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When Robert Fulton at last persuaded Robert Livingston to lift his eyes and see the great opportunity that lay beyond the Northeast, Nicholas J. Roosevelt was the man the partners picked to build a steamboat that would voyage down the Mississippi River and become the first one to do so. Fulton and Livingston’s objective was to acquire a steamboat monopoly on the lower Mississippi as they had on the Hudson and thereby establish control of commercial shipping on two of the country’s most important waterways. But before asking the Louisiana territorial government to grant them a monopoly and before building the steamboat, Fulton and Livingston wanted to make sure the boat they envisioned could indeed make the voyage across the length of the Ohio and down the Mississippi all the way to New Orleans. To assure themselves, they proposed to send Roosevelt to Pittsburgh to have a boat built and make a test run that, if successful, would prepare the way for the coming of the steamboat. The test run would be made in a flatboat, propelled mainly by the rivers’ currents.
Roosevelt (whose brother became the grandfather of Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president of the United States) was, like Livingston, from an old, respected New York family. His father, Isaac, had been a member of the New York legislature and was for many years president of the Bank of New York. Roosevelt’s foundry and boat works, however, where he had built the experimental steamboat for Livingston and John Stevens, had fallen on hard times, and Roosevelt had become open to new propositions.
In the spring of 1809 he was forty-one years old and recently married to eighteen-year-old Lydia Latrobe, with whom he had fallen in love when she was a precocious fourteen-year-old. High-spirited and strong-minded, she was the daughter of architect, engineer and inventor Benjamin Latrobe, with whom Roosevelt had participated in several business ventures and who had become Roosevelt’s close friend. Agreeing to help Fulton and Livingston pursue their plan for a Mississippi River steamboat, Roosevelt would make the rugged journey over the Alleghenies to Pittsburgh to build a boat aboard which he would drift through the heart of America, down to New Orleans. With him would go his courageous, venturesome young wife, who would not let him go without her. The trip would be for them, still newlyweds, like a honeymoon voyage.
They set out for Pittsburgh in the spring of 1809 and upon their arrival there immediately began to design their flatboat and arrange to have it built. Pittsburgh was then a town of about four thousand residents and a place where boat-building was a thriving industry, many freight-carrying flatboats originating there and there beginning their one-way voyage down the river.
The boat that Nicholas — and Lydia, the architect’s daughter — designed was essentially a houseboat with two cabins. The aft cabin — which Lydia called “a huge box”— contained a bedroom, a dining room and a pantry for the couple. The forward cabin, the larger of the two, housed the five-man crew — the vessel’s pilot, a cook and three deckhands, one of whom would man the tiller and two who would man the sweeps, the long-handled oars that provided additional propulsion when needed. The forward cabin also included a stone or brick fireplace where the cooking would be done. The top of the boat formed a flat, upper deck that was covered by an awning and had seats on it.
The boat carried or towed a large rowboat from which soundings could be taken to determine the depth of the water and the speed of the current in advance of the boat’s reaching shoals, eddies, white water or dangerouslooking obstructions. Those measurements and the locations at which they were taken would be meticulously recorded by Roosevelt in a notebook he would keep throughout the voyage and in which he would also draw maps so that they and the notes could be referred to when the proposed steamboat, with a deeper draft, would later venture into the same waters.
In June 1809 the Roosevelts’ flatboat was ready for them, and they cast off from the dock at Pittsburgh to start their two-thousand-mile journey of exploration, gliding down to the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers and entering the Ohio at its beginning. They traveled by day and tied up to the riverbank each night as darkness came on. Nicholas soon found that his days would not be leisurely spent with Lydia beneath the awning of the upper deck. Instead, he was usually out in the rowboat taking soundings, making observations and taking notes.
The first major port of call was Cincinnati, about four hundred and fifty river miles from Pittsburgh, a town of about twenty-five hundred residents. Nicholas and Lydia were greeted and entertained by some of the town’s officials and leading citizens and after a short stay, they resumed their voyage. The next significant stop was at Louisville, about a hundred and thirty miles farther downriver, a community of about twelve hundred persons. Again they were warmly received. They were also warned of a serious danger that lay ahead of them — the Falls of the Ohio, a stretch of the river that dropped twentysix feet over a three-mile distance, creating rapids that coursed over and through menacing rocks and stone ledges against which their boat could be dashed to splinters. The warning gave Nicholas pause. He took three weeks to study the falls, measuring distances and the depth and speed of the water.
