Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Distance annihilated by steam.
Skeptics wondered how New Orleans could succeed so long as upstream navigation proved so difficult. And with good reason, because struggling with the river was an annual rite for traders who floated produce downriver to market, and then faced a grueling journey home: using a combination of wind power, poling, rowing, or the cordelle, a heavy rope, fastened to the bow of a riverboat, which allowed a crew to play a months-long game of tug-of-war with the Mississippi’s current. Dangerous and unpredictable, the trip upstream could take “three or four, and sometimes nine months.” Because of the voyage’s length and difficulty, valley traders typically made only one trip to market at New Orleans per year. Consequently, the river’s current captivated New Orleanians who pondered the Mississippi’s power, confident that business would boom in their city if people could somehow overcome its flow.
The Fulton group guaranteed that it would do exactly that. The partners offered the Orleans territorial government hope that places that had been removed from the city by thousands of miles and the river’s current would be within easy reach after steamboats tamed the Mississippi. In short, they promised to control nature.
But if the territorial legislators had hoped to spur economic growth, they instead forestalled it. With the Fulton group enjoying the “sole privilege of using Steam Boats” in Orleans Territory, other vessels avoided the region for six years. Until, finally, in 1817, Henry Shreve (for whom Shreveport is named) sued to open the river and won. In the year after that, fourteen new steamboats began working the lower Mississippi. By 1827, there were more than 100 steamboats afloat on the river. And by 1859, in excess of 250 steamboats made more than 3,500 stops at New Orleans’s waterfront, accounting for well over $100 million in receipts there.
Even in retrospect, the numbers boggle the mind, but observers at the Port of New Orleans were more impressed by the gathering together of goods and people from the distant reaches of the continent. Whiskey from Kentucky distilleries, apples from western New York orchards, corn from central Illinois farms, furs from the Canadian backcountry, cotton from upper Louisiana’s alluvial soil, cheese from Wisconsin’s dairyland, as well as starched visitors from London, Creole traders hawking wares, African-American firemen cleaning soot from their faces, so-called “Kaintucks” napping beside battered flatboats, genteel couples ambling arm-in-arm and taking in the sights — all these mingled on the banks of the Mississippi at New Orleans. . . .
How did that happen? Mostly because of increasing veolcity and the predictability steamboats imposed on the Mississippi River system. The first steamboat, the Washington, to travel upstream from New Orleans to Louisville took twenty-five days to make the trip in 1817. Then, later that fall, the Shelby covered the same route in just over twenty days. In 1828, the Tecumseh arrived in Louisville just eight days out of New Orleans. By 1850, a passenger could leave Louisiana on Sunday for a Friday engagement in Louisville, confident that she would arrive on time. Steam travel collapsed time and space, as a kind of technological alchemy first turned six months hard labor into one month’s comparatively luxurious travel. Less than twenty years later, further innovation transformed that month-long voyage into a journey of less than a week. It seemed as though steamboats had compressed the Mississippi Valley’s geography like an accordion, bringing the upper Ohio River and the lower Mississippi together as easily as one might fold a map, leaving Baton Rouge astride Pittsburgh. One commercial commentator wrote of the steamboat’s impact: “distance is no longer thought of in this region—it is almost annihilated by steam.”
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