October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
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.
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.”
The age of steam on the western rivers began with the New Orleans, and Fulton and Livingston followed up their first success with the Vesuvius, the Aetna, the Buffalo, and a second New Orleans after the original was impaled on a stump and sank. But bad luck dogged their operations and they were never able to capitalize on their initial advantage. Meanwhile a group of men at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, some fifty miles up the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh, had built and were operating steamboats without benefit of licensing. Both Daniel French and Henry M. Shreve of the Brownsville group contributed much to early steamboat design, particularly Shreve, who brought out the Washington in 1816, the biggest steamboat yet built. Alter 1818, when the Fulton-Livingston monopoly was virtually dead; more and more builders came into the field.
Fifty-five years later there were several hundred boats, large and small, operating out of New Orleans. It was possible to book passage on one of 41 lines to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Vicksburg, Nashville, Florence, Shreveport, and Jefferson, to say nothing of countless places on tributary streams. Yet 110 years after Nicholas Roosevelt’s voyage, New Orleans newspapers carried the advertisement of just one steamboat and the great era was dead. It had lasted a little over a century—years in which steamboating and New Orleans became a legend together. And when the steamboat vanished, New Orleans’ commercial prestige was to wane for many years.
By trial and error, the early steamboat builders gradually improved the vessels. The ocean-ship characteristics of the first boats with their deep-rounded hulls, masts for sails, and bowsprits gradually disappeared. Hulls were made shallower so that the boats rode on the water instead of in it; bowsprits made way for the jack staff, a tall flagpole on the bow which had great value to the pilot in sighting his course. The first engines—cumbersome vertical affairs—were superseded by machines with stationary horizontal cylinders and oscillating pitmans which drove the paddle wheels. Since the hulls were quite shallow, boilers and engines were placed on the main deck and a second (and eventually a third or texas deck) was added for the accommodation of passengers. This revolution in design produced a type of boat which was to become characteristic of all steamboats on the Mississippi and its tributaries. During the first two decades after Roosevelt’s New Orleans, 269 boats were built; but between 1830 and 1840 the demand for more and more resulted in the construction—mostly at Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville—of some 729 vessels.
Specialization soon entered into steamboat construction. Some firms built hulls, others engines, still others cabins. And for nearly half a century, steamboats were built by craftsmen using rule-of-thumb methods without plans. A captain would journey to Jeffersonville or New Albany and simply tell his boatbuilder what he wanted—”a twenty-five hundred bale boat—so wide, so long, so many boilers, so many staterooms”—and the result was usually to his satisfaction. In later years, plans were used; but such famous boats as the Natchez and the Rob’t E. Lee were built without them.
Since the low flat hull was so little in evidence, the designer-builders concentrated their efforts above the water line. With great resourcefulness, they evolved a new architectural form combining the great, ugly, and bulky paddleboxes, the towering chimneys, and the sprawling superstructure into a graceful type of vessel which seemed to rest securely on the water rather than to tower awkwardly above it.
The cabin builders were chiefly responsible for bringing to full flower the “floating palace” tradition, an elegance which bordered on magnificence. On the larger boats, the cabin, 200 feet long or more, was a “long resplendent tunnel” separating staterooms and serving as social hall and dining room for the passengers. Elaborately carved brackets supported ceilings frequently covered with a riot of near-Gothic ornament. Light from stained glass clerestory windows fell on varicolored Brussels carpets often woven especially for the boat; imported chandeliers, paintings, rich draperies, plush-covered furniture, and that ultimate of Victorian elegance, the grand piano, were reflected in the towering, gleaming mirror at the end of the ladies cabin. This was travel in style!
By 1850 the Mississippi River steamboat had reached the acme of design. No important structural changes took place after that except that builders made some of their boats much bigger and generally yielded to the popular taste that marked the sixties and seventies by providing an exuberance of gingerbread decoration. These embellishments earned the steamboat the derisive characterization of “Engine on a raft with $11,000 worth of jig-saw work around it.”
In mid-century the building and repair of steamboats was a major industry of the western country. Six thousand steamboats of more than a million tons in aggregate were built and run on the Mississippi and its tributaries from 1820 to 1880.
From the earliest days, steamboat operation was plagued by boiler explosions. The tenth boat to be built, Shreve’s Washington, exploded on her maiden voyage in June, 1816, the first of a long series of such disasters which, next to racing, became the most notable feature of the steamboat legend. By 1850 some 185 boats had blown up with a loss of life exceeding 1,400. One of the most spectacular of these occurred in 1849 when the Louisiana exploded at the levee in New Orleans. Two boats lying next to her were leveled to the water and the force of the explosion carried a heavy piece of metal five city blocks. The Louisiana sank within ten minutes and some 86 persons lost their lives.