The Roosevelts’ stay in Louisville lasted long enough for them to make friends in the community, friends they would see again. As they had at Cincinnati, they told people what they were doing — scouting out the Ohio and Mississippi in preparation for running a steamboat on the rivers. And as at Cincinnati, they were met by much skepticism, the popular belief being that although a boat driven solely by a steam engine might make it down the rivers, it could never travel up them, against the currents. When at last Nicholas was satisfied that his study was complete, he hired a special pilot, as most boatmen did, to steer him through the falls and he and Lydia and their crew, now joined by the local pilot, boarded the flatboat and shoved off to brave the perilous falls.
They were as fearsome as had been expected, but the pilot succeeded in getting the boat through them, and once they were passed, the river resumed its tranquility, and the party of exploration continued on its way, passing through a world of woods that bordered the river on both banks. Only occasionally did they see human life, isolated settlers who came out to the water’s edge to hail them, or the crewmen of other boats making their way downstream. Some days the Roosevelt boat stopped to let its crew fish or hunt to replenish the food supply. One day Nicholas discovered two beds of coal on the riverbank, about one hundred and twenty miles below the falls, and he made a note of their location so that a quantity of coal could be dug out later and used as fuel for the planned steamboat. Most days, though, the boat pushed slowly on, and Nicholas continued to measure and sound and make entries in his notebook.
When they had come a distance that Nicholas estimated to be a thousand miles from Pittsburgh (it’s actually slightly less), the boat reached the mile-wide Mississippi, and the crew deftly steered the flatboat out into the muddy mainstream of the mighty river, the blue water of the Ohio turning gray as it was absorbed into the larger flow. With the entry into the Mississippi came new dangers, including floating and imbedded objects of many descriptions, particularly fallen trees that created snags in the stream, any of which might smash or rip open the boat’s hull, and, not the least threat, hostile Indians who could reach the boat in their canoes, dangers that their friends in Louisville had warned them about. One night the boat was indeed boarded by Indians. Lydia wrote about the incident : “Mr. Roosevelt was aroused in the night by seeing two Indians in our sleeping room, calling for whiskey, when Mr. Roosevelt had to get up and give it to them before he could induce them to leave the boat.”1
Stopping only briefly at New Madrid, a town on the west bank of the river in the Missouri territory, the Roosevelts and their crew continued languidly down the broad Mississippi, slowly slipping southward, past great wooded stretches and occasional cultivated fields, hearing the sounds of birds and wild animals breaking the encompassing silence of the river. Deeper into the southland they drifted, where the land became more settled looking, with fields stretching away from the river. Then at last they came upon Natchez, the great cotton gathering center, its riverfront crowded with motley boats and rough shacks, its handsome commercial and residential areas standing serenely aloof on the hill that rises from the water’s edge. At Natchez they were heartily greeted by the town’s luminaries and there they received an offer for their flatboat, one that was, Nicholas felt, too good to refuse, unlikely as it was to be matched in New Orleans. Since they were now within days of their destination, Nicholas decided to sell the boat that had been their comfortable home for so many weeks and make the rest of the voyage in the large, open rowboat from which he had been making his soundings and observations.
