OT: Voices on the River: The Story of the Mississippi Waterways

“Voices on the River: The Story of the Mississippi Waterways,” by Walter Havighurst, Macmillan, NY, 1964. This 310-page hardback tells the story of the Mississippi river system in 24 chapters from the age of the glaciers that formed it to 1964.

In 1807, Robert Fulton and partner Robert Livingston invented the first successful steamboat. They had exclusive rights to steamboat transportation on the Hudson River between New York City and the state capital, Albany. At the time civilization in the midwest extended from Pittsburgh to Louisville on the Ohio River and from New Orleans to Natchez on the Mississippi. Otherwise, the rivers were mostly unsettled wilderness. The French had developed a network of isolated fur trading posts and a few lead mines with access from the St. Lawrence River. Settlers used flatboats and later keelboats to send farm produce down the rivers to New Orleans. They sold their flatboats as lumber, bought a horse and came home on the Natchez Trace. Keelboats used poles to push along the river. They could go upstream but travel was slow.

Fulton and Livingston attempted an exclusive arrangement between New Orleans and Natchez, but exclusivity was unenforceable and soon failed. Steamboats were a game changer. They could go upstream much faster. They were drivers of the economy along the rivers. Many packet steamboats soon entered the trade. They especially brought cotton to market and returned with mail, passengers and manufactured goods. Most plantations had a boat landing. Early packet boats burned firewood. Roustabouts on the boats loaded firewood and freight.

Some reference dates. Jan 12, 1812, the first steamboat reached New Orleans. 1817: First steamboat, the Zebulon M. Pike reaches St. Louis. 1818: First steamboat up the Cumberland River to reach Nashville. Nashville housewives bought sugar, salt and coffee at one-third the former cost. 1819: First steamboat up the Missouri River from St. Louis to Franklin, head of the Santa Fe trail.

Floating logs and snags were a threat. Records show steamboats served less than a dozen years. Many sank or burned, often due to snags or sometimes to collisions or crushed in the ice in winter. Boiler explosions were all too common sometimes with many fatalities. Low water and moving sandbars were a constant concern. Steamboats were designed like a raft with the engine on the first deck driving paddlewheels. Sidewheelers seemed to work in low water but stern wheelers were also used. Passengers, freight and firewood were stacked on the deck. Later second levels were added with cabins for paying passengers. After the Civil War, competition with railroads resulted in fancier boats–some with four or five decks. They could be ornate with carpeting and artwork on the walls.

A chapter describes the work of Henry Shreve. As an experienced steamboater, he became Superintendent of Western River Improvement for the War Department in 1827. He built a fleet of snag boats and set about clearing the rivers of snags and logs. By 1834, boats could run at night through previously dangerous sections of the rivers. By 1838, he cleared the Red River of a raft of logs that ran for miles. Shreveport was named in his honor. He is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.

At the start of the Civil War, Confederates blocked the Mississippi with a heavy chain at Columbus, KY just south of Cairo. The book tells of the river battles including Shiloh and the siege of Vicksburg. A key element was iron clad gunboats built by James Eads, later known for his bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis. The rebels countered with cotton clad gunboats. Bales of cotton were used to shield the crews.

With the discovery of gold in Montana, light steamboats traveled far up the Missouri River to supply army posts. In 1876, it was a steamboat that first got word of Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn.

The arrival of the railroads in the 1850s made it difficult for steamboats to compete. Railroads were faster and could travel all year. Some fancy steamboats were built to serve leisure travelers, but most were not profitable. One of the last showboats, the Goldenrod, burned on the river front at St. Louis on June 1, 1962.

Towboats that could push barges loaded with commodities, especially coal, began to arrive after 1845. They were steam powered fueled with coal and emitted black smoke from their stacks. They brought Pennsylvania coal to industries in the south, especially sugar processing plants. In 1866 Congress allocated funds to clear the Ohio River channel from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi. They also funded beacon lights on the banks to guide the boats. In 1874 they began to erect beacon lights, day beacons, and buoys on all inland rivers. Tenders were paid to maintain the lights mostly from the river. By 1875 three hundred bends and crossings were lighted; by 1885, the number increased to 1100. Day boards were white A boards. Night lights were oil lamps on poles. In the 1880s lights converted to battery powered electrics. Buoys marking the left bank (down river) are red; the right bank are black with a white chevron. Lights on the right flash once; those on the left flash twice.

Locks and dams to provide deeper channels began with the Davis Island Dam south of Pittsburgh in 1885. Nearly 50 years later, the Ohio River had 46 locks and dams. In 1910 construction of locks and dams on the Ohio began with a goal of nine feet of water. In 1918, railroads became jammed with shipping to supply troops in Europe. Congress responded by creating Federal Barge Lines.

In 1939, 26 locks had been built on the upper Mississippi providing 9 ft of water to Minneapolis. Six feet of water was maintained on the lower Missouri River. In the 1950s, locks on the Ohio were rebuilt reducing the number to 19 high lift locks 1200 ft long replacing former 600 ft locks that often required double tripping. There were 700 transportation lines on the Mississippi River system.

A final chapter describes the modern (1964) diesel towboat. Radar makes navigation much easier. The beacons are still in use. On board searchlights help find them, but radar is essential in fog. Soundings now makes it easier to monitor depths. Detailed charts still show the path down the forever shifting rivers.

This is a well done telling of the river system. Coverage of the steamboat era is excellent. References. Photos. Maps. Index.

(This is the last and best so far of the river books on my list. Have yet to find anything recent. This one was reprinted in the ‘90s.)