Of all the explosions on the river, the worst took place in April, 1865, when the steamer Sultana [see AMERICAN HERITAGE, October, 1955] picked up 2,400 returning Union prisoners of war at Vicksburg and crowded them with 180 civilian passengers and crew onto a boat designed to hold one-sixth of that number. In the middle of the night, a few miles above Memphis, a boiler exploded and the Sultana caught fire. It was a rainy night; the Mississippi was at flood stage and three miles wide. Many were killed by burning and drowning. The official count of the dead and missing in this disaster was 1,547—more than were lost on the Titanic.
Other accidents took their toll. Snaggings—running into heavy sticks of timber implanted in the bottom of the river—caused many a sinking. Collisions—the result of careless or negligent operations, especially at night—were not uncommon. Next to explosions, fire was the most dreaded hazard. The boats were made of wood and there was a constant danger of flying sparks from furnaces and chimneys. In 1837 the Ben Sherrod was on a trip from New Orleans to Louisville. Trying to overtake a rival, the captain of the Sherrod ordered the fireman to pile on fuel. The boilers became overheated and set fire to sixty cords of pine wood stacked too close for safety, and in a matter of minutes the boat was a flaming torch. The fire set off a barrel of whisky, the boilers exploded, and finally some forty barrels of gunpowder let go. Of the 200 passengers aboard the Sherrod, 72 perished. Other steamboats were nearby, and some picked up survivors; but one, the Alton, steaming to the rescue, only succeeded in plowing through the hapless victims in the water.
A man named Cook, a passenger from the Sherrod, managed with some other survivors to grasp a floating object. As they were being carried downstream, they saw a man standing on shore, hailed him, and implored his help; soon he came out into the river in a small boat looking for baggage and boxes in the debris of the wreck. When he came close, the man asked with the utmost sang-froid , “How much will you give me?” When he was not satisfied by what was offered, he paddled off, saying, “Oh, you’re well off there; keep cool and you’ll come out comfortable.”
But there were lighter sides to steamboating, too. Nearly every boat was sooner or later given a nickname by the cheerful, carefree roustabouts who carried the freight on board and off on their shoulder bones. Quick to seize on some characteristic of the boat, the Negroes came up with some fantastic titles. For instance they called the Ouachita—“Oyster Loaf,” Danube—“you be dam,” Paul Tulane—“Two days and a half,” Richmond—“Rebel Home,” G.W. Sentell—“Broken Back,” Mabel Comeaux—“Vuss Maker,” and Wheelock, probably because of the scant quantity of food served them—“Starvation.”
The boats themselves were often given intriguing names, like Silver Heels, Swan, Starlight, Dew Drop, Fawn, Lotus, Swamp Fox, Grand Turk. Captain E. Parker, master of the packet Piota, called his boat by that name because the letters stood for “Parker is obliged to all.”
The men who ran them were as distinctive a breed as the boats. The most picturesque character aboard was generally the mate. He had one of the most demanding jobs—down on the main deck with the freight, the deck passengers, and the rousters. His temper and vocabulary were legendary; he had to be tough and he had to know how to handle Negroes, for roustabouts respected and would work well for a mate who understood them, even though he might be stern and take a stick of wood to them on occasion.
The engineer had the hot and sweaty job of keeping the engines going, often for days at a time without the opportunity to make repairs. The engineer was almost certain to pay with his life if he made a serious error in judgment with his boilers and his engine. Generally, the engineer was taken for granted; nobody thought much about him except during races or in case of disaster when he was the first to be blamed—that is, if he was still around. The striker was his assistant.
The clerk was business manager and freight and passenger agent. He purchased fuel and supplies, hired and fired the lesser crew members, assigned passengers their quarters.
The assistant clerk was known as the “mud clerk,” a name derived from the muddy feet he got at landings, receiving and delivering freight in all sorts of weather.
The pilot, immortalized by Mark Twain, had to know every bend, every snag, and every sand bar along the way, by night and by day, in clear weather or in foul. In his lofty aerie atop the texas, encased in glass with a commanding view of the river; with bell-pulls and a speaking tube to convey his orders to the engineer—he was indeed a lord. The steamboat pilot was a combination navigator and steersman and a regular full-time officer aboard the vessel.
The captain was the boss of the boat. He was often its owner or part owner. It was he who arranged for the safety and comfort of the passengers, inspired confidence, and spread charm among the ladies—and he had to know every trick of the trade to stay in a highly competitive business. Of the hundreds of captains who commanded steamboats on the Mississippi perhaps the best known and most colorful was Captain Thomas P. Leathers.