The honeymoon was now over. “Our pilot,” Lydia reported, “who had lived all his life as a boatman on these waters, assured us that there would be no difficulty in finding lodgings for the few nights we should be out. But it appeared the inhabitants on the river had been so often imposed on by travelers whom they had received into their houses, that they refused all applications.”2 After long, tiresome days in the rowboat, unprotected against the sun and weather, the couple did the best they could to rest at night. They spread a buffalo robe across a large trunk at the stern of the boat to make a bed and spent four nights trying to sleep that way in the boat, which was partly drawn out of the river. All the while, Lydia recalled, they were “hearing the alligators scratch on the sides [of the boat], taking it for a log ; [and] when a knock with a cane would alarm them..., they would splash down into the water.”3
Three nights they spread their buffalo robe on the sandy river bank and tried to rest there, but “feeling every moment,” Lydia said, “that something terrible might happen before morning.”4 Two other nights they managed to find shelter inside buildings, one the cabin of “an old French couple who allowed us to spread our buffalo robes on the floor before a fine, large fire, where we felt safe,” Lydia wrote, “though disturbed once or twice during the night by the people coming into the room we occupied, and kneeling before a crucifix which stood upon a shelf.”5 The other building in which they found a night’s lodging was a tavern in Baton Rouge. The room, Lydia reported, “was a forlorn little place opening out of the bar-room, which was filled with tipsy men looking like cut-throats. The room had one window opening into a stableyard, but which had neither shutters nor fastenings. Its furniture was a single chair and dirty bed. We threw our cloaks on the bed and laid down to rest, but not to sleep, for the fighting and the noise in the bar-room prevented that. We rose at the dawn of day, and reached the boat, feeling thankful we had not been murdered in the night. It is many, many years ago; but I can still recall that night of fright.”6
The exploration party finally reached New Orleans on December 1, 1809, but had little time to linger and recover. Instead, they sought out the first available ship leaving for the East Coast and quickly sailed away in it. That voyage, like the nine days the Roosevelts had spent in the open rowboat, was not much of a honeymoon either. “We had a terrible voyage of a month, with a sick captain,” Lydia wrote. “The yellow fever was on board. A passenger ... died with it.” The Roosevelts left the ship off the coast of Virginia and were taken by a pilot boat to Old Point Comfort and from there they took a stagecoach to New York, arriving in mid–January 1810. They had been gone nine months.
Nicholas promptly reported to Fulton and Livingston what he had learned. With that good news in hand, Fulton and Livingston entered into a contract with Nicholas. Some sources say the arrangement was a partnership that provided for Fulton and Livingston to supply the capital and Nicholas the expertise and time. Under the agreement, Nicholas would go back to Pittsburgh and there oversee the building of a steamboat according to Fulton’s specifications. Also under the terms of the agreement, Nicholas would take the steamboat down the Ohio and the Mississippi to New Orleans, retracing the journey he and Lydia had made in the flatboat. In honor of its city of destination, the new steamboat would be named the New Orleans.
Fulton’s plans called for a side-wheeler one hundred and sixteen feet long and twenty feet in the beam, drawing about seven feet of water (a specification which Nicholas was said to alter in order to reduce the vessel’s draft). Its hull would be rounded, like that of a seagoing vessel. The engine was to have a thirty-four-inch cylinder with an appropriately sized boiler mounted in the vessel’s hold. The New Orleans would have two cabins, one aft for women passengers and a larger one forward for men. The women’s cabin would contain four berths and would be comfortably furnished. According to one account, the vessel would have portholes and a bowsprit and would be painted light blue. It would have two masts and carry sails for use if needed. Timbers for the boat’s ribs, beams and knees would come from forests near Pittsburgh, the felled trees to be dragged into the Monongahela River and rafted downstream to the site where the boat would be constructed.
It would be built on the bank of the Monongahela, near Boyd’s Hill, at a location on which was later erected the depot of the Pittsburgh and Connellsville Railroad, close to Beelen’s foundry. Mechanics to build and install the engine and other mechanical equipment were brought from New York, but local boatwrights, under Nicholas’s oversight, would assemble the craft. The cost of the vessel would come to about $38,000, which Livingston thought excessive.
On September 27, 1811, the New Orleans was at last finished and ready to be launched on its history-making voyage. On board were Nicholas and Lydia, a captain whom the records leave unnamed, an engineer named Baker, a pilot named Andrew Jack, six deckhands, two maids, a male waiter, a cook and an enormous Newfoundland dog named Tiger. Friends of the Roosevelts implored Lydia, who was eight months pregnant, not to go, but she was determined to make the trip. Pittsburgh’s residents turned out in huge numbers to see them off and to see if the steamboat would actually work. They thronged along the banks of the Monongahela, waving handkerchiefs, tossing their hats into the air and shouting as the New Orleans shoved off, smoke rising like tall clouds from its two black smokestacks. It glided down to the confluence and at last disappeared from the crowd’s view as it passed behind the headlands on the west bank of the Ohio.
Coincidental to the momentous voyage of the first steamboat on America’s western waters was the strange appearance of a comet that was visible to the naked eye for most of the year (much like the Hale-Bopp comet of 1997), setting off waves of consternation in the hearts of many who saw and feared it. If the comet, known simply as C/1811 F1, was the portent of a coming calamity, as some believed it was, Nicholas and Lydia and the crew of the New Orleans would soon enough learn what the calamity was.
