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The Navy and Ironclads in the Civil War-- Invention and History of the Steamboat


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Information from Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steamboats_of_the_Mississippi


Steamboats played a major role in the 19th-century development of the Mississippi River and its tributaries by allowing the practical large-scale transport of passengers and freight both up- and down-river. Using steam power, riverboats were developed during that time which could navigate in shallow waters as well as upriver against strong currents. After the development of railroads passenger traffic gradually switched to this faster form of transportation, but steamboats continued to serve Mississippi River commerce into the early 20th Century.

Robert Fulton-- Background

          Steamboats on the Mississippi benefited from technology and political changes. The US bought the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803. At the time, a semi-bankrupt Napoleon was attempting to extend his hegemony over Europe in what came to be known as the Napoleonic Wars. As a result, the US was then free to expand westward out of the Ohio valley and into the Great Plains and the Southwest. The success of the Charlotte Dundas in Scotland in 1801 and Robert Fulton's Clermont on the Hudson River in 1807 proved the concept of the steamboat. At this time, walking beam mill engines, of the Boulton and Watt variety, were dropped onto wood barges with paddles to create an instant powerboat. The overhead engines of "walking beam" type became the standard Atlantic Seaboard paddle engine for the next 80 years. For smaller boats, Watt perfected the side-lever engine with the engine cut down using side bell-cranks to lower the center of gravity. Sidewheel paddlers were the first to enter the scene. In 1811 the steamer New Orleans was built in Pittsburgh by Fulton and Livingstone. Fulton started steamboat service between Natchez and New Orleans.

          The War of 1812 caused political upheaval in the south, particularly with the Royal Navy blockade of the US Gulf Coast ports but after the Treaty of Ghent and resumption of peace, New Orleans was firmly American, after passing through French and Spanish hands. New Orleans became the great port on the mouth of the Mississippi.

Golden Age of Steamboats

"Enterprise on her fast trip to Louisville, 1815"

          The historical roots of the prototypical Mississippi steamboat, or Western Rivers steamboat, can be traced to designs by easterners like James Rumsey, John Fitch, John Stevens, Oliver Evans, Robert Fulton and Daniel French.  In the span of just six years the evolution of the prototypical Mississippi steamboat would be well underway:

·         The New Orleans, or Orleans, was the first Mississippi steamboat. Launched in 1811 at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for a company organized by Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton, her designer, she was a large, heavy side-wheeler with a deep draft. Her low-pressure Boulton and Watt steam engine operated a complex power train that was also heavy and inefficient.

·         The Comet was the second Mississippi steamboat. Launched in 1813 at Pittsburgh for Daniel D. Smith, she was much smaller than the New Orleans. With an engine and power train of Daniel French's design and manufacture, the Comet was the first Mississippi steamboat to be powered by a light weight and efficient high-pressure engine turning a stern paddle wheel.

·         The Vesuvius was the third Mississippi steamboat. Launched in 1814 at Pittsburgh for the company headed by Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton, her designer, she was very similar to the New Orleans.

·         The Enterprise, or Enterprize, was the fourth Mississippi steamboat.  Launched in 1814 at Brownsville, Pennsylvania for the Monongahela and Ohio Steam Boat Company, she was a dramatic departure from Fulton's boats. The Enterprise - featuring a high-pressure steam engine, a single stern paddle wheel, and shoal draft - proved to be better suited for use on the Mississippi than Fulton's boats.  The Enterprise clearly demonstrated the suitability of French's design during her epic voyage from New Orleans to Brownsville, a distance of more than 2,000 miles (3,200 km) performed against the powerful currents of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

·         The Washington was launched in 1816 at Wheeling, West Virginia for Henry Shreve and partners. George White built the boat and Daniel French constructed the engine and drive train at Brownsville.  She was the first steamboat with two decks, the predecessor of the Mississippi steamboats of later years. The upper deck was reserved for passengers and the main deck was used for the boiler, increasing the space below the main deck for carrying cargo. With a draft of 4 feet (1.2 m), she was propelled by a high-pressure, horizontally mounted engine turning a single stern paddle wheel. In the spring of 1817 the Washington made the voyage from New Orleans to Louisville in 25 days, equaling the record set two years earlier by the Enterprise, a much smaller boat.

          In the 1810s there were 20 boats on the river; by the 1830s there were more than 1200. By the 1820s, with the southern states joining the Union and the land converted to cotton plantations so indicative of the Antebellum South, methods were needed to move the bales of cotton, rice, timber, tobacco and molasses. The steamboat was perfect. America boomed in the age of Jackson. Population moved west, and more farms (and more slavery) were established. In the 1820s Steamers were fueled first by wood, then coal, which pushed barges of coal from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Regular steamboat commerce begun between Pittsburgh and Louisville.

Construction of the Vessels

         Vessels were made of wood—typically ranging in length from 40 to nearly 300 feet (91 m) in length, 10 to 80 feet (24 m) wide, drawing only about one to five feet of water loaded, and in fact it was commonly said that they could "navigate on a heavy dew."  The boats had kingposts or internal masts to support hogchains, or iron trusses, which prevented the hull from sagging. A second deck was added, the Texas Deck, to provide cabins and passenger areas. All was built from wood. Stairs, galleys, parlors were also added. Often the boats became quite ornate with wood trim, velvet, plush chairs, gilt edging and other trimmings sometimes featured as per the owner's taste and pocketbook. Wood burning boilers were forward center to distribute weight. The engines were also amidships, or at the stern depending on if the vessel was a sternwheeler or side-wheeler. Two rudders were fitted to help steer the ship.