Tom Leathers was born in 1816 in Kentucky; coming down the Mississippi in 1836, he and a brother began steamboating on the Yazoo River in a boat called the Sunflower. By 1840 he, another brother, and their associates built the Princess, the first of five boats by that name that they ran in the New Orleans-Vicksburg trade. In 1845 Leathers built the first Natchez; three years later he sold her and built another, larger, and finer Natchez, This boat, too, was soon superseded by a third Natchez which unfortunately burned in 1854 while at the New Orleans levee. Tom Leathers’ brother James died in that fire, and Captain Tom and his young wife barely escaped with their lives.
A fourth Natchez was soon built and placed in the trade. This boat proudly flew the U.S. Mail pennant, more and more business came its way, and soon the fourth Natchez was too small to suit her owner.
Shortly before the Civil War broke out, Leathers built the fifth Natchez. She was a beauty, the finest thing afloat on the Mississippi. Captain Leathers proudly showed her off, but, alas, not for long. After only a few months of service, New Orleans fell to Farragut, and Leathers sent the Natchez up to the Yazoo River to escape capture. Used as a ram during the war, the fifth Natchez was eventually burned.
After the war Leathers slowly recouped his fortunes. In 1869 he built his sixth Natchez, the racer. She, too, was a beautiful boat—as long as a New Orleans city block, with immense paddle wheels 43 feet in diameter driven by high-pressure steam engines capable of producing about 2,000 horsepower. It was said that she was as graceful in appearance on the water as a swan. Leathers mounted her whistle, which sounded like a huge bumblebee, on the inside of one of the smokestacks near the top. “The whistle is for awakening persons on shore, not on the steamboat,” said he.
Leathers had high standards in the conduct of his steamboat business; his boats were swift, they ran on schedule, and no detail was overlooked to make travel and transportation safe and sure. Moreover, Leathers had a flair for publicity that would have delighted a public relations man. He knew how to dramatize himself and his boats. For instance, the tall stacks of the were painted red, enabling anyone to spot his boat in the forest of sooty cylinders on the New Orleans waterfront.
Physically, Leathers was tall and well proportioned—a really big man. He had a heavy head of hair and always wore a beard. His face was not handsome, but a forceful one dominated by a firm, almost obstinate jaw. He habitually wore a ruffled shirt ornamented by a diamond cluster pin; his suits were of Confederate gray and he was an unreconstructed southerner who would not fly the American flag on his boats. In fact, he refused to recognize that the war was over until March 4, 1885, when at Vicksburg, he decided to bury the hatchet. The Democrats had won the election, so Leathers fired the cannon from the forecastle of his boat, and amid a celebration, declared the war ended, hoisting the flag which for some 24 years had not graced the jack staff of his boats.
In 1870 Leathers was in his prime as a steamboat captain—extremely self-confident about his Natchez and about himself. His one-time friend and associate but now bitter rival, Captain John W. Cannon, was running the Rob’t E. Lee when the sixth Natchez came out. Looking about for a spectacular coup to dramatize the superiority of the Natchez over the Lee, Leathers pushed the Natchez from New Orleans to St. Louis and broke the record of three days, twenty-three hours, and nine minutes which had been made in 1844 by the fast J. M. White. This brought matters to a head and although both steamboatmen denied they were racing, both started for St. Louis on June 30, 1870, within minutes of each other. Cannon had set about in earnest to win the race. He stripped his boat, took no freight, and arranged to refuel in midstream. Leathers, too sure of himself, took on a load of cargo and made no extraordinary preparations for the race. The boats were probably fairly well matched as to speed, everything else being equal, but the Admiral of the Mississippi was outguessed and outfoxed by the wily Cannon. The Natchez lost the race, undoubtedly the most exciting ever to be staged on the Mississippi, but to his dying day Captain Leathers would not admit that his was the slower boat.
The sixth Natchez operated some nine and a half years. In that time she made 401 round trips in the New Orleans-Vicksburg trade. She could carry 5,500 bales of cotton each trip, besides other freight and passengers, and could negotiate the distance between New Orleans and Natchez in sixteen and a half hours.
Leathers built a seventh Natchez when the sixth wore out, and she, too, was a big, handsome boat. For many years on Saturday afternoon at exactly five o’clock, he would appear on her boiler deck roof, vigorously tap his big bell for departure, and the Natchez would move out proudly from the landing, glide slowly downstream as far as the Mint, turn about, pause a moment, and then with black smoke pouring from her tall red stacks, speed swiftly up the river, firing her cannon and lowering her flag as she steamed past Canal Street. No wonder there was always a crowd at the levee in those days!
