Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological Historyby Louis C. Hunter
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Definitive account covers every aspect of steamboat's development: its construction, equipment and operation; the organization and conduct of steamboat transportation as a business enterprise; the hazards and amenities of shipboard life; steamboat races on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers; collisions, explosions and fires; the rise of competition; the ultimate decline, and much more.
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STEAMBOATS ON THE WESTERN RIVERS
An Economic and Technological History
By Louis C. Hunter
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1993 John H. White
All rights reserved.
THE INTRODUCTION AND EXTENSION OF STEAM NAVIGATION IN THE WEST
THE STEAMBOAT WAS THE PRODUCT OF THE THOUGHT AND INGENUITY OF many men. During the second half of the eighteenth century numerous experimenters in England, on the continent, and in this country were working on the problem of applying steam power to the propulsion of vessels. In America both the experimental and the practical beginnings of steam navigation occurred on the rivers of the North Atlantic seaboard, but the new mechanism was quickly transferred to the western rivers. Here the steamboat attained a leading position in inland transportation and commerce within a few years and held it for a full generation. In the development of the greater part of the vast Mississippi basin from a raw frontier society to economic and social maturity the steamboat was the principal technological agent. During the second quarter of the nineteenth century the wheels of commerce in this extensive region were almost literally paddle wheels. The western steamboat came to be regarded as the typical American steamboat, partly because in the West there was greater dependence on steam navigation and more extensive use of it, and partly because the distinctive features of design, construction, and operation of the western steamboat made this vessel widely known throughout the world.
The history of the steamboat has been told primarily in terms of the activities and achievements of the individual inventors associated with its development. The economic, social, and technological conditions that prepared the way for the steamboat by creating a need for it and by placing it within the range of practical achievement deserve greater emphasis. Overland transportation at the end of the eighteenth century lagged far behind that on the open sea. The great strides made in the art of building and sailing ships during the preceding centuries had not been paralleled on land. In America roads were especially poor, the costs of carriage high, and the time of trips very slow. Except to serve local needs highway transport played a minor role in commercial intercourse. Rivers made up the principal inland waterways, but the conditions of river navigation did not permit the use of sails on most streams except in a very minor way. Unable to exploit the power of the winds and with the power of running water available only in a downstream direction, river men were handicapped by their reliance on human energy for propulsion. The problems of internal transportation and communication were further accentuated by the great distances presented by a nation of continental expanse. "Our population," wrote an American, James Renwick, in 1830, "with the wants and curiosity of the highest civilization, is still so scattered over a vast region, as to demand rapid means of communication, and great foreign importations." The urgent need of the time was for a source of power by which vessels could be propelled quickly and cheaply both up stream and down on our great inland waterways.
It was in the trans-Appalachian West that a new mode of transportation was most needed and it was the steamboat which supplied the need. "The invention of the steamboat," declared a communication to the Cincinnati Gazette in 1815, "was intended for us. The puny rivers of the East are only as creeks, or convenient waters on which experiments may be made for our advantage." So long as the nation's population was concentrated along the Atlantic seaboard, the older methods of communication were fairly adequate. The Atlantic Ocean with its bays, sounds, and tidal rivers provided a trunk and branch system joining all parts of the tidewater and adjacent regions. On this system ships running in the coasting trades supplied transportation service that reasonably satisfied the economic organization and needs of the time. The smaller classes of sailing vessels could navigate the lower reaches of the larger rivers and, favored by the depth, breadth, and comparative straightness of the Hudson, could beat their way as far up as Albany. The situation, however, changed greatly with the advance of settlement west of the Appalachians and the spread of population through the valleys of the Ohio and the Mississippi. The maintenance of economic and cultural contacts between the older and newer sections of the country and within the vast interior basin presented great difficulties. Sails were of little value in the navigation of the shallow, winding, and often narrow rivers which formed the principal waterways of the interior. The advantage of swift currents for downstream traffic was largely nullified by the added labor of moving boats upstream. Upstream traffic had to be moved almost entirely by muscle power, and, save for an occasional experiment with horse boats, the burden of this heavy work fell upon men.
