The First Steamboat on the Ohio, by Nelson W. Evans

Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly vol 16 No 3
July 1907 pp 310-315
The First Steamboat on the Ohio, by Nelson W. Evans

How many of the intelligent reading people of the state know when the first steamboat plowed the waters of the Ohio? Where it was built, its dimensions and cut, the name of the owner and of the boat, and the particulars of its first voyage? To Nicholas J. Roosevelt [footnote: Brother to the grandfather of President Theodore Roosevelt] belongs the honor of first building a steamboat, and with it navigating the Ohio.

But before telling the story, it would be well to observe the condition of navigation on the Ohio before steamboats were introduced. The crafts used first by the white men, and until the time of the steamboat, were keel boats, barges and flat boats. There was a class of rivermen at that day, as now, whose sole business was to navigate the Ohio. Keel boats and barges were made to ascend as well as descend the river.

The flat-boat was made only to float down stream, and was broken up at the end of the voyage. The keel boat was long and slender, sharp fore and aft, with a narrow gangway within the gunwale, for the boatmen as they poled or worked up stream, when not aided by eddies that made their oars available. When the keel boat was covered by a low house, lengthwise, between the gangways, it was called a barge. Flat boats were called broad-horns. Keel boats, flat boats and barges all had prodigious steering oats, and had great side oars fixed on pivots.

Mr. Roosevelt consulted with Chancellor Livingston, of New York, and Mr. Fulton, the celebrated inventor, and in fact, all three had been studying the subject for years on independent lines. In pursuance of the determination of these three gentlemen, Mr. Roosevelt, then forty-two years of age, went to Pittsburg in May, 1809, with his wife, nee Miss LaTrobe, of Baltimore, to whom he had been recently married, and built a flat boat, on which he and his wife proposed to float to New Orleans.

This boat had a bed room, dining room, pantry and large room in front for the crew, with a fire place where the cooking was done. The top of the boat was flat with an awning and seats. Besides Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt, there was a maid for her, a pilot, three hands and a cook. The flat boat floated by day and laid to at night. The skiff of the flat was in constant use in daylight, observing the currents, eddies, etc.

The only places of any importance between Pittsburg and New Orleans, were Cincinnati, Louisville and Natchez, and they were then insignificant little towns. Mr. Roosevelt had letters of introduction to all the principal persons along the route, and to all he explained his purpose in the trip, and his intention to build a steamboat in Pittsburg and come down the river with it. He was listened to respectfully, but no one believed in him. Neither did he receive the slightest encouragement from anyone.

The pilots and the boatmen were the most skeptical of all. He told them of the successful navigation with steam on the Hudson three years before, but that had no effect. They replied that it could not be done on the Ohio and Mississippi, but they could not shake Mr. Roosevelt's confidence, nor he their unbelief. He told them when he would be along with his steamboat, and engaged his supplies then and there. He sounded the depths of the rivers as he went along, measured the currents, and obtained all the information as to them that he could. He also made estimates as to the future development of the country. When he found coal banks along the Ohio, he purchased and opened them, and ordered coal mined and laid aside till his steamboat, not yet built, should come along.

He reached New Orleans on December 1, 1809, and went around to New York in a sailing vessel. The yellow fever developed aboard, and Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt got off the ship at Old Point Comfort, and went thence to New York by stage, reaching there January 15, 1810.

He made his report to Messrs. Fulton and Livingston, and they determined to aid him in the enterprise. This is the same Chancellor Livingston who administered the oath of office to George Washington, when first inaugurated as president of the United States, on April 30, 1789, and who was the firm friend of Napoleon Bonaparte, while an envoy from his own country to France. Chancellor Livingston furnished the greater part of the funds for the enterprise.

In the spring of 1810, Mr. Roosevelt repaired to Pittsburg, then an insignificant place to build the first steamboat. The keel was laid where now stands the depot of the Pittsburg and Connelsville railroad. The size and plan of the steamboat had been determined on in New York. It was to be 116 feet long and 20 feet wide. The engine was to have a 34-inch cylinder.

The difficulty was to get suitable timber for the boat. The men required to get it out knew nothing of what was required of them. The sawing was done in the old-fashioned saw-pits. The shipbuilders had to be brought from New York. Great difficulties intervened at every point of the work, but at last the boat was built and launched. She cost $30,000 and was named the "New Orleans" for her destination.

As the boat was about being finished, it became known that Mrs. Roosevelt intended to accompany her husband on the voyage. All her friends in Pittsburg tried to dissuade her. They regarded it as madness, but she was firm in her determination to go.

There were two cabins in the boat, one aft for ladies, and one forward for gentlemen. In the ladies' cabin were four berths. Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt were the only passengers, no one else would take passage. There was a captain, and engineer named Baker, Andrew Jack the pilot, six hands, two female servants, a man waiter, a cook, and a big Newfoundland dog called Tiger.

The people of Pittsburg turned out enmasse to witness the commencement of the voyage. The shores everywhere after leaving Pittsburg were covered with the virgin forest down to the water's edge. Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt sat up most of the first night of the voyage watching the progress of the boat. The second day after leaving Pittsburg, the New Orleans rounded to in front of Cincinnati and dropped anchor. The whole town was on the river front. Many of Mr. Roosevelt's former acquaintances came out to him in small boats to congratulate him on his success, but the all assured him he could never go up stream with his boat. The New Orleans only stopped at Cincinnati long enough to take in a supply of wood, and left for Louisville.

