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1823 One Hundred And Seventy-five Years Ago

June 2024
1min read

Up the River

On April 21 the 118-foot riverboat Virginia steamed out of St. Louis with a few passengers and a cargo of military supplies. Such departures were commonplace in the bustling river town, yet this one drew attention far beyond the usual circle of waterfront workers and loafers. The reason was its destination: Fort St. Anthony (renamed Fort Snelling in 1825), an Army post on the site of present-day St. Paul, Minnesota. For the first time a steamboat was going to travel up the Mississippi River all the way to the head of navigation.

Rivers were the highways of early America, and in the West, before the arrival of steamboats, they had been essentially one-way streets. A merchant from Illinois or Kentucky could load his goods onto a flatboat and ride down to New Orleans with ease, but the return trip, in a keelboat laboriously propelled upstream by hand, would take months. Eastern rivers were placid by comparison; even the mighty Hudson could be ascended in a sailboat. Western rivers, though, combined powerful currents with treacherous rapids, islands, and shoals. The low-pressure steam engine employed by Robert Fulton in his famous Clermont of 1807 was little use against them, so a new type of engine with much higher pressure had to be developed.

Beginning around 1817, steamboats began plying the lower Mississippi and the Ohio in large numbers. Traveling from New Orleans to Pittsburgh soon became routine. But the upper Mississippi, more turbulent and more filled with obstructions, proved resistant. Long after the Virginia left St. Louis, skeptics wondered if it would ever return. Some expected it to founder or give up when it reached the fearsome Des Moines Rapids.

The Virginia did get stuck in the rapids but overcame them by removing cargo to lighten her load. Despite frequent groundings and delays, stormy weather, and a lack of navigational charts for the last two hundred miles, she reached Fort St. Anthony on May 10, having supplied other forts along the way. The journey was quite slow; traveling by daylight only, the boat had taken twenty days to cover seven hundred miles. At one point north of present-day Quincy, Illinois, for example, an Indian passenger named Great Eagle became miffed because the pilot had chosen the wrong channel. He jumped off the boat and swam ashore to join his fellow Sauk tribesmen, who were walking upstream. By the time the boat reached its next stop, the Sauks had already arrived, set up camp, and started dickering with fur traders.

Still, the voyage, sluggish as it was, proved that a steamboat could conquer the upper Mississippi. The Virginia made two more supply runs during 1823, and before long a fleet of steamers was carrying lead, furs, and grain down the Mississippi and settlers up it. The river remained an indispensable thoroughfare for decades, particularly in the upper Midwest, where no railroad would reach St. Paul until after the Civil War.

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