Two Hundred years ago a momentous event occurred on the Ohio River. The first powered steamboat on the inland waterways, the New Orleans, began its journey down the Ohio River toward the Crescent City. The steamboat left Pittsburgh on 20 October 1811 with a captain, engineer, pilot, six hands, two servants, a waiter, a cook and three passengers. If this trip was successful, its builders, Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston, would learn if the design of the steamboat was sufficient for future trips. Also, it would likely open up a whole new venue for transportation of goods and passengers.
The New Orleans was 26 feet wide and 148 feet long, a massive ship compared to the canoes and flatboats that were in common use. The ship was propelled by a 34 cylinder steam engine that produced 160 horsepower. There were large paddle wheels located amidships on each side of the ship's hull. The ship could travel at 10 miles per hour downstream.
On the 27th of November, the New Orleans arrived in Cincinnati and two days later made it to Louisville. After laying over in Louisville for several weeks due to low water level, the New Orleans proceeded to navigate through the dangerous Falls of the Ohio. Traveling through the Falls was so difficult that only certain experienced pilots were allowed to conduct steamboats through the area.
Then, another momentous event happened. On 11 December 1811, the first New Madrid earthquake occurred. There would be three different 8.0 magnitude trembles at 3 am, 8 am and 11 am. One has to wonder how the passengers and crew aboard the New Orleans felt. Did the New Orleans rock and roll when the quakes hit? The noise alone must have been frightening - from both the earthquake and the steamboat itself. The New Orleans was not a silent steamboat - its engine was so loud that it could be heard some distance away. What excitement must have been created in all the town along the river as the New Orleans chugged its way toward New Orleans. And reach New Orleans it did on January 10, 1812.
The New Orleans never returned to Pittsburgh; she was thereafter used as a packet carrying mail, cargo and passengers between Natchez and New Orleans. This voyage from Pittsburgh to New Orelans in 1811 was just the beginning of the great steamboat era on the Ohio River. Towns such as Evansville, Cairo, Smithland, Paducah and Cincinnati would flourish with steamboat traffic. Without steamboats, Smithland might have been nothing more than another little river town. With steamboats and the businesses it created, such men as Nathaniel Drew, Joshua V. and J.H. Throop, Amon Price, Blount Hodge, Napoleon B. Hayward and Sterling Barner made Smithland their home and enriched the history of the town.
Harold Morgan. "1811: A Year of Miracles," Bicentennial Indiana Territory 1811-1815, http://thefirstvolley.com/steamboat.html, accessed 9 December 2011.
Copyright by Brenda Joyce Jerome, CG
Western Kentucky Genealogy Blog