“Fire Canoe” on the Mississippi River: Anniversary Memoir of the First Commercial Steamboat

January 11, 1813


If you took a promenade down the shore side of the Mississippi River in New Orleans a year ago today, chances were you probably witnessed the arrival of New Orleans, the first Western waterway commercial steamboat in America. Today, as the anniversary of the New Orleans arrival in New Orleans, let us retrospect the contributions the New Orleans has made us.

As the boat pulled in before sunset Jan. 11th, 1812 [4], the flag of America hung from the boat rod swayed in the breeze as I walked down the riverbank. “Whoosh!” the sails rose as the anchor hit the shore. Mr. Nicholas J. Roosevelt, the owner of the boat, as well as the builder and commissioner of the boat waved at the crowd with the captain’s smile as the boat pulled into the shore. His wife Lydia, their two-year-old daughter and their newborn baby accompanied him on the deck. Black smoke of the stack fluttered high up in the air, forming the distinctive stripe under the blue sky, a stripe signifying the beginning of a great new era! 

Just four months ago before its arrival, Oct 20th, 1811, New Orleans began its maiden voyage after two years of delicate designing and construction [4]. Its departure from Pittsburgh gathered crowds of thousands at the Ohio River, all to spectate the grand miracle of the nation. With several intermediate stops along the trip, the boat eventually overcame the hazardous river way conditions and finished its first sail [4].

Robert FultonAnd how did this steamboat come to exist? Robert Fulton [10], partnered with Robert Livingston, two of the early engineers of the country, designed the New Orleans in 1809 [5]. Oddly, none of these gifted technology pioneers invented the steamboat, nor was the New Orleans the first commercial steamboat [5]. As early as 1787, John Fitch had worked out his idea of inventing a steam-powered boat and had made a voyage with his first steamboat on the Delaware River [6]. Fulton, a passionate man of many talents, believed that America’s economics future development would largely rely on waterway transportations [5]. Therefore, based on the Fitch’s first steamboat model, Fulton designed the first commercial steamboat, Clermont in 1806, and completed its first successful sail on the Hudson River in New York in 1807 [2]. Although short, compared to that of New Orleans, Clermont’s maiden voyage has truly resembled one of the most influential voyages in history, significantly impacting Fulton and Roosevelt’s later innovation of the New Orleans, which inevitably triggered the beginning of the Western commercial steamboat age as we see the groundbreaking changes we have been experiencing [3]. “The Mississippi, as I before wrote you, is conquered.” [3] Fulton wrote in his letter to his investor, Joel Barlow, after the success of the New Orleans [5]. Clearly, Mr. Fulton had great confidence in the New Orleans amending the Southern economy, to dredge the blocks hindering substantial exchanges between different parts of the nation.

Later in 1812, I went on a social work field trip in Louisiana to investigate the  influence of New Orleans among the landowners. “I am planning to export my cotton and rice to the North through the Mississippi River using steamboats, hopefully in the next couple years. It would make a great profit,” said Arthur Galton, a white plantation owner in Baton Rouge. As the Southern plantation of cotton and tobacco grows rapidly, limited exports to the north is mainly impeded by the unexploited river conditions and undeveloped shipping systems. Before the mastering of the Mississippi River, exporting the remaining goods upstream was a seemingly vague conception with the less developed boats. “It would often take weeks or months, and the fresh crops had all turned stale once they get up there.” Especially since Louisiana is down further south, it was even harder to reach the inland America. 

Yet, the New Orleans revealed its power in the transportation system of the South. “The voyage, which changed the relations of the West,” [9] said J.H.B Latrobe, the younger brother of Mrs. Roosevelt, who accompanied Mr. Roosevelt on the trip. Indeed, this first voyage of steamboats along the Mississippi River, an Western inland river, will considerably alternate the freights exporting among the nation, especially that of the North and the South, where South contain large agricultural crops production. So Far, traveling up the North seems approachable as the Mississippi River and the steamboat got unveiled.

New Orleans’s tremendous impact is, and will still be, on transportation and economics of the southern states, as I strongly believe in. However, the precarious difficulties along the river and the one-engine steamboat made the maiden voyage a dangerous one [4]. As a spectator on the Ohio River bank myself (I followed along the boat for the whole process), several earthquakes and incidents  had happened that changed the river way[4]. Whether the boat could finish the trip safely were questionable“The first steamboat was an omen of evil,” [9] said J.H.B Latrobe, as he recalled from her sister’s voyage when I interviewed him. Fortunately, with the several stops along the trip for break, the arrival and triumph of the New Orleans shocked, but thrilled the crowds who strolled along the banks to catch a sight of it. Shocked for that the New Orleans, assembled with new, immature and unfamiliar technologies, had actually made through all the danger and difficulties along the river [8], of which the enthusiastic reformer Mr. Fulton himself, the designer, did not even attend the maiden voyage, whereas Mrs. Roosevelt bravely insisted to accompany her husband to face the plights together with their unborn baby son. Technological amendments are still needed for safer future voyages.

Despite the many imperfections of the design of the boat, New Orleans was not just the first commercial steamboat on the Western waters, but gave birth to the Southern economy of America as well. Overtly, it is helping the South to make progress towards the establishment of a new economic era. Though the potential power of New Orleans has not been huge, years after the New Orleans, trading of goods, crops, even tourism may flourish under the aureole of the New Orleans, the pioneer of the century

Luann Bourgeon, Baltimore Sun

Work Cited:

[1] http://www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/item/2012/0106/ca/sommers_barlow.html

[2] http://inventors.about.com/od/cstartinventions/a/Clermont.htm

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Orleans_(steamboat)#cite_note-Kohn9-18

[4]  http://mjcpl.org/rivertorail/steamboatdevelopment/john-fitch-robert-fulton-and-the-voyage-of-1811

[5] http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/fulton.html

[6] http://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper/DETOC/transport/steamboats.html

[7] Image 1: Route New Orleans traveled http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Neworleans_steamboat_route.png

[8] http://www.showme.net/~fkeller/quake/lib/roosevelt.htm

[9] http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa&cc=moa&sid=95e3f6e828e116b80d4cccd93c806bc1&view=text&rgn=main&idno=AJR1928.0001.001

[10] Image 2: Robert Fulton: http://nypost.com/2013/09/17/navy-yards-role-in-us-military-history/

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