OP-ED: This Year Marks 200th Anniversary of Steamboat Navigation of Ohio, Mississippi Rivers

By David M. Kinchen
OP-ED: This Year Marks 200th Anniversary of Steamboat Navigation of Ohio, Mississippi Rivers

I was reading Mark Twain's "Life On The Mississippi" the other day when I came across the passage where Twain mentions that the first steamboat traveled from Pittsburgh, where she was built in 1811, all the way to New Orleans. The boat was the aptly named “New Orleans.”

Published at the same time in both the U.S. and England, "Life On The Mississippi" (1883) was the first book submitted to a publisher in typewritten manuscript form. As anyone who's ever browsed or read the work knows, it's both a memoir of the riverboat piloting episode of the life of Samuel L. Clemens (1835-1910) and a travel book as he travels decades later comparing and contrasting "life on the Mississippi." It's also where he discloses how he acquired his famous pen name. Everybody who loves  the American language  -- which in many respects was shaped and made respectable for serious literature by Twain -- should read -- or reread -- "Life On The Mississippi." (a Mark Twain timeline: http://www.shmoop.com/mark-twain/timeline.html)/
OP-ED: This Year Marks 200th Anniversary of Steamboat Navigation of Ohio, Mississippi Rivers

The invention of the steamboat revolutionized travel in early 19th century America and the pioneering voyage of the New Orleans will be celebrated all along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers this fall.

Huntington was a major river port, according to historian and author James E. Casto, who emailed me the news that on Sept. 10, the Huntington Museum of Art will open a new exhibit. "Steamboats on the Ohio River, 1811-2011," to help mark the bicentennial of that first steamboat voyage on the Ohio. The exhibit will be will drawn from the extensive collection of river/steamboat historian Jerry Sutphin of Huntington, supplemented with items selected from the museum's collection and other private collections. The exhibit will remain on view until Nov. 6.

OP-ED: This Year Marks 200th Anniversary of Steamboat Navigation of Ohio, Mississippi Rivers

Cincinnati will celebrate the bicentennial of the voyage of the New Orleans on Sept. 24-25: (http://www.cincinnatiusa.com/Events/detail.asp?ProdID=128705).

The “New Orleans” was a joint venture of Robert Fulton (1765-1815), Robert R. Livingston (1746-1813), and Nicholas Roosevelt (1767-1854), a great uncle of Theodore Roosevelt. Fulton had successfully commercialized the steamboat on the Hudson River with his “Clermont” in 1807 and Livingston was a wealthy New York politician and inventor. The “New Orleans” was completed in September 1811 at a cost of $40,000 -- a substantial sum 200 years ago. She was a side-wheeler, 116 feet long, displacing 371 tons. She was what’s known as a “packet boat,” one designed to carry both passengers and assorted cargo.

OP-ED: This Year Marks 200th Anniversary of Steamboat Navigation of Ohio, Mississippi Rivers

Before steamboats, the rivers were navigated using flatboats and keelboats, which were extremely slow and couldn't carry the cargo -- and passengers -- of the steamboat.

Roosevelt, an experienced manufacturer of engines, was the captain on the maiden voyage of the “New Orleans,” which experienced the tremors of what was probably the strongest earthquake in American history, near New Madrid, MO. These tremors didn't stop the trip and the “New Orleans” arrived in the Crescent City on Jan. 12, 1812. Following the trip, she was placed in service between New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi. She hit a stump and sank in 1814. Mark Twain's book recounts many such incidents, including a boiler explosion in 1858 that killed his brother Henry.

OP-ED: This Year Marks 200th Anniversary of Steamboat Navigation of Ohio, Mississippi Rivers

Long before Collis P. Huntington established the city of Huntington in 1871, Guyandotte was a bustling little place, Casto notes.

"One of the things that enabled Guyandote to quickly grow from a frontier trading post to a prosperous village was the advent of the steamboat," Casto says. "With the establishment of regular steamboat service in the 1840s, Guyandotte became a busy port where passengers and cargo could transfer from the stagecoaches and wagons that traveled the James River & Kanawha Turnpike to the steamboats that plied the Ohio River."

Casto, a retired newspaper editor and the author of a number of books on local and regional history, including "Towboat on the Ohio" (University Press of Kentucky, $25) says that when rail tycoon Huntington arrived on the scene he was in fact looking for exactly such a spot to be the western terminus of his Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, then rapidly extending its tracks westward from Virginia.

"But the Guyandotte citizens who thought Huntington would pick their village to be the western terminus of the C&O were sorely disappointed when he instead selected a vacant tract of Ohio riverbank land just a few miles downstream," Casto says. "Local legend has it that Huntington made his decision based as much on personal pique as on logic. As the story goes, Huntington got in a dispute with the mayor of Guyandotte and so decided to look downstream."

More likely the always canny Huntington had already calculated that there was more profit to be made from building an entirely new town from the ground up rather than locating the railroad's depot and repair shops in one already established, Casto writes. (Casto has portrayed the New England-born railroad magnate in numerous one-man shows.)

"Like Guyandotte before it, Huntington became a busy steamboat port," Casto says. "A typical example of the steamboats that served the young town was the big packet boat ‘Bostona’ of the White Collar Line that steamed to her berth at the foot of Huntington's 6th Street landing every morning at 7:15 after her overnight journey from Cincinnati."

As Twain notes in "Life on the Mississippi" and Casto also writes, the reign of the steamboat was to be short-lived. In 1883, the C&O tracks were extended west from Huntington to Cincinnati, and the steamboat trade in the Huntington area began a slow but steady decline.

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