numberless trees with their roots upwards. The trees were seen waving and nodding on the bank, without a wind; but the adventurers had no choice but to continue their route. Towards evening they found themselves at a loss for a place of shelter. They had usually brought to under the shore, but everywhere they saw the high banks disappearing, overwhelming many a flat-boat and raft, from which the owners had landed and made their escape. A large island in mid-channel, which was selected by the pilot as the better alternative, was sought for in vain, having disappeared entirely. Thus in doubt and terror, they proceeded hour after hour until dark, when they found a small island, and rounded to, mooring themselves to the foot of it. Here they lay, keeping watch on deck during the long autumnal night; listening to the sound of the waters which roared and gurgled horribly around them, and hearing from time to time the rushing earth slide from the shore, and the commotion as the falling mass of earth and trees was swallowed up by the river. The mother of the party, a delicate female, who had just been confined on board as they lay off Louisville, was frequently awakened from her restless slumber, by the jar given to the furniture and loose articles in the cabin, as several times in the course of the night, the shock of the passing earthquake was communicated from the island to the bows of the vessel. It was a long night, but morning dawned and showed them that they were near the mouth of the Ohio. The shores and the channel were now equally unrecognizable, everything seemed changed. About noon that day they reached the small town of New Madrid, on the right bank of the Mississippi. Here they found the inhabitants in the greatest distress and consternation; part of the population had fled in terror to the higher grounds, others prayed to be taken on board, as the earth was opening in fissures on every side, and their houses hourly falling around them.

Proceeding from thence, they found the Mississippi, at all times a fearful stream, now unusually swollen, turbid, and full of trees, and after many days of great danger, though they felt and perceived no more of the earthquakes, they reached their destination at Natchez, at the close of the first week in January 1812, to the great astonishment of all, the escape of the boat having been considered as an impossibility.

At that time you floated for three or four hundred miles on the rivers without seeing a human habitation.

Such was the voyage of the first steamer. The natural convulsion, which commenced at the time of her descent, has been but slightly alluded to, but will never be forgotten in the history of the West; and the changes wrought by it throughout the whole alluvial region through which the Ohio and Mississippi pour their waters, were perhaps as remarkable as any on record. We hear less of its effects, because the region in which they occurred was of such vast extent and so thinly peopled. That part of the alluvial country which is contiguous to the point of junction of the two rivers, and especially the vicinity of New Madrid, seems to have been the centre of the convulsion. There, during the years 1811 and 1812, the earth broke into innumerable fissures, the church-yard, with its dead, was torn from the bank and engulphed in the turbid stream. To the present day it would appear that frequent slight shocks of earthquakes are there felt; and it is asserted that in the vast swamp to the back of the town, strange sounds may at times be heard, as of some mighty cauldron bubbling in the bowels of the earth. Along the banks of the river, thousands of acres with their gigantic growth of forest and cane were swallowed up, and lakes and ponds innumerable were formed. The earth, in many parts was observed to burst suddenly open, and jets of sand, mud and water, to shoot up into the air. The beds of these giant streams seemed totally overturned; islands disappeared, and in many parts the course of the river was completely changed. Great inundations were the consequence. The clear waters of the St. Frances were obstructed; the ancient channel destroyed, and the river spread over a vast tract of swamp. In many places the gaping earth unfolded its secrets, and the bones of the gigantic Mastodon and Ichthyosaurus hidden within its bosom for ages, were brought to the surface. Boats and arks without number, were swallowed up; some buried by the falling in of the banks, others dragged down with the islands to which they were anchored. And finally, you may still meet and converse with those, who were on the mighty river of the West when the whole stream ran toward its sources for an entire hour, and then resuming its ordinary course, hurried them helpless on its swirling surface with accelerated motions towards the Gulf.
[remainder of chapter omitted -- not relevant]

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