Heyday Of The Floating Palace

More than 270 years had slipped by since Hernando de Soto first stumbled onto the Mississippi, and in all that time the river had been host to an increasing variety of boats. For longer than anyone could reckon, the sleek canoes of the Indian had been there, but slowly and almost imperceptibly they began to be outnumbered by the arks, keelboats, and flatboats of the white man, laden with furs and less romantic cargoes, making the lazy trip down river.

Neither the river nor the people watching from its banks had ever seen anything quite like the bizarre craft which hove into sight in the year 1811. And there is good reason to doubt if any boat, before or since, had such a journey—a Homeric trip on which anything might happen, and nearly everything did. This was the maiden voyage of the New Orleans, the first steamer on the Mississippi River.

The story of steamboating in western waters began less than two weeks after Robert Fulton’s Clermont made her successful trip up the Hudson in 1807, when Fulton made inquiries about the Mississippi. Successful in obtaining a monopoly on steamboat operation in New York, he and Chancellor Livingston were able to acquire the same rights from the Territory of Orleans—later Louisiana. In 1809 they sent Nicholas Roosevelt, brother of Theodore Roosevelt’s great-grandfather Jacobus, to Pittsburgh with instructions to survey the rivers. Traveling aboard a flatboat, Roosevelt and his wife, Lydia, daughter of architect Benjamin Latrobe, floated downstream, asking questions, observing, taking soundings, and spotting coal mines along the route for possible future use. Along the way, Roosevelt’s talk of a boat that could travel up as well as downstream was greeted with laughter or polite disbelief, but after he made his report to Fulton and Livingston the backers decided to go ahead at once.

Construction began at Beelen’s iron foundry, below Boyd’s Hill in Pittsburgh, in the spring of 1811, and despite floods on the Monongahela which threatened to carry everything downstream prematurely, the New Orleans was launched in September. Built according to Fulton’s plans, the boat was 148 feet long, powered by a Boulton & Watt “steeple” engine with a 34-inch cylinder which developed less than 100 horsepower. The blue-hulled vessel carried two masts and with its elaborately furnished cabins, cost $38,000—quite a sum in those days. A few old sketches and woodcuts of the New Orleans survive, some showing her as a sidewheeler, others as a stern-wheeler, but most authorities believe that she was, like Fulton’s Clermont a sidewheeler. Captain Henry Shreve, who broke the Fulton Livingston monopoly, built the stern-wheelers which were prototypes for the western riverboats. The local citizenry considered this strange craft itself folly enough for one man, but when they heard that Mrs. Roosevelt—quite obviously pregnant—was accompanying her husband on his first voyage, they were convinced of his madness. All this served to heighten the excitement as the New Orleans finally slipped out into the stream, leaving a waving, shouting crowd behind as she headed into the Ohio.

Aboard, in the two cabins, were Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt, the captain, an engineer named Baker, Andrew Jack the pilot, six hands, two female servants, a steward, a cook, and an enormous Newfoundland dog named Tiger. Past a shore line of limitless forest, broken occasionally by clearings where startled onlookers appeared to see and cheer them, they pushed downstream for two days at a speed of eight to ten miles an hour—”as jolly a set as ever floated on the Ohio.” Anchoring at Cincinnati, they were greeted by the mayor, who congratulated Roosevelt on his achievement, but added somewhat sorrowfully: "… we see you for the last time. Your boat may go down the river, but as to coming up, the very idea is an absurd one.”

The New Orleans dropped anchor at Louisville on October 1, 1811, a bright moonlit night. Although it was late, crowds assembled at the riverbank, some of them convinced that the loud hissing noise they heard was caused by the comet of 1811 falling into the Ohio. During several days ashore, Roosevelt first received congratulations from everyone he met, then their condolences that this was the first and last time a steamboat would be seen above the Falls of the Ohio, the dangerous rapids in the river at Louisville. To convince them otherwise, Roosevelt invited some of his hosts aboard, and while they were at dinner the boat got under way. There was a rush to the upper deck, where the passengers discovered to their utter astonishment that they were actually moving upstream. After going up river for a few miles, the New Orleans and the delighted guests returned to the original anchorage.