Editor's note: The following text is from the New York Times as reprinted from the New Orleans Times-Picayune on August 14, 1891. Thank you to Contributing Scholar Carl Mayer for finding, cataloging and transcribing this article. The language, spelling and grammar of the article reflects the time period when it was written.
THE KEELBOATS AND FLATBOATS OF THE EARLY DAYS — DISCOURAGEMENTS OVERCOME BY FULTON AND HIS ASSOCIATES. - From the New-Orleans Picayune.
Lamothe Cadillac, one of the early Governors of Louisiana, sententiously declared: “No boat could ever be run up the Mississippi into the Wabash, the Missouri, or the Red River for any commercial or profitable purpose. As well,” said he, “try to bite off a slice of the moon.” According to his judgment the rapid currents of these streams and their extreme crookedness formed insurmountable obstacles to their utility.
Very fortunately, all men are not Cadillacs. In every age adventurous spirits had endeavored to solve the problem of the navigation of the Mississippi. They had followed the light-weight birch canoe of the Indian with various craft, more or less sightly, which moved over the bosoms of the grand stream and its tributaries, giving them new life.
From the bayous and interior lakes which beautify Louisiana out into the big river came the hunter with his spoils in a pirogue. This was a narrow canoe, pointed at each end, hollowed out from a single log, partly by burning, partly by hewing with an axe. Its occupant propelled it by paddling with a single paddle first on one side, then on the other. It was uncomfortable for either sitting or standing, but in the hands of an adept could cleave the waters with the swiftness of an arrow sped from the bow. The goélettes or oyster luggers sailed into the river from the bays. When they reached it, their sails were furled and the oystermen cordelled them up stream. These oyster vendors announced their approach in a style befitting Old Neptune himself, by blowing a resonant blast on a huge pink-lipped conch shell, termed by the Spaniards boca del diavolo, i. e., the devil’s mouth.
The radeau was a raft built of logs felled in the Louisiana swamps or on the shores of the Mississippi’s upper tributaries; it was floated down by the current to New-Orleans, and, having served its purpose, was sold as lumber.
The chaland, or flatboat, came from the west, freighted with a cargo of salted and smoked meats, barrels of apples, flour, corn, lard, cider and whisky, dried fruits, and stoneware, such as jars and crocks. As the term “flatboat” would indicate, this craft was flat-bottomed like a box, on one end a tiny cabin, a mere doll-house, was constructed for the use of the boatmen. The chaland was assisted in floating down stream by the use of long ‘‘sweeps,” or flat-bladed oars, generally only one pair. Fiddling, dancing, and singing varied the monotony of the boatman’s mercantile venture adown the Mississippi.
The chaland à bœufs, or cattle boat, was simply a magnified flatboat having a very large cabin pierced by many windows to admit of ventilation for the animals confined within.
The caboteur, also called pirogue à voile, was a species of sailboat of good dimensions, provided with rudder and oars in addition to the sail. At one end stood a cabin occupied by occasional passengers. This style of peddling vessel carried a mixed stock in trade of groceries, wines, cordials, dry goods, and table and kitchen ware. Having made satisfactory sales of these articles they would return to their original point of departure laden with freight from the plantations. These aquatic stores would ground at convenient landing places on plantation fronts or near the villages, and were visited by all the inhabitants of the surrounding country for the purpose of barter. Not coin alone, but poultry, butter, eggs, &c., were accepted in trade.
The keelboat, called by the Louisiana creoles “la barge,” was, however, the most generally accepted and comfortable river conveyance for freight, passengers, and crops of all kinds. Like the flatboats, the keelboats moved slowly, even going down stream, but the return up stream was tedious in the extreme. Flatboats were always sold at New-Orleans as soon as their freight was discharged, but keelboats would return to Pittsburg [sic], consuming from three to six months on the trip home, after having been at least six or seven weeks in going down the river.
Keelboats were “light, long, and narrow, sharp at both ends, and round-bottomed; they were rigged with one or two ‘sweeps’ on each side for propelling purposes, and a sweep at one end for use as a rudder.” These sweeps were rude ones of immense size, formed of young tree bodies, attached to the boat by iron pins, and having at their outer end a blade formed of thick plank or board. There were also one or two masts on the keelboats. Thus the oarsmen, of whom three were always a full complement, could run up sails when the breeze set in the proper direction and rest themselves. Setting poles were employed to free the boats from the sand bars on which they sometimes grounded or to push them along in shallow water, and also to force them away from accumulations of driftwood and snags which interfered with their progress.
