The First Steamboat at Carrollton

It was in December, 1811,  just eighty-three years ago, that the first steamboat passed down the Ohio River! The name of the boat was the New Orleans, and she was built and launched at Pittsburgh in December, 1811.  Mind you, there were only two other in the world; their names were the North River, and the Clermont, both built by Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat [or not], and both plying on the Hudson.

The New Orleans was also built by order of Fulton and his partner, Mr. Livingston.  Having demonstrated on the Hudson that navigation by steam was practical, they turned their attention to the great waterway of the West.  So they sent Capt. Roosevelt out to Pittsburgh to examine the Ohio from source to mouth, and the lower Mississippi, to ascertain if those rivers could be navigated.  The report was favorable, and the result was the immediate construction of the New Orleans.

On her first trip she carried neither freight nor passengers.  The only souls aboard were Capt. Roosevelt and family. Mr. Baker, the engineer, Andrew Jack, the pilot, six hands and a few domestics.  Her speed was about three miles an hour, so that she was about six days out of Pittsburg when she reached Carrollton, the Port William - making this day the anniversary of her arrival here.

Whoop-pe! Let us celebrate! Port William was then seventeen years old.  Her court house was a wooden structure; many of her dwelling houses were built of logs, but there were even then some good brick houses - among them that now occupied by W. F. Howe.

Much of the land in the great bottoms adjacent to the village was still timbered with great walnut, poplar, ash and other valuable trees.  The primeval forests were broken in only a few places on the hillsides.  The inhabitants lived in Acadian simplicity.  The flat boat was the most grand conception they had of a river craft; the imagination recoiled on itself if it attempted to picture a more perfect or more useful vessel.  And when the boatmen would “wind his horn,” as the manner was, many persons would gather at the river to see the “sight” which was sometimes a boat rounding into port, sometimes one taking its departure.

But our people - our predecessors in those haunts - were expecting the New Orleans; a few of the more enlightened read newspapers even in that early day, and they informed others.  So when the first shrill steam whistle sounded across the Ohio's bosom, the denizens of Port William were not frightened out of their wits, as were many illiterate persons who dwelt along the shore in the vast stretches of country that lay between towns. Accordingly, the Butler Brothers, “Billie” Scandrett, “Tommie” Ogburn, “Wesley” Masterson, “Johnnie” Hayden and others less known, being barefoot boys at the time, were quickly at the water's edge, or on Water Street (north of Main, since destroyed by the river) gazing in overpowering astonishment at the self-propelled and wonder-working boar - to them almost a veritable thing of life. Slow-footed parents and spinsters followed as soon as possible and joined in the admiration and acclaim.

But there were those who viewed the innovation with surprise and terror - surprise, because they said “man can't work miracles,” and terror, because superstition was rife in their minds, causing them to believe that such a bold challenge to the Almighty as was meant by the application of steam to navigation would certainly be rebuked with condign punishment from the divine hand!

And there was special ground for ignorant fear. “A fiery comet (Wikipedia) was glazing athwart the sky” - that natural phenomenon which has ever and always caused superstition to spring up in human hearts, like the sun causes plants to grow out of the soil.  It is recorded in history that men declared that the making of a “fire-boat” was flying in the face of Providence.  They shuddered because “presumptuous man had boiled the water when, if God had wanted it to boil, He would have so made it.” Whether any of these goblin-get-you people dwelt there, the Democrat will not assert - but the trail of the serpent of superstition seems to be all over us.

It was not until the New Orleans reached the mouth of the Ohio that the climax of consternation was reached untutored minds.  Just at the time the earthquake of 1811 came; earth and waters were convulsed; great lakes were formed in western Kentucky and Tennessee and terror and desolation brooded over the land.  The the New Orleans should have stemmed the violent current of ignorance and folly, under the circumstances. is far more wonderful than that she should have been borne in safety to the city that gave her name, on the bosom of the glad river, as it went singing to the sea! “Foul Superstition! howsoe'er disguised, Who from true worship's gold can separate thy dress.”

The vessel couldn't pass the falls at Louisville for some days, on account of low water, and she made several trips to and from Cincinnati.  However, she got to Natchez about January 1, 1812, and soon afterward was moored at Crescent City.  She ascended the river to Pittsburgh convincing the people “That the thing would work,” but subsequently entered the Natchez and New Orleans trade, where she plied two years.  She was finally wrecked near Baton Rouge.

Picture this progenitor of steamboats! She was a sternwheeler, and had two masts; for Robert Fulton then believed that sails would sometimes be indispensable.  Her capacity was one hundred tons; she had only one deck; her engine was a single, low-pressure affair, and was in the hold and she had upright and stationary cylinders; there were no flues in her boiler.  At first the very fewest number of people believed that a vessel without sails or oars could be of any value; and she made several trips before prejudice began to subside. It was quite a while before merchants would make use of the steamboat for freighting goods; they preferred the old mode of shipping with all its delays, dangers, etc., over the steamboat, which they regarded as too miraculous a contrivance for business purposes!

From the New Orleans, which came into being under such untoward circumstances - cradled in earthquakes, condemned by comets, spurned by superstition - and which would appear ludicrous in this age, has come the mightily fleet of the world, until busy life on rivers and seas is almost equal to that on land, when “Swift commerce spreads her wings, And tires the sinewy sea-birds as she flees.”

While monster war vessels assigned their reverberations around the globe, vessels of every class which surpass the New Orleans in grandness of architecture, as far as the sun of day exceeds the flickering glow worm of the night.