Two hundred years ago, the first steamboat meandered down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, taking more than four months to reach New Orleans. The journey was marked by Indians chasing the paddle-wheeled boat, a baby’s birth and an earthquake that made the Mississippi flow in the opposite direction for 45 miles.
Despite it all, the steamboat New Orleans successfully sailed into the city it was named for, revolutionizing business for the port, and opening up the Midwest to economic growth.
The 200th anniversary of the first docking will be celebrated Saturday along the banks of the Mississippi and at the Cabildo museum in the French Quarter. The museum has a related exhibit: New Orleans Bound 1812: The Steamboat that Changed America.
‘A ship capable of sailing up the Mississippi had never sailed down it before,’ said Frank Courtenay, a maritime attorney and president of the celebration sponsor River Heritage Foundation. ‘It was the first that could operate against the current, and that’s what made the port of New Orleans what it is today.’
These days, more than 6,000 vessels move through the port each year. In 1812, there were only flat boats coming down the Mississippi, and vessels under sail struggling up from the Gulf of Mexico.
Still, when that first paddle wheeler arrived, it created surprisingly little stir, said Tony Lewis, the curator of the Cabildo show.
‘It was certainly a historic moment, and it capped a trip full of adventure,’ Lewis said. ‘But there was not a lot of excitement about it. I suspect they landed here and it was more of a curiosity than anything.’
Steam engines had already come to New Orleans, Lewis said, as had word of steamboats on the northern rivers.
Built in Pittsburgh by a group of investors that included Robert Fulton—credited by many as the father of the modern steam-powered ship—the boat was 138-feet long and 33-feet wide. It carried 17 people, including an engineer, six deckhands, a cook, a waiter, two female servants, and a Newfoundland dog named Tiger.
Lydia Roosevelt, wife of Nicholas Roosevelt, one of the leading investors, gave birth to a son on the way down river. The boat left Pittsburgh in October 1811 and docked in New Orleans on Jan. 10, 1812.
During the first voyage, people on the banks threw rocks at the boat, fearing it carried invading British soldiers. Indians chased the boat downstream, blaming it for a recent eclipse and later the earthquake.
Within just a few decades, steamboats stimulated growth in the cities like St. Louis, Cincinnati and Memphis. For the first time, raw material could move up river to manufacturers.
By the Civil War, the port of New Orleans was considered a vital target for Union forces, which captured the city in 1862 and cut off a key channel of trade for the Confederacy.
On Saturday, there will be a re-enactment of the steamboat’s arrival in the French Quarter, a symposium on steamboats and other events to mark the anniversary.
The Natchez, the only steamboat still operating in New Orleans, is in dry dock and was unable to take part, but The Cotton Blossom, which is a paddle-wheeled vessel but not a steamboat, was brought over from the Tchefuncte River for the event.
In their heyday, steamboats were noted for the luxurious accommodations, Courtenay said. Currently, there are no steamboats offering overnight accommodations, but the return of the American Queen, a cruising steamboat that once operated out of New Orleans, will be announced during the event, Courtenay said.
It will be headquartered in Memphis and cruise between there and New Orleans, he said.