In going up stream it was found extremely difficult to overcome the force of the strong, rapid current racing downward to reach the ocean. For this, warping and cordelling were resorted to. In both processes a hawser was attached to the mast. In warping, a tiny yawl was sent ahead of the keelboat carrying with it one end of the rope, this was fastened to a tree on the river bank, and as the boatman pulled hand over hand by the rope to the tree station, a second hawser was tied to another tree further on, to which point the men then pulled the boat, and thus the warping continued, the men in the yawl knotting each rope to a tree alternately, those in the keelboat pulling up to the trees by the hawsers.
Cordelling was frequently resorted to. In this method the heavy ropes were held at one end by men on shore, who walked along laboriously dragging the boat against the current. When admissible, mules were employed instead of oarsmen, thus relieving the latter of an arduous task. This system was employed by the ancient Romans, who propelled their wheelboats by men or oxen.
There was always a contracted apartment near the stern of a keelboat, which served as its cabin. These were not only of use for giving protection to occasional passengers, but were, in many instances, the sole residences of the boat owners. Owing to this fact the latter were factiously termed crocodiles, that is alligators, because, like these reptiles, they were equally at home on land or water.
That early travel on the Mississippi was not always a delight may easily be understood through the following announcement, published in 1797, giving due notice to possible passengers of the advantages possessed by keelboats about to leave port: “No danger need be apprehended, as every passenger will be under cover—proof against rifle and musket balls, with portholes for firing out of. Each of the boats will be armed with six pieces, carrying one-pound balls, also a number of good muskets and an ample supply of ammunition. They will be strongly manned and by masters of knowledge.” These warlike preparations were due to the necessity of providing protection.
Owing to its numerous difficulties and extreme inconvenience, traveling was not very customary with the fair sex of Louisiana in its early days, but the patricians of France and Spain, who had sought new homes on the wild shores of the turbulent Mississippi, knowing well the inestimable blessing of education, determined, in spite of all intervening obstacles, to procure it for their children. Their sons were sent in sailing vessels over the ocean to the time-honored educational institutions of Europe, while their daughters were delegated to the seclusion of the Ursuline Convent in New-Orleans. “Mademoiselle Marie,” (for eleven times out of a dozen she was so baptized,) with the addition of an aristocratic surname, made the trip adown the river, under the care of her father, in the rude craft of the period, feeling quite as grand as did Cleopatra when borne in her royal barge to meet Antony.
Occasionally families would make a river trip in their own boats, manned by their own slaves. They carried ample supplies of provisions, cooking utensils, bedding, awnings, &c. Tying up to the bank at night, they would build fires on the shores to frighten away the alligators coming from the river and swamp, and the wild animals from the forest, then pitch their tents, like wandering Arabs, under the trees, and rest peacefully until dawn appeared.
There are many souvenirs of a romantic nature connected with travel on the Mississippi previous to its awakening by the whistle of the steamboat. The traditions of one creole family point to an ancestor who wooed his bride on a keelboat. She was a blooming, dark-eyed maiden, on her homeward trip from “Le Convent,” who, to while away the tedium of the journey, chanted sweet French hymns acquired in the cloister to the notes of a guitar. The music touched the impulsive heart of the handsome fellow-traveler and “Mademoiselle Marie” never returned to the convent to assume the veil, as she had been more than half inclined to.
On another occasion a wealthy widower, a planter on the river coast, desired a governess for his charming daughters; a keelboat landed at his plantation gates; he visited it and discovered on board a family moving from the East to Louisiana; one of its members was a grown daughter, well educated and attractive. Among the household goods of the family was a piano. The planter secured the services of the young lady and the instrument for the education of his children. It is not strange, under the circumstances, that in a short while the planter was seeking another governess, while his home owned a new mistress.
"The hour was approaching, however, when there would be an end to romance on keelboats; the era of steam was about to revolutionize the world. The lad Fulton had attained manhood; he had been inspired by inventive genius to perfect that steam navigation which had occupied so many minds for so long a while, and he was successful. In 1803 this young Pennsylvanian launched a small steamboat on the Seine, in 1807 he placed a second on the Hudson; gratified with his success, his ambition pointed to a still greater possible triumph on the Mississippi, although it was declared by all but a very few that it would be impossible for him to build any steamboat that could stem the strong and rapid current of the great river. Fulton turned a deaf ear to all adverse prophecies and worked toward the end he had in view until his efforts culminated in success.