It was at midnight, with a flood of moonlight, On October 1, 1811, when the New Orleans approached Louisville. The noise of the escaping steam and the revolution of the wheels, heard for the first time, aroused the entire population, and crowds rushed to the river front to learn the cause of the awful noise, never heard before. Many people thought the comet of 1811, had fallen into the Ohio, and was making the noise, but when the New Orleans came into sight, all doubts were dispelled.

The next morning Mr. Roosevelt's friends came aboard, and told him the same things as were said to him at Cincinnati. They assured him his was the first and last steamboat that would be seen above the falls of the Ohio.

A few days after, the citizens gave him a public dinner ashore, at which he was congratulated oh his success in bring a steamboat down the river, but he was assured that she would never ascend. Mr. Roosevelt had no predictions to make then, but invited the company to a return banquet on board the New Orleans, on a day he named. The time for the banquet aboard the New Orleans arrived, and the company met in the forward cabin, where they were seated at the tables.

When the festivities were at their height, the boat began to shake, there were unheard of rumblings and groanings on the lower deck, and the boat was evidently in motion. The whole company was horror-stricken. They had but one idea, and that was that the boat had broken her moorings, and was drifting to the falls to their destruction. All rushed out, when they found that the boat was steaming up the Ohio, and leaving Louisville behind. After going up a few miles the boat returned to her anchorage at Louisville.

The boat was intended to ply between Natchez and New Orleans and was built for that purpose, but the water was not of sufficient depth to go over the falls. While waiting for this, the boat made a trip to Cincinnati and returned. This satisfied the croakers in Cincinnati and in Louisville that the boat could go up stream.

While waiting at Louisville to cross the falls, Mrs. Roosevelt became a mother. It was the last week in November before the New Orleans could essay the falls. The boat took the Indiana side. She put on all steam she was capable of. Two falls pilots took their stand at the bow of the boat. Mrs. Roosevelt stood at the stern with the great Newfoundland dog at her side. Everybody was anxious, but the passage was safely made, and the boat continued her journey down the river.

But there was a great contrast between the voyage from Pittsburg to Louisville, which was all pleasure, and that from Louisville to New Orleans, which was all tedious and lonesome, and full of anxieties and perils. There was day after day a leaden sky, a dim sunlight during the day and starless nights.

The comet of 1811 had disappeared but the earthquakes of that year had just begun. The first shock was noticed just after the boat had passed over the falls. The effect on the nerves was as though she had been in motion and had suddenly grounded. The boat shook and trembled, and those aboard were attacked with nausea, like sea-sickness.

It was some time before the real facts were appreciated. There were successive shocks during the night. As the approached the mouth of the Ohio they met a rise which had backed up from the Mississippi.

They passed through bands of Indians who were about in canoes. One night the boat got on fire in the forward cabin, from wood piled near the stove, but happily it was extinguished without great damage. Above the mouth of the Ohio the boat was supplied with coal that had been mined and brought to the bank expressly. After reaching the Mississippi, the boat tied up each afternoon while the crew went ashore and cut and brought in wood for the next day's consumption.

At New Madrid, some of the people whose homes had been swallowed up in the earthquakes, begged to be taken aboard, while others, frightened by the steamboat, took to the woods and hid. The voyage on the Mississippi, when they were out in the river was oppressive by its silence. The shores on either side were a wilderness. The occurrence of the earthquakes over-awed all; even the dog Tiger was conscious of these shocks, and would howl and mourn, and come to Mrs. Roosevelt for sympathy.

The flatboatmen that they meet and passed were similarly affected, they have no jovial greetings. The earthquakes had caved in so much of the banks, and made such changes in the river, that their pilot was lost. Tall trees which he knew, had been swept into the river. Well known islands had disappeared, and new ones made themselves known. Cut-offs had been made where before there was forest. There was no place to stop, and no way to learn the changes and the pilot had to keep on.

When first the boat came into the Mississippi she would tie up at night to the shore, but the shore caved so often from the earthquakes that the plan was abandoned, and the boat was anchored at the foot of an island, where one could be found. One evening, the boat was tied at the foot of an island. There was an earthquake that night, and in the morning it was discovered that the island had disappeared.

Often they would see great trees along the shore sink and fall into the turbid waters, so much so that they were compelled to keep away from shores, for fear that the trees would fall on them, but this ceased when they passed out of the earthquake region.

The terror of the river, of the comet and of the earthquake did not prevent the Captain of the boat from making love to Mrs. Roosevelt's maid, and they were betrothed at Natchez and married when they arrived at New Orleans.

Robert Fulton one of the projectors of the enterprise died in 1815 at the age of fifty. Chancellor Livingston died in 1813, at the advanced age of --, while Nicholas J. Roosevelt survived to 1854 and his wife to 1871. Roosevelt never doubted the success of steamboat navigation in the Western waters and lived to see his greatest expectations fulfilled.

Portsmouth, Ohio

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