As the boat’s only passengers, Nicholas and Lydia had the cabins to themselves, but too excited to sleep, they spent most of the first night on deck watching the forested riverbanks, shadowy in the moonlight, slip by them while the boat proceeded downstream at a speed of eight to ten miles an hour.
During the second night out of Pittsburgh the New Orleans reached Cincinnati and dropped its anchor in the stream. A crowd of Cincinnati’s citizens was up waiting for the Roosevelts, many of them having become acquaintances when Nicholas and Lydia stopped there earlier in their flatboat. Some came out in rowboats to greet them, telling Nicholas and Lydia, “Well, you are as good as your word. You have visited us with a steamboat.” But the doubters were steadfast in their belief that the steamboat could not successfully buck the river’s current and move upstream. “We see you for the last time,” some were reported to say. “Your boat may go down the river, but as to coming up, the idea is an absurd one.”7
Keelboat crewmen in Cincinnati were among the most outspoken unbelievers, hurling gibes at the crew of the New Orleans. A number of flatboatmen who had watched the New Orleans steam past them just upstream of Cincinnati showed a bit more respect for the vessel, proposing that the steamer give them a tow if it passed them again. But they, too, refused to believe the New Orleans could make it upstream.
After taking on a supply of wood fuel, the boat steamed off again, headed now for Louisville, which it reached about midnight on October 1, four days out of Pittsburgh. It anchored opposite the town, under a brilliant moon. When the boat’s engineer opened the valve to let off steam and stop the engine, the escaping steam made such a loud and strange noise that it awakened the townspeople, who despite the late hour, came swarming to the riverfront to behold the fire-breathing, floating monster, clearly visible in the bright moonlight. One of the New Orleans crewmen later wrote a letter in which he claimed that the people of Louisville had been convinced that the 1811 comet had fallen into the Ohio and was the cause of all the commotion.
Several days after the Roosevelts arrived in Louisville, a public dinner was given for them, and Nicholas was hailed and saluted with toasts in celebration of his accomplishment in building the steamboat and bringing it to Louisville for all to see. It was a heartwarming occasion. However, before the evening passed, comments were inevitably made about the chances of Nicholas’s boat being able to return upstream. Some expressed their regret that this was not only the first but also the last time a steamboat would be seen above the Falls of the Ohio.
Nicholas took it all in good humor and then graciously invited all his hosts to be his guests at a dinner one evening aboard the New Orleans. They accepted and gathered for the shipboard soiree in the gentlemen’s cabin. Midway through the banquet, the conviviality was alarmingly interrupted by rumblings from below, and the guests felt the vessel begin to move. Suspecting the boat had somehow lost its anchor and was now adrift, headed for the Falls of the Ohio, the diners rushed to the boat’s upper deck to confirm their fears. What they saw, however, was that they were headed upstream, the powerful paddle wheels of the New Orleans churning steadily against the Ohio’s current. Within minutes the riverfront of Louisville was downstream of them, fading into the distance. After continuing a few miles up the river, the boat turned around and returned to its anchorage opposite the town. Nicholas had staged a convincing demonstration of what his steamboat could do.
When the Roosevelts were ready to leave Louisville, Nicholas learned that the river at the Falls of the Ohio was not deep enough for the New Orleans to get through safely. And so while waiting for the river to rise to a sufficient depth, he took the vessel back to Cincinnati and made more believers of the steamboat’s prowess. He then returned to Louisville, where, while the wait continued, Lydia gave birth. She had expected the baby to be born aboard the New Orleans, but during the wait she had accepted the hospitality of Louisville friends, and the baby was born in the friends’ home.
It was not until the last week of November that the river rose enough for Nicholas to risk the passage of the New Orleans through the rapids of the Falls. To help get the boat through, Nicholas took on two special pilots, who stationed themselves at the bow of the boat, studying the frothing river before them. Lydia watched from the stern. Hugging the Indiana side of the river, the New Orleans sped through the menacing rapids.
The danger and fright of the Falls of the Ohio were now behind the voyagers. Peril even more terrif ying, however, lay ahead of them.