Of the various persons who have disputed Fulton’s laurels as the inventor of the first perfect steamboat, Edward West’s claims are the strongest. West, father of the noted painter William West, was a Virginian of Welsh extraction, who settled in Lexington, Ky., 1785, as a watchmaker, he being the first workman of that nature ever in the town. He was a serious investigator of steam and its possibilities, and constructed all the machinery for his experiments himself; among these machines was a tiny steam engine made in 1799, and which is even yet in the museum of the lunatic asylum at Cincinnati. In August of 1801 he exhibited to the Lexingtonians a boat wherein he had applied steam to the oars; he obtained a patent for this. Its model was unfortunately destroyed at the burning of Washington City by the British in 1814, along with the model of his patented nail-cutting machine, the first one ever invented; it cut 5,320 pounds of nails in twelve hours. West sold this patent for $10,000. It was on the Elkorn, at Lexington, that West first exhibited his boat. Disappointed at having to yield the palm of successful steamboat navigation to Fulton, he died at Lexington Aug. 23, 1827, aged seventy. It may be that West’s claim was just, but Fulton certainly was the first one to bring steam navigation prominently before the public, the first one to make it useful for commercial and traveling purposes; in consequence of this, greatest credit will always attach to him.
While Fulton was busy working out practically his dream of steam power, many changes had occurred on the Mississippi. Louisiana had passed from the dominion of France to that of Spain, and again from the latter to that of the United States. Its name was no longer “Province of Louisiana,” but “Territory of Orleans.” New-Orleans, its seat of Government, had become an incorporated city, and the Territory itself was knocking loudly at the door of the Union demanding admission as its eighteenth State.
The Territorial Legislature of 1811, which previous to its adjournment received official information of the passage of the act to enable the citizens of the Territory to frame a Constitution and State government preparatory to the admission of the new State into the Union, was the identical one which also passed an act granting to Fulton and his associate, Livingston, “the sole and exclusive privilege to build, construct, make, use, employ, and navigate boats, vessels, and water craft urged or propelled through water by fire or steam, in all the creeks, rivers, bays, and waters whatever within the jurisdiction of the Territory during eighteen years from the 1st of January, 1812.
In the "Clermont", which Fulton tested on the Hudson in 1809, Fulton made use of a vertical wheel invented by Nicholas J. Roosevelt, who was deeply interested in the evolution of Fulton’s invention. After the acknowledged success on the Hudson, it was decided that this Roosevelt should go down the Ohio from Pittsburg, out into the Mississippi, and on down to New-Orleans, studying all the way its topography, and above all its currents.
With this end in view, Roosevelt, accompanied by his wife and the necessary men to handle it, made the trip on a flatboat. It was in May of 1809 that Roosevelt started on his journey, making stops at Cincinnati, Louisville, and Natchez, (the only towns of any note whatsoever between Pittsburg and New-Orleans,) and reaching New-Orleans in November; at each town he had been told it would be utter madness to attempt such a feat as to overcome by steam the wild current of the Mississippi; all to whom he spoke of the joint intention of Fulton and himself to inaugurate steam travel on its turbid waters wished him well, but would depict in strong terms the impossibility of so bold a venture.
On reaching Pittsburg in January of 1810, after having consumed six months with his journey of investigation, Roosevelt made such a report that Fulton and Livingston were encouraged to start the immediate building of the pioneer steamer which was to pit its strength against the velocity of the rushing waters of the mighty river. At that period sawmills were not existent, the lumber for the boat was got out by hand and rafted down to Pittsburg, where the steamer was constructed according to the plan furnished by Fulton. It was given a 100-ton capacity; a wheel at the stern, and two masts; its length was 116 feet, its width 20 feet; its engine was manufactured at a Pittsburg foundry under the immediate superintendence of Roosevelt and Latrobe, and possessed a 34-inch cylinder. The boat was made comfortable by two separate cabins for passengers, that for ladies containing four berths.
Latrobe was a noted architect of his day, and in 1816 came to New-Orleans to build the city water works, but failed to do so, as the city could not furnish the necessary funds.
The new boat was baptized the "New-Orleans", as it was intended to ply between that city and the hill town of Natchez. In the early days of September this graceful, well-proportioned steam craft left Pittsburg on its experimental journey, its only passengers being Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt and their Newfoundland dog; its crew consisted of six deck hands, a Captain, a pilot, Andrew Jack by name, and Baker, the engineer, in addition to whom there were the cook, a waiter, and two maids.
The mouth of the Ohio was reached without any extraordinary event, but on entering the Mississippi it was discovered in a state of overflow. On each side the land was under water, and the pilot, who had so bravely faced the dangers of the falls at Louisville and brought the boat safely over them, was now terror-stricken, for he had lost all his bearings. Everything was changed, the entire river seemed to have altered its course, whole islands marked on his chart had vanished completely, and the waters had eaten new cut-offs through the forests; but there were brave spirits aboard the "New-Orleans", and with trust and hope in Providence they continued cautiously on their way. Owing to the danger of attack from Indians, instead of tying up at night, the boat was compelled to anchor in the stream. Even under these circumstances the Indians one night endeavored to board it, and it was only by the superiority of the velocity of steam power over that of the Indian canoe paddles that the "New-Orleans" crew escaped their wild pursuers, who were ready to attack them, even while frightened at a new craft, whose motive power, being invisible to them, filled them with awe.
