From Volume 5, Issue Number 42 of EIR Online, Published Oct. 17, 2006
This Week in American History

October 17—23, 1785

Henry Shreve Establishes Steamboat Transportation in the Mississippi Valley

On Oct. 21, 1785, Henry Shreve was born in New Jersey, the son of a Continental Army colonel who would soon move his family to the frontier of Western Pennsylvania. Colonel Shreve died when Henry was only 13, and the boy soon took a job loading cargo for the keelboats, flatboats, and barges which took westward-bound pioneers down the Ohio River. In 1806, the year that Henry turned 21, the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned by way of the Missouri River from its mission to the Pacific Coast.

Inspired by a newspaper account of the just-completed journey, Henry built a 35-ton keelboat and took it down the Ohio and up the Mississippi—a very difficult task against the river's strong current—to the small village of St. Louis. There, he traded for fur pelts from the upper Missouri and brought them back by water to Pittsburgh and then by land to Philadelphia.

The profits from this venture enabled him to build more boats and to bring the manufactured goods of Pittsburgh down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Shreve was also able to edge out the British traders up the Mississippi in Wisconsin, who were offering whiskey and rum to the Sac Indians for the lead from their mines. The Indians, however, soon rejected their British-designed role as simple primitives and preferred to trade for manufactured goods.

As Henry Shreve and his crew were coming back up the Ohio River late in 1811, they saw the first steamboat on the Western waters, the New Orleans piloted by Nicholas Roosevelt, waiting at Louisville for the water level to rise in order to run the Falls of the Ohio. Shreve had checked on the steamboat when it was being built at Pittsburgh, but he doubted that its low-pressure engine would be a match for the Mississippi, especially coming upstream. In the years to come, Shreve would adopt the theories of inventor Oliver Evans, who brought his experience at the Philadelphia Mars Works to bear on manufacturing high-pressure steam engines in Pittsburgh.

But in these early days of steamboating, Shreve joined with a group which included inventor Daniel French to build three low-pressure steamboats. When the War of 1812 broke out, Shreve piloted one of the steamboats, the Enterprise, to New Orleans, loaded with ordnance for the defense of the city against the British. Gen. Andrew Jackson pressed him into further service, and he evacuated women and children upstream, ferried supplies to Fort St. Philip below New Orleans, and returned in time to be on the breastworks when the British were defeated.

That same year—1815—Shreve had piloted the Enterprise northward up the Mississippi and eastward on the Ohio, reaching Louisville in 25 days. Nine days later, he was in Pittsburgh, having brought a steamboat up both rivers against the current for the first time. But this action ran up against the Livingston-Fulton monopoly on steamboat travel in Louisiana. Edward Livingston, the lawyer brother of Robert Livingston, is reported to have told Shreve: "You deserve well of your country, young man, but we shall be compelled to beat you in the courts if we can." After a long legal battle, the District Court of Louisiana declared in 1819, that the steamboat monopoly was illegal, thus freeing Shreve and others to design steamboats and run them on the Mississippi as well as its tributaries.

Shreve was convinced that the design of the successful Eastern steamboats, built for deep water, would not work on the Western rivers. His design involved mounting a powerful, but light, steam engine on a shallow hull and building the boat up to several stories. The first boat built on this design was the Washington, named by Henry for his father's friend, which made the trip from New Orleans to Louisville in 21 days, less than a quarter of the time taken by barges or keelboats. Almost immediately, the steamboats cut the keelboat rate from $5 per hundred pounds to $2 per hundred, and established a reliable two-way trade between the Midwest and the East. By 1824, one of Shreve's steamboats, the President, made the New Orleans-Louisville run in only ten days.

This breakthrough in transportation for people and goods brought in more settlers, and, in turn, farms multiplied and support industries grew up along the rivers. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Wheeling, and Louisville became industrial areas, producing not only steamboats, but rolling mills, foundries, engine shops, boiler works, cotton mills, glass factories, and farm implement plants.

Once the New Orleans-Louisville route had been successfully established, steamboats began to explore the tributaries of the Mississippi. After the Battle of New Orleans, Captain Shreve took the Enterprise a hundred miles up the Red River. In 1819, the steamboat Independence went up the Missouri, and its observations were used the next year by the steamboats of the U.S. government's Yellowstone expedition.

Although the development of the Western steamboat had positive effects, it was still hampered by the dangers that lurked in the rivers, making steamboating extremely hazardous. These river obstructions originated from currents that undermined the banks, causing thousands of trees to fall into the river. Some, called "planters," were anchored in the riverbed's mud, and were concealed beneath the surface like giant lances poised to pierce a steamboat's hull. Others, called "sawyers," bobbed up and down in the river channels. These hazards accounted for three-fifths of all steamboat accidents, and a total of 58,000 of these snags were identified in the lower Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Missouri, and Arkansas Rivers.

Fortunately, President John Quincy Adams was a proponent of the American System of Political Economy, and his administration did all it could to foster internal improvements. In 1826, Henry Shreve was appointed superintendent of Western river improvements, and he invented a snag boat which took on the job of river clearance. Shreve's first boat, the Heliopolis, was a steam-powered double-hulled boat with giant claws, cranes, and an iron-sheathed battering ram. Tree trunks were lifted up and fed into a powered sawmill on deck. This snag-eater became known as "Uncle Sam's Tooth-Puller."

Superintending hundreds of men for several years, Shreve succeeded in clearing 1,200 miles of the Mississippi. By 1832, not a single boat was lost to a snag on either the Ohio or Mississippi Rivers. But Shreve's greatest challenge was still to come. This was the "Great Raft" of the Red River, a tangled mass of wood and brush which extended from bank to bank for 160 miles. No boat, not even a canoe, had been able to penetrate it for 50 years, and it was so solid in places that many horsemen crossed it unaware that a major river was coursing underneath.

To accomplish the task of clearing the Red River, which many people thought was impossible, Shreve built an even more powerful snag boat, called the Archimedes. He then recruited 160 men and embarked on three steamers and a dozen flatboats. From 1833-1838, Shreve and his crew labored at their task, but now conditions in Washington were not as favorable. President Andrew Jackson had saved New Orleans, but he did everything he could to stop the government from sponsoring internal improvements. As a result, funding for Shreve's expedition was often cut off.

During the first season on the Red River, Shreve's crew was able to clear 70 miles, and new settlers literally followed in the wake of the snag boat. By the fifth year, the crew had cleared 300 miles, opening up a fertile valley for settlement. In April of 1838, when funding was again cut off, Shreve rode his horse into Washington, Arkansas and persuaded the local bank to give him $7,147.50, so that the work could be finished. He had the river flowing freely by May 4. The steamboats which passed his work camp going upriver saluted Shreve and his workers with celebratory whistles. That camp on Bennett's and Cane's Bluff became Shreveport, Louisiana.

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