- Historic Sites
Heyday Of The Floating Palace
Nicholas Roosevelt’s fire canoe transformed the Mississippi.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
Now began the series of events which makes most later steamboat voyages pale by comparison. There was not, at the time, enough water in the river to permit the New Orleans to negotiate the Falls of the Ohio, and Roosevelt had to wait for a rise in the stream. The outlook was far from promising. Each day dawned dull and misty with a cloudless sky and a strange overpowering atmosphere. Most ominous was the sun, which looked for all the world like “a globe of red hot iron,” with a lack of brilliance that enabled watchers to stare at it without turning away. On one of these hot, still days Mrs. Roosevelt gave birth to her baby, and finally, in the last week of November, the river rose to a point where the falls were five inches more than the draft of the New Orleans. It was a tight squeeze, but Roosevelt decided to attempt the passage.
Steerage way and navigation of the vessel depended on its speed exceeding that of the current, and they put on all the steam the boiler would stand. With safety valve shrieking, the New Orleans practically leaped away from the crowds assembled to witness her departure, and as she headed into white water everyone on board reached instinctively for something solid to hold onto. No one spoke a word. The tense pilots directed the helmsman by motions of their hands until, after what must have seemed like hours, the New Orleans rounded to safety below the falls.
While she lay there at anchor, the passengers became aware of a strange motion. The anchor cable shook and trembled, almost as if the boat had been moving and then, suddenly, had run aground. Several of them were affected with nausea, and the vessel’s movement became more pronounced as the series of shocks continued throughout the night. Violent earthquakes, particularly severe in the Mississippi Valley, had followed the comet of 1811, and the party aboard the New Orleans had run right into them.
Next day, moving down river, they were pursued by Chickasaw Indians in a canoe. They outran them easily, but when Roosevelt was awakened that night by shouts and trampling feet on the deck, he grabbed for a sword, thinking they had attacked again. Hurrying from the cabin with sword in hand, he discovered that the New Orleans was on fire, and not until a good part of the forward cabin had been destroyed was the blaze put out.
As they moved down the Mississippi, the travelers were greeted at each landing by victims of the “days of horror”—the terrible earthquakes which had devastated this land. At New Madrid, terrified inhabitants begged to be taken aboard, but there was simply not enough room for them. As J.H.B. Latrobe, writing some years later of his sister’s voyage, said: “One of the peculiar characteristics of the voyage was the silence that prevailed on board. No one seemed disposed to talk. … Tiger … prowled about, moaning and growling. … Orders were given in low tones, and the usual cheerful ‘aye, aye, sir,’ of the sailors was almost inaudible. Sleeplessness was another characteristic.” While they were ashore, gathering wood or coal, the men would wait while the earth shook, staring at each other until it ceased. Instead of calling greetings to them, the crews of barges and flatboats passed by silently, almost sullenly. Mrs. Roosevelt recorded that she “lived in constant fright, unable to sleep or sew or read.”
To the Indians they met, who called the steamboat “Penelore” or “fire canoe,” the New Orleans was an omen of evil. Sparks from its chimney were related to the comet which preceded the earthquake, and the revolving paddles to the rumbling of the earth. So great were the changes in the channel that the pilot lost his way; where he expected deep water, roots and stumps appeared above the surface. Tall trees once used as markers had disappeared, islands had changed shape. And once when the boat was made fast for the night to an island bank, the passengers awoke next morning to find that the island had disappeared.
As the New Orleans descended the river she left behind the earthquake area, but two more incidents were to round out the saga of this first Mississippi steamboat voyage. The first occurred in front of thousands of onlookers at Natchez when, as the New Orleans was rounding to for a landing, her head of steam gave out and she started drifting downstream with the current. At the last moment, the engineer got up enough steam to work the vessel into shore. The final episode was a happy one, as befitted a saga of this kind. As J.H.B. Latrobe relates it, the captain had fallen in love with Lydia Roosevelt’s maid, "… prosecuted his suit so successfully as to find himself an accepted lover when the New Orleans reached Natchez, and a clergyman being sent for, a wedding marked the arrival of the boat at the chief city of Mississippi.”