First there was an attempt by Indians to catch the boat. A large canoe, fully manned, suddenly darted out from the woods beside the river and quickly came up behind the New Orleans, the Indians paddling furiously to overtake it in a race that the steamboat won when the Indians, their arms eventually tiring, issued a barrage of wild shouts and quit the chase.
Then there was the fire aboard the boat. One of the servants had stacked wet wood near the stove in the forward cabin in an effort to have it dry quickly. The wood was placed so close to the stove that it overheated and caught fire, spreading flames to the woodwork in the cabin, which were soon extinguished by the crewmen before major damage could be done to the vessel.
When the New Orleans reached the spot on the Indiana side of the river where Nicholas had noticed the coal vein, which he had in the meantime purchased from the government, the vessel pulled over to the shore to dig out the coal and take it aboard. They found that a large quantity of the coal had already been dug out of the vein and had been piled up near the river bank. Since the coal actually now belonged to Nicholas, he had his crewmen load it onto the boat. While the loading was being done, several people, described by one nineteenth-century account8 as “squatters of the neighborhood,” apparently frightened, came up to Nicholas and his workers and asked if they had heard strange noises on the river and in the woods during the day before. The squatters reported that they had repeatedly felt the earth tremble beneath them and had seen the bank of the river shake.
Those aboard the New Orleans evidently had felt a tremor as the boat came down the river, but it was not until the day after they had stopped for the coal that, with repeated shocks, they realized something horrific was happening. The weather turned oppressively hot, the air misty, the mid-day sun a copper-colored ball that shone but dimly on the surface of the river, as if at twilight. Sitting on the upper deck as they resumed the voyage, the Roosevelts and their fellow travelers could hear an occasional rushing sound and then a violent splash and they saw great chunks of the shore rip away and fall into the river. And yet, except for the occasional splashing of earth into the water, an eerie silence enveloped the river and nearby woods. Everyone aboard the boat seemed stricken with fright and wonder.
The next day was the same. The pilot, Andrew Jack, confessed he had no idea where they were on the river. Alarmed and confused, he reported that the Ohio’s channel was completely changed. Landmark trees and bluffs that had been his guides along the course of the river were now gone, vanished into the Ohio’s muddied, yellow waters. Where there had been deep water there were now uprooted trees lying thick in the stream. Islands in the river that had served as guides had disappeared or had been turned into unrecognizable shapes. Menacing reefs and bars had suddenly appeared where the current had once flowed unobstructed. The New Orleans was steaming in uncharted waters, through a mysteriously altered landscape.
There was, however, no alternative but to press on. As evening approached on that second day from the coal vein, the voyagers sought a place where they could find shelter from the river’s current and tie up safely for the night, as they had been doing. Now they could find no such place. They could see flatboats and rafts that had similarly sought a place to tie up and were partly covered by falling earth where bluffs had caved in and slid on top of the vessels, now abandoned by their crews. The pilot, Jack, decided to continue on to a large island with which he was familiar, one that stood in mid-channel and that offered places to tie up. He could not find it, though, it evidently having disappeared. Tensely they proceeded onward, the passing hours slowly taking them into darkness. Finally they came upon a small island and moored the New Orleans at the foot of it. There they passed a nervous night, sleeping little, listening to the river rush past them and the sounds of earth and trees falling into the stream, and watchful of the furniture being sent skidding across the deck of the cabin as the boat was violently struck and jarred by debris floating in the river.
When the reassuring light of morning came at last, the voyagers could see that they were very near the mouth of the Ohio and that the Mississippi lay not far in the distance, even though the banks of the river and the river channels were now completely changed. Soon the New Orleans made a wide southward turn and entered the Mississippi’s flow. Not long after that, the voyagers reached New Madrid, which in 1811 was the most important town on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Natchez.
At New Madrid the Roosevelts and their fellow travelers aboard the New Orleans got some idea of the nature of the calamity into which they had haplessly sailed. New Madrid was very near the epicenter of an awesomely powerful and far-reaching earthquake, the biggest ever to hit North America and which has become known as the New Madrid Earthquake. It was felt as far away as Washington, D.C.; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia, as well as in many places in between.