When steam power was introduced into this country, therefore, the great need for it was not in industry, where water and horse power were quite adequate to most requirements, nor in the coasting trade or foreign commerce, but rather in the field of inland commerce, above all in the commercial intercourse of the interior basin of the continent. Hence it was quite natural that most of the early experimentation with the steam engine in this country should have been carried on by men seeking to apply it to the navigation of rivers. Here, too, we have the basic reason for the lead which Americans early assumed and long held in the development of steam navigation on inland waterways. "The chief object of their [American] engineers has been to render steam useful in navigation," ran an English comment upon this subject, "and considering the importance to America of navigating her immense rivers, it is not surprising that the application of the power of steam to propelling vessels should by persevering efforts have been first carried into successful practice on that continent."
The early experimentation with steamboats in this country took place along the rivers of the Atlantic seaboard where the great bulk of the population and trade of the country and the greatest technical resources were concentrated. Here two decades of activity by numerous experimenters, particularly Oliver Evans, John Fitch, Robert Fulton, James Rumsey, and John Stevens, culminated in the practical success that is popularly associated with the name of Fulton. As early as 1790 John Fitch operated for a time a steamboat of his own design and construction in commercial service between Philadelphia and Trenton. Continuous commercial operation of steamboats in this country dates from the inauguration of service on the Hudson River in 1807 and 1808 by Fulton and Livingston and on the Delaware River in 1809 by John Stevens.
The traditional account which, pictures the voyages of the Clermont on the Hudson in 1807 and the New Orleans on the Ohio and Mississippi in 1811—12 as epochmaking events with Robert Fulton playing a role in American technology comparable to that of Watt in England has been substantially changed by the results of the research of recent years in this field. There is good reason to question whether Fulton's name should be placed much if any higher than the names of John Fitch, John Stevens, or even Oliver Evans. Exclusive privileges of navigation and the financial support deriving from his partnership were mainly responsible for a certain priority of achievement which Fulton established over most other men active in the field. The controversies which have raged over the authorship of major mechanical innovations lose much of their significance in the face of the general recognition today of the social character of inventions. The steamboat, like practically every mechanical complex of importance, was the product of many men working with a common heritage of technical knowledge and equipment and impelled by a common awareness of need.
The Development of Steam Navigation in the West
Within five years of the practical successes of Fulton and Stevens in the East, steamboat navigation was begun on the western waters. Of the men prominently identified with the beginnings of steam navigation in this country nearly all were aware of the peculiar significance of the steamboat for the West. Rumsey, Fitch, Evans, and Fulton, easterners all, carried on their experimentation with the western rivers in mind. As early as 1785 James Rumsey in a letter to Washington expressed his conviction that "boats of passage may be made to go against the current of the Mesisipia or Ohio river ... from sixty to one hundred miles per day." Rumsey appears to have gone no further than this, but Fitch, Evans, and Fulton made and prosecuted plans for exploiting the western field.
Having lived for years in the trans-Appalachian country, John Fitch had a firsthand knowledge of its conditions and needs. He long cherished the hope of introducing steamboats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Repeatedly he proclaimed the ability of steam to conquer the currents of these great rivers and urged the immense value of the new mode of navigation to the West. At one time he sought to persuade a well-to-do citizen of Pittsburgh to finance the building of a steamboat at that place, pledging his reputation that the vessel would make one hundred miles a day against the current of the Ohio. More than once he sought to enlist the support of Robert Morris in a scheme for operating steamboats from New Orleans to Kentucky or the Illinois River, preparing detailed estimates of cost, expenses, profits, and traffic. At one despairing period when the Virginia grant to him of exclusive rights was about to expire, Fitch pleaded with the members of his steamboat company to supply the funds needed to complete a second vessel. With the additional aid of a land grant from Congress he proposed to take a steamboat from the Delaware by sea to New Orleans and thence upstream to the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville. "Our expectations of extensive profits, you well know," he reminded the stockholders, "were built on exclusive rights to navigate the Western Waters."
Oliver Evans too was impressed with the great importance of steam navigation for the West. As early as 1785, according to his account, he sought to convince a western acquaintance of the great value of steam-propelled boats for the western rivers, and in 1802 he entered into an arrangement with certain western men to build a steamboat to run on the Mississippi. This project neared completion in the following year when an engine and machinery built by Evans at Philadelphia were shipped to New Orleans for installation in the waiting hull. The steamboat was ready for trial in the spring of 1803, when a flood carried the vessel half a mile inland, leaving it high and dry. The return of the steamboat to the water was found to be impractical, and the machinery was removed to a sawmill.
