THE STEAMBOAT ERA
A.W. Moore

 

During this period, a pressing need for an economical means of transportation between New Orleans and St. Louis arose, and to supply this on a scale in keeping with the heavy demands of commerce keel boats came into use and began to make regular trips up and down the river. The keel boat of that day was capable of hauling heavy loads of from 10 to 70 tons in not-to-shallow water, and was built with a view of offering as little resistance to rapid currents as possible. It was propelled by oars, poles, and the cordelle, a tow rope running to each bank which was pulled by the crew. The boatmen, in gangs, planted their poles on the bottom of the stream and pushed against them, moving rapidly toward the stern of the boat. After reaching the stern they would pull up their poles, return to the bow of the boat and start over again. This work was done mainly by Negroes, Mullatos, and French Creoles.

The actual expense of keel boating from New Orleans to St. Louis, on the basis of a 40 to boat, averaged $23 per ton, and freight could not be transferred between these points for less than $1.25 per 100 pounds. Even after steamboats began, passengers paid from $125 to $150 to travel from St. Louis to New Orleans, but freight rates were reduced to 65 per 100 pounds.

On the 21st of Aug. 1815, the first steamboat to navigate this part of the Mississippi, landed at St. Louis where it stayed a few days before coming to the East St. Louis side. It was an ordinary flat boat with four sheds in the center to protect its cargo and a steam engine attached to a platform at the stern. Boats of this type carried from 30 to 50 tons of cargo with ease. The purpose of this boat coming to this part of the river is unknown, but it is believed that the Captain was soliciting transportation trade for his boat. Evidently he did not find much business in this area, for he left shortly afterwards. The next steamboat did not until 1817. This boat, known as "Old Franklin" did not stay long either, but after this steamboats began to arrive at St. Louis in large numbers, and by 1820, the docking of a steamboat in St. Louis or Illinois Town was a common sight. It was not long until steamboats came in such large numbers trying to land on the west side, that they had to wait some three or four days in order to order to find a space to dock their boat in. During this time of waiting they would tie their boats to the east shore.

At this time a few business men in Illinoistown saw great possibilities in making the East side dock as important as that on the West side of the river. They saw the boats on the St. Louis shore were lined up three deep, making the unloading of the boats very uncomfortable and slow. The boats on the outside of this line unloaded their cargo by carrying their goods over the other two boats to the shore. They knew that all material from the east was brought overland to Illinoistown and transferred by the Wiggins ferry to St. Louis, where a large part of it was then shipped to different points in the south. Their idea was to intercept this material and ship it south from Illinoistown. Finally, in 1835, their dream of monopolising the eastern trade came true. These large steamers were arriving at the east side dock in large numbers waiting for their turn to unload their cargo picked up in the south and load up with eastern cargo. Some of the famous old steamboat lines the located in East St. Louis were the "Anchor Lines," controlling such boats as "The City of Memphis, The City of New Orleans, The Belle of Memphis, and the Vicksburg". The "Lee Lines," controlled such boats as the "Stacker Lee and the Robt. E. Lee." The Lee Lines, had 12 boats which were named after each member of the famous Lee family. The Tennessee River Packet Line and the Ohio River Packet Line also had offices in Illinoistown.

Pilots of the river steamers were very scarce and in that day they would walk down to the dock, when they felt like working, dressed in tails, white gloves and a high hat. Usually a boat Captain or company official would approach them and make them an offer to take their boat out. The pilots of this day were very independent and would refuse offers of less than $1000 to pilot a boat from St. Louis to New Orleans and $1000 was the regular scale. During these trips to the southland, the pilot would stop every north-bound boat to exchange navigation information. Many times a boat would run aground in the unknown waters of the Mississippi, as they had no guiding lights such as exist today. They would also have to keep their eyes open for river bandits who made their headquarters in little caves on the banks of the Mississippi. From here they would watch the river traffic for unarmed steamboats which they would stop and plunder the boatmen and capture their boats and cargoes. In many a stream and lagoon along the course the great river gangs of land pirates lurked, ripe for pillage and murder if necessary. Scarcely less dangerous were the gamblers, often dramatized in modern fiction, who made their homes in New Orleans to meet the incoming boats and their crews for a bit of gambling.

The greatest river bandit of them all was John A. Murrell, who controlled the activities of some 2500 river bandits along the Mississippi. Murrell was undoubtedly a very intelligent man as it was said that with his ability as a leader of men he could, if he had chosen the legal side of the law, have been a great politician, lawyer, or one of the country's outstanding business men. His only mistake was the desire to personally plunder steamboats instead of staying in the background and directing his men.

In 1847, Murrell started a plan that would make him king of the black men in the south. His plan was to organize a union for negro slaves who at a given time would free themselves from slavery by combat. But, when the battle plans were about completed, Murrell was caught plundering a boat and sent to prison. While he was in prison his lieutenants attempted to carry on with his plans. A few hundred negroes were given the word to start fighting for their freedom and the plan was underway, but the rebellion was short-lived. The plantation owners and their friends overpowered the slaves and their leaders; some were beaten to death with raw-hides and the more fortunate ones were lucky to kepp from being crippled for life. When John Murrell was released from prison, seven years later, his health was broken and all of his former acquaintances were dead or had fled from that area. After finding his organization had disintegrated, Murrell moved up the river to some unknown spot where he died at the age of 41. After this it was not long until the river gangs completely vanished. By 1850, the plundering of a steamboat was heard of only when stories were told by some of the old dock hands or boatmen.

When the negro slave dock worker or one working on the boats would sing a song during his rest period, the rest of his fellow workers would join in, in the typical southern plantation style. These negroes had a song for every mood. Hardly an evening passed that a fight did not occur. These fights were not always caused by arguments but for the pure love of excitement. Most any night one could hear them sing about the river or one of the most common ones such as "Come aroun' tomorrow night ca'se we'er gonna have fight and de razahs will be flying in de air"

The boatmen of this day were of a rough and boisterous class, but trustworthy and capable, and willing to endure periods of extreme fatigue and exposure. A great responsibility rested upon them, for often they carried to New Orleans cargoes worth thousands of dollars, the proceeds which they had to fetch safely home with them to the owner.

East St. Louis could not at any time compare its shipping facilities with that of New Orleans, St. Louis, Louisville and a few other down the river cities. But, it was in East St. Louis that a new kind of transportation started that was in time to completely outdo and practically discard the steamboat on the Mississippi river as a valueless means of transportation. This new kind of transportation was the railroad.