          Vessels, on average, only lasted about five years due to the wooden hulls being breached, poor maintenance, fires, general wear and tear, and the common boiler explosion. Early trips up the Mississippi River took three weeks to get to the Ohio. Later, with better pilots, more powerful engines and boilers, removal of obstacles and experienced rivermen knowing where the sand bars were, the figure was reduced to 4 days. Collisions and snags were constant perils.

Boiler Explosions

          In the forty years to the mid-century mark, there were some 4,000 fatalities on the river due to boiler explosions. Some 500 vessels were wrecked by the peril. Early boilers were riveted of weak iron plate. Vessels at the time were not inspected, or insured. Passengers were on their own. Meanwhile, the explosions continued: the Teche in 1825, with sixty killed; the Ohio and the Macon in 1826; the Union and the Hornet in 1827; the Grampus in 1828; the Patriot and the Kenawa in 1829; the Car of Commerce and the Portsmouth in 1830; the Moselle in 1838.

          Mark Twain noted a bad boiler explosion which occurred aboard the steamboat Pennsylvania in 1858. Among the injured passengers was Henry Clemens, his brother, whose skin had been badly scalded. Twain came to visit Henry in an improvised hospital. This is how he described the long painful death of his brother: “For forty-eight hours I labored at the bedside of my poor burned and bruised but uncomplaining brother...and then the star of my hope went out and left me in the gloom of despair...”

On February 24, 1830, as the Helen McGragor prepared to pull away from the Memphis waterfront, the starboard boiler blew. The blast itself and flying debris killed a number of people, and about thirty others were scalded to death. The boiler explosions and resulting fire aboard the Sultana in 1865 (near Memphis) resulted in loss of life which, numbering at 1,800 souls, exceeded that of even the Titanic, and is considered the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.

Laws Passed to Make Riverboat Travel Safer

          In 1824 Congress passes an "Act to Improve the Navigation of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers" and "to remove sand bars on the Ohio and planers, sawyers, and snags on the Mississippi". The Army Corps of engineers was given the job.



Portrait of Fulton

Born-- November 14, 1765


Died-- February 24, 1815 (aged 49)  New York City, U.S.


Nationality-- American


Occupation-- Engineer, inventor, businessman


Years active-- 1793–1815


Known for-- In 1806, Fulton returned to the United States. In 1807, he and Robert R. Livingston built the first commercially successful steamboat, North River Steamboat (later known as Clermont), & Nautilus (1800 submarine)


Spouse-- Harriet Livingston (m. 1808)



Steamboat Operation Regulations-- State vs. National Control

          One of the enduring issues in American government is the proper balance of power between the national government and the state governments. This struggle for power was evident from the earliest days of American government and is the underlying issue in the case of Gibbons v. Ogden. In 1808, Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston were granted a monopoly from the New York state government to operate steamboats on the state's waters. This meant that only their steamboats could operate on the waterways of New York, including those bodies of water that stretched between states, called interstate waterways. This monopoly was very important because steamboat traffic, which carried both people and goods, was very profitable. Aaron Ogden held a Fulton-Livingston license to operate steamboats under this monopoly. He operated steamboats between New Jersey and New York. However, another man named Thomas Gibbons competed with Aaron Ogden on this same route. Gibbons did not have a Fulton-Livingston license, but instead had a federal (national) coasting license, granted under a 1793 act of Congress.

          The United States at this time was a loose confederation of states. The federal government was weak, and so regulating vessels, even for gaming statutes, was an imposition on States Rights. The Interstate Steamboat Commerce Commission was finally set up in 1838 to regulate steamboat traffic. Boiler inspections only began in 1852.

Steamboat Act of May 30, 1852

          The 1838 law proved inadequate as steamboat disasters increased in volume and severity. The 1847 to 1852 era was marked by an unusual series of disasters primarily caused by boiler explosions, however, many were also caused by fires and collisions. These disasters resulted in the passage of the Steamboat Act of May 30, 1852 (10 Stat. L., 1852) in which enforcement powers were placed under the Department of the Treasury rather than the Department of Justice as with the Act of 1838. Under this law, the organization and form of a federal maritime inspection service began to emerge. Nine supervisory inspectors responsible for a specific geographic region were appointed. There were also provisions for the appointment of local inspectors by a commission consisting of the local District Collector of Customs, the Supervisory Inspector, and the District Judge. The important features of this law were the requirement for hydrostatic testing of boilers, and the requirement for a boiler steam safety valve. This law further required that both pilots and engineers be licensed by the local inspectors. Even though time and further insight proved the Steamboat Act inadequate, it must be given credit for starting legislation in the right perspective. Probably the most serious shortcoming was the exemption of freight boats, ferries, tugboats and towboats, which continued to operate under the superficial inspection requirements of the law of 1838. Again, disasters and high loss of life prompted congressional action through the passage of the Act of February 28, 1871.

A History of the Steamboat in America

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