Evans continued, however, to advocate the use of steamboats to overcome the difficulties of western river navigation. His enthusiasm was based in part on his conviction that only his high-pressure engine could supply the power necessary to counter the swift currents of the Ohio and Mississippi. He believed that the Boulton and Watt low-pressure engine employed by Fulton was quite inadequate, and he sought to convert the Fulton group to the use of his own engine. Although the high-pressure type of engine, which Evans was the first to develop in this country and which he introduced widely for industrial purposes in the West, came into general use on western steamboats, Evans made little direct contribution to steam navigation. Only one steamboat, the Oliver Evans (renamed the Constitution) was built by the Evans firm at Pittsburgh. Begun in 1812 but not finished for several years because of financial difficulties, this vessel brought embarrassment rather than fame to the inventor because of a disastrous explosion.
Fulton's interest in the steam navigation of the western rivers was evidently awakened at an early date. James Renwick, whose biography of Fulton was based in part on a firsthand acquaintance with his subject, declared that Fulton and Livingston, though seeking and obtaining an exclusive grant from the state of New York for the steam navigation of its waters, had not, before the maiden voyage of the Clermont, fully realized the great opportunities presented by the Hudson River. "They looked to the rapid Mississippi and its branches as the place where their triumph was to be achieved; and the original boat, modelled for shallow waters, was announced as intended for the navigation of that river." The New York newspaper, the American Citizen, in describing the maiden voyage of the Clermont, referred to "Mr. Fulton's Ingenious Steam Boat, invented with a view to the navigation of the Mississippi from New Orleans upwards ... It is said it will make a progress of two [miles per hour] against the current of the Mississippi, and if so it will certainly be a very valuable acquisition to the commerce of Western States." Describing a trial trip of the Clermont, some days before her maiden voyage, Fulton wrote to Livingston: "Whatever may be the fate of steamboats for the Hudson, everything is completely proved for the Mississippi, and the object is immense." In expressing to Joel Barlow his satisfaction in the performance of the Clermont, Fulton added, "It [the steamboat] will give a cheap and quick conveyance to the merchandise on the Mississippi, Missouri, and other great rivers, which are now laying open their treasures to the enterprise of our countrymen." Within two weeks of the successful maiden voyage Fulton was writing to obtain information regarding Mississippi River navigation: the velocity of the current, the size and form of boats, the number of hands, the size of cargo, the upstream speed of boats, and the amount of upstream traffic.
Fulton's partner, Robert Livingston, had several years earlier negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. Who was in a better position to understand the commercial needs and opportunities of the Mississippi Valley and to realize the significance of steam navigation for the rivers which afforded the main channels of communication for this vast region? Moreover, the Chancellor's brother, Edward, attracted by the promise of the country, had gone west in 1804 to restore his broken fortunes, practicing law at New Orleans, where he remained for many years and attained a position of some prominence in public affairs. Edward Livingston was, therefore, not only familiar with the commercial situation in the Mississippi Valley and able to keep his brother informed of conditions, but by being on the spot he could do much to advance the interests of Fulton and his associates in political and legal matters.
As far as Fulton was concerned, the plan to operate steamboats between Pittsburgh and New Orleans was simply part of a vaster scheme suggested by his fertile imagination and elastic ambition. At this period, according to a biographer, Fulton "meditated nothing less than the introduction of steam navigation throughout the civilized world." While the western project was in preparation he was attempting, with the assistance of an English correspondent, to interest English capital in steamboat projects on the Thames and other English rivers. In 1811 he sought from the Russian czar the exclusive privilege of running steamboats between St. Petersburg and Kronstadt and in the following year he entered into an agreement with an Englishman to introduce steamboats on the Ganges. In the spring of 1813 Fulton wrote to Jefferson that within four or five years he would "have a line of steamboats from Quebec to Mexico and St. Mary's. The route is up the St. Lawrence, over Lake Champlain, down the Hudson to Brunswick, down the Delaware to Philadelphia, by land carriage to Pittsburgh, down the Ohio and Mississippi, to Red river, up it to above Natchitochez."
Excerpted from STEAMBOATS ON THE WESTERN RIVERS by Louis C. Hunter. Copyright © 1993 John H. White. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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