The seventh Natchez was a little too late for the big time. She did well at first but the plush days were past, and in 1887 Leathers had to lay her up because there was not enough business to keep her going.
For a man who had braved the river for sixty years, Leathers met a landsman’s death. When he was eighty years old, he was knocked down by a “scorcher,” which is what they called a hit-and-run bicyclist in 1896, and died of his injuries on June 13 of that year.
Steamboat races were generally impromptu affairs rather than staged races over long distances. To passengers, often bored by the monotony of a long trip and confinement in close quarters, racing was a thrill indeed, whatever the outcome. Everybody knew it was dangerous, from the captain on down, yet it was difficult not to yield to temptation when two well-matched boats came abreast of each other.
To those on shore, a steamboat race was a dazzling sight. To see two steamboats with flags flying, smoke rolling from tall chimneys, steam spurting from the 'scape pipes, foam flying from their bows, passengers and crews yelling, was a sight to be remembered.
In March, 1858, occurred a spectacular race which was probably the longest and most animated ever to be run on the Mississippi. This was the race between the Baltic and the Diana. Both boats left within two minutes of each other from New Orleans one Sunday morning, headed for Louisville, 1,382 miles away. So closely matched were they in speed that they were in sight of each other a great part of the way. At one time, near Point Worthington, the two boats “locked horns” and for some fifteen miles ran neck and neck together. The Baltic was the faster boat and she won the race; time: five days, six hours, twenty-two minutes.
There were much faster boats than the Baltic; one of these was the Peytona, a stepper in the New Orleans-Louisville trade. Joe Stealey, an old-time steamboatman reminisced in 1887 about a trip he had made aboard this boat in the fifties: “I was on the Peytona, when she made what I believe to be the swiftest time any steamboat had to her credit. She was coming up the Lower Mississippi, against the current, mind you. Old Captain Shallcross was her master. We all knew she was a fast boat, but the Captain would not let the boys put her to her best. One day, it being very warm, he lay down in the cabin and went to sleep. The boys determined to see how fast the Peytona would go. It was just forty miles to Converse, and therefore we knew how to calculate. They put on all steam and reached Converse in two hours, making twenty miles an hour. Captain Shallcross woke up at Converse and wouldn’t let the boys run her any further—but that was enough.”
The steamboat age was noted for the food served aboard the boats. Silverware, china, and linens were often made especially for the crack packets and menus set a standard probably never equalled since. For Christmas dinner in 1859, Captain Leathers’ fifth Natchez had a gaily printed bill of fare offering, among the fourteen courses, four types of fish, six broiled meats and six kinds of roasts, eight entrees and nine cold dishes, five types of game, and thirty-six different desserts.
Then came the Civil War, bringing an almost complete disruption to commercial steamboat traffic on the Mississippi. When it was over, the finest of the prewar packets, which had holed up in tributary streams like the Yazoo, were gone forever—destroyed by the Confederates themselves to avoid capture or sunk in conflict. But this was not the death knell of steamboating—in a few years bigger and better boats, like the Ruth, the Richmond, the Rob’t E. Lee, the Great Republic, and the incomparable J. M. White, made their appearance, and for a long time steamboating seemed to have caught its second wind. “But the railroad, which runs in high water or low and does not snag itself in a vital spot with a snag, came along and cleared the steamboat out of business,” wrote Clyde Fitch, a newspaperman who saw the transition take place. By the 1880s, the signs of dissolution were everywhere apparent; in the 1890s more and more boats went to the bank, never to return; in 1909 there were no longer any through Mississippi packet lines and steamboating was dying fast.
Some people live beyond their time; such a man was Captain LeVerier Cooley, one of the very last of the old-time lower Mississippi steamboatmen. Captain Cooley “learned” the river in the 1870s and trod the decks of steamboats until he died, December 19, 1931. He ran the Tensas, pronounced Ten-saw (which carried a big circular saw swung between its chimneys with a numeral ten painted on it), in the 1880s; the big Ouachita in the nineties, the sturdy America in the first two decades of the 1900s, and his last, the “little” Ouachita in the twenties.
Captain Cooley, who ran his boats from New Orleans to Vicksburg and later up the Ouachita and Black rivers, carried tremendous quantities of cotton to market almost until the end. He once estimated that he had handled 800,000 bales of cotton on the America alone, besides large quantities of other cargo. The America he loved best of all his boats and when he died, the huge deck bell which had tapped departure time for so many years was used as a monument over his grave in New Orleans—a fitting marker for a steamboatman and the end of an era.