Environment: 1800-1850 The River Environment

Before steamboats regularly plied the waters of the Mississippi River and for some time after they became a popular means of transportation, rivers were dangerous places. Rivers are dynamic and change regularly. Sometimes changes come fast, such as a flood, while other changes are more gradual, like the gradual erosion of a shoreline. In either case, gradual or fast, changes posed problems for anyone who ventured onto the Mississippi; where the water was once deep it might be shallow, hidden debris could quickly sink a boat, and the bends in the river might be different from one journey to the next. Despite such problems it was always obvious that such large, long bodies of water offered a good way to travel. The Mississippi River and those river systems connected to it provided a means to travel throughout parts of the Eastern Seaboard and Midwest. There was a good deal of incentive, then, to find a way to tap into this natural highway system. The following story of the New Orleans relates how the advent of reliable steam power opened the door to increased use of America's rivers.

Newspaper Clipping announcing a trip of the New Orleans.

The Voyage of New Orleans

The New Orleans, the first steamboat to travel down the Ohio and the Mississippi, left Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in September 1811 to begin the long journey to New Orleans, Louisiana. Before this trip journeying on the major American rivers required human power and perseverance. Rafts, canoes, and flatboats mainly traveled downstream as the upstream currents could at times easily overpower a person's ability to paddle or row. In slower water ferry operators employed draft animals to power paddle wheels that moved the ferries across the river.

The 1911 replica New Orleans.

The New Orleans was under the command of Nicholas L. Roosevelt who previously traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi on a flatboat to scout out a route for the trip. Robert Fulton, the designer of the New Orleans hired Roosevelt to make both journeys. Roosevelt was a skilled engine designer and Fulton trusted him to make the dangerous trip.

After a successful launch it took the New Orleans about three days to reach Louisville, Kentucky. Crowds gathered at every stop the boat made. Although steam technology was not new, no one had yet made a reliable steamboat that was able to travel long distances and travel upstream against the current. On October 1, 1811, Roosevelt, confident of the New Orleans left Louisville and sailed upstream to Cincinnati, Ohio, to prove the vessel could accomplish that feat. Soon after Roosevelt proved that the New Orleans was good for upstream travel, he faced another challenge.

Below Louisville were the Falls of the Ohio, a series of rapids that could dash the boat against rocks if the pilot was not careful. In early November, the water rose high enough for Roosevelt to try to run the falls. Under full steam the New Orleans successfully ran the rapids.

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