The earthquake caused a large section of forested land in the northwestern corner of Tennessee to sink below the level of the river, and the Mississippi rushed backwards for hours to fill the enormous hole. Once the giant depression had been filled with water, the river resumed its southward flow. The depression, still filled with water, remains a natural feature of the land in northwest Tennessee, about twenty miles from present-day New Madrid, and is called Reelfoot Lake.
The earthquake had left New Madrid in ruins. Many of the houses and other buildings had been swallowed by the earth as fissures opened up or had been swept away after the land beneath them had fallen into the river. The town’s cemetery had also fallen into the river. At one site, according to one account, the earth’s upheaval had uncovered the fossilized bones of a mastodon. Some of the town’s residents had felled trees perpendicular to the cracks in the ground and were clinging to them in hopes the fallen trees would bridge the fissures and prevent them for falling into the chasms. Some residents had fled the town, seeking higher ground, but many were still there as the New Orleans approached, giving some of them a new fright. Many others among the quake’s survivors hailed the boat and begged to be taken aboard to escape the town. Lacking provisions sufficient for a large increase in passengers, however, Nicholas had to refuse them.
The New Orleans proceeded down the swollen Mississippi, fallen trees floating all around the boat, the pilot trusting more to luck than to an ability to read the altered landscape and current patterns, choosing the flow’s strongest current in his efforts to find the changed channel of the river.
At the end of the first week of January 1812, the perils of the earthquake’s effects behind them, the intrepid voyagers reached Natchez. Then came a happy occasion. During the voyage from Pittsburgh the boat’s captain and one of Lydia’s maids had fallen in love, and she had accepted his proposal of marriage. When the vessel docked at Natchez, Nicholas hunted up a clergyman, and a hastily arranged wedding ceremony was held for the couple. Before it left Natchez, the New Orleans took on a shipment of cotton — although the shipper’s friends warned him against putting it on the steamboat — for delivery in New Orleans. That cotton thus became the first steamboat freight on the Mississippi.
On January 12, 1812, welcomed by thousands of cheering onlookers who crowded the levee to get a look, the New Orleans at last arrived at the city for which it was named, its history-making voyage ended, more than three months and more than two thousand miles after it had begun.
Nicholas was left in charge of the New Orleans and operated it on its scheduled runs between New Orleans and Natchez. It made the round trip regularly in seventeen days, carrying freight and passengers, and in its first year of operation it earned a profit of $20,000. One source9 quoting from a publication of the early nineteenth century, gives details — some presenting a reporter’s odd arithmetic — of the boat’s operations:
Her accommodations are good, and her passengers numerous, generally not less than from ten to twenty from Natchez at $18.00 each, and when she starts from New Orleans, generally from thirty to fifty and sometimes as many as eighty, at $25.00 each to Natchez....
She performs thirteen trips in the year, which at $2,400 amounts to $3 1,200. Her expenses are, 12 hands at $20 per month, $4,320 [sic]; captain, $1,000; seventy cords of wood each trip, at $1.75, which amounts to $1,586 [sic], in all $6,906. It is presumed that the boat’s extra trip for pleasure or otherwise, out of her usual trade, have paid for all her repairs, and with the bar-room, for the boat’s provisions....
She goes up in seven or eight days, and descends in two or three, stopping several times for freight and passengers. She stays at the extreme of her journey, Natchez and New Orleans, about four or five days to discharge or to take in loading.
Before long, Nicholas had a falling out with Fulton and Livingston, apparently over his failure to give the partners regular reports of the boat’s operations, and Fulton sent his wife’s brother, John Livingston, to New Orleans to take over the boat’s records and the boat itself. At first Nicholas refused to turn over the boat, but when John Livingston threatened a lawsuit, Nicholas gave in, and Livingston assumed possession of the New Orleans and took charge of its operation.
Nicholas and Lydia eventually reached a financial settlement with the Fulton-Livingston partnership, compensating Nicholas for his contributions to the partners’ steamboat success, and the couple later moved to the quiet little town of Skaneateles in the picturesque Finger Lakes area of upstate New York. There they lived until Nicholas’s death on July 30, 1854, at age eightysix. Lydia died in 1871, at age eighty.
The New Orleans, the steamboat that had made them famous and had conquered the mighty Mississippi, lasted not nearly so long. It had a hole punched in its hull when it became impaled on a stump and it sank near Baton Rouge on July 14, 1814.