One evening, in spite of their knowledge that the move was a dangerous one, the crew of the "New-Orleans" tied her up to some trees growing on an island. During the night they were awakened by a crashing noise, and the fact that the boat was being knocked about by some mysterious agency. Imagine their surprise and fright when they discovered the island had been entirely destroyed by the flood, and the motion of the boat was caused by the timber from it being washed up against the sides of the craft and bumping it about. Gathering their scattered wits into some kind of order, the officers of the "New-Orleans" once more started her down the river, moving with care, at a speed rate, it is said, of three miles an hour, although she is declared to have made eight miles on the Ohio. Finally the yellow, sun-baked bluffs of Natchez were sighted, and as the graceful little steamer came toward them, breasting the Mississippi current with the ease of a swan swimming over a smooth pond, all the inhabitants of the town gathered on the bluffs to view her, and wild, loud, and prolonged were the shouts which welcomed her advent. At Natchez the "New-Orleans" received the first cotton ever carried on the waters of the Mississippi, or anywhere else, by steam, the shipper being Mr. Samuel Davis.
When the "New-Orleans", speeding on its way, reached that portion of the river bank above the City of New-Orleans called “the coast,” along which lay the plantations, all animals—domesticated and wild—rushed away from the extraordinary spectacle in amazed affright; masters and slaves quit alike their pleasure and toll to gaze in open-eyed surprise on this great wonder, this steam-breathing Queen of the Waters.
Steadily the well-proportioned boat speeds down stream until the 10th of January finds the population of New-Orleans flocking en masse to the levee to welcome this name-child of their prosperous city, the steamboat "New-Orleans".
After her warm welcome at the Crescent City, the "New-Orleans" made one trip on the Ohio, and then ran from New-Orleans to Natchez until she was destroyed by fire at Baton Rouge in the Winter of 1813-14. Her life was short, but she had fulfilled her destiny. New boats followed in her wake, having as commanders and pilots the flatboatmen and bargemen of former times. Cotton, which had formerly been limited in cultivation owing to the great expense of handling such heavy freight when it was compulsory to transport it on barges, now became the staple crop. In 1820 it amounted to 600,000 bales, by 1835 it had reached 1,500,000, one-half of which was sent to the New-Orleans market. The population, too, increased marvelously, for men were not slow to flock to the rich lands bordering the Mississippi after the transportation of crops became facile and rapid.
The second boat sent down the Mississippi was the "Vesuvius", built at Pittsburg in 1814, and enrolled at New-Orleans the same year, that city being the only port where boats could be enrolled at that time, as there was no Custom House at Pittsburg nor at Cincinnati. The "Vesuvius" was commanded by Capt. De Hart, and just prior to the fight at Chalmette, Gen. Jackson took possession of her to transport arms and ammunition. She, however, was so unfortunate as to get aground, and reached New-Orleans too late for the battle. Like her predecessor, she was short lived, having burned at New-Orleans in 1816.
As the demands of commerce increased, new boats were supplied, until by 1820 there were fifty plying on the Mississippi, and a regular packet line was the same year established between Vicksburg and New-Orleans, the first one being the Mississippi, built in New-York, and placed originally on the Alabama River.
Under the steamboat system, travel became a luxurious pleasure, much indulged in by the river planters especially. When a journey was undertaken, a slave was stationed on the river bank to watch for the approach of a steamer; during the day he waved a white flag to signal it, during the night he burned a beacon fire on the levee and rapidly circled a blazing pine torch in the air, while in stentorian tones he cried out, “Steamboat ahoy! ahoy! ahoy! ahoy!” as the boat hove into sight; a few shrill shrieks from the whistle acknowledged the signal, a bell clanged, the steamer rounded to, a gangplank was extended from the lower deck to the shore, and the traveler had begun his journey.
From 1812 until the present time, there has been but one variation in the adopted method of steamboat signaling—a change which had its birth in a new era, a greater era than that of steam navigation, the era of freedom. The man still waves the white flag and circles the blazing torch, but since 1864 the hand with which he grasps them is that of a freedman!
Of late years the steamboat trade of New-Orleans is only a fraction of what it was previous to the laying of so many railroads through Louisiana and its sister States. Yet the levees and piers which extend back from the river some two hundred feet along the whole length of the city, and which in their days of infancy were mostly prized as yielding space for a pleasant promenade, are still a Babel of confusion, an anthill of industry.
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