--Missouri Republican 1835
On August 2, 1817 the first steamboat, the Zebulon M. Pike,
arrived at St. Louis. It was smaller than most keelboats and had a small engine supplemented by a crew using poles to push her along.
It made its trip from Louisville in 6 weeks (only travelling during daylight)
1819--The steamboat, Independence, became the first to navigate
the Missouri river.
1823--The steamboat, Virginia, was first to navigate the Mississippi
from St. Louis to Ft. Snelling (Minneapolis).
By the 1830's Steamboats with larger engines took approximately 12-14
days to go from New Orleans to St. Louis. This was a big improvement over
keelboats which made the trip in 90-100 days. Of course it was faster going
1831-- First steamboat to ascend to the Missouri River headwaters.
1849--The steamboat, White Cloud, was the source of the fire
that destroyed twenty-three steamboats, and
twenty blocks of St. Louis.
April 1865--The steamboat, Sultana, passed safety inspection
in St. Louis. The ship would proceed to New Orleans before taking on more passingers (Union soldiers) at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Loaded with 2,400 passengers, the ship had an intended its destinations to be:
Memphis; Cairo; and lastly,
Jefferson Barracks (St. Louis, Mo.). Shortly after leaving Memphis, the
Sultana exploded, killing more than 1,800 passengers. This exceeds
the number of the lives lost on the Titanic and has become "America's worst maritime disaster".
"In 1849, when the gold fever was at its height, there were fifty-eight
fine steamers plying regularly on the Missouri river; on the Upper Mississippi
about seventy-Five; on the Illinois twenty~eight fine steamers; to
New Orleans (lower Mississippi) about one hundred; on the Ohio about one
hundred and fifty; on the Tennessee about fifteen."
"About the year 1843 the fastest, J.M. White, was built, and
made the time from New Orleans to St. Louis in three days, twenty-three
hours and some minutes. This was the fastest time, everything considered,
ever made, though in the race in 1870, between the Natchez and the
F. Lee, it was claimed the latter made it in less time."
"I could stand on the levee any night and tell almost any boat
either by the sound of her escapement (exhaust) or the sound of her bell,
long before she reached the landing. Indeed, owing to the peculiar construction
of the heaters of the engines, the escapement was such that hardly any
two were alike, and many of them could be heard for miles. One in particular,
I remember, the Boreas, conld be heard scream for twelve or fifteen
miles on a clear night, while others had a heavy, deep sound or growl.
The Hannibal, a big New Orleans boat, being of the latter kind."
"The average life of a boat was about five years. After that they were
either torn up to build a more modern boat, or had sunk or blown up.
Need I tell you that in one bend in the river there lie the wrecks of one
hundred and three steamboats between St. Louis and Cairo? "
On June 30, 1870 in New Orleans a crowd of ten thousand watched
and the Robert E. Lee set off on a 1,200 miles race
up the Mississippi to St. Louis. The Natchez was Captained
by Thomas Paul Leathers (also known as "Old Push"), and the R.
E. Lee by John W. Cannon. On July 4th 1870, the R. E. Lee
arrived victoriously in St. Louis while a crowd of thousands cheered wildly.
In the book, "Tales of the Mississippi", it is reported that the "ovation
which the Lee received at
St. Louis was legendary. At 11:33 on the morning of Independence Day,
exactly three days, eighteen hours and thirteen
minutes after leaving St. Mary's market (New Orleans), she crosses
the finish line". The event also marked the kickoff of the everpopular
St. Louis annual Veiled Prophet parade and festivities. The Natchez
due to having to stop for coal and having to slow down in the fog around
Cairo did not arrive in St. Louis until six hours and 33 minutes after
Previously, the speed record was held by the Natchez which had
just earlier in the month (June 1870) surpassed
J. M. White's long standing May 8, 1844 record of three days,
twenty-three hours, and nine minutes. The Natchez
best record to St. Louis being 3 days, 22 hours and 57 minutes.
St. Louis area artist, Gary R. Lucy, (of Washington, Mo.) has captured
the Robert E. Lee in his historically accurate print,
entitled the THE
ROBT. E. LEE. Gary's other excellent work can be seen at his main
Excellent book on the subject:
"Tales of the Mississippi", by Ray Samuel, Leonard V. Huber and Warren
Pelican Publishing, Gretna, Louisiana; 1992.
When John F. Darby was elected mayor in 1835, St. Louis faced
the danger of becoming inland. The channel which Pierre Laclede
found had moved. From a depth of seventy-five feet the water had
shoaled. The bars were showing above the surface. Both were growing
and approaching. Boats could no longer land at the foot of Olive
Street. On the Illinois side, above Bloody Island, the current was
cutting eastward into the soft alluvial of the American bottom so rapidly
that any flood season might open a channel down the east side of the island.
Then the main river would be a mile or more to the eastward of St. Louis.
The situation was so serious that real estate values in St. Louis were
affected. Every week seemed to make the conditions worse. The prediction
was common, that the river would cut through what is now almost the heart
of East St. Louis, and leave St. Louis without any channel.
When the city took up the consideration of this problem through the
new municpal administration in the spring of 1835, every alderman had his
remedy. General William H. Ashley was the member of Congress from
the St. Louis district. He had gone to Washington with the reputation of
great achievements as an explorer and fur trader in the Rocky Mountains;
he had accumulated what was much wealth for that period. He gave
entertainments which were the talk of Washington. Although he was
no orator he obtained great influence in the House, though which he was
enabled to obtain an appropriation for the improvement of the harbor of
St. Louis, the first of its kind. At that time Thomas H. Benton
was in the senate but belonged to the democratic party which denounced
internal improvements by the Federal government. To be consistent Mr. Benton
could not exert himself in behalf of the St. Louis appropriation.
Two sessions of earnest work by General Ashley and his friends secured
$15,000. There was no telegraphing in those days. When a letter brought
the news to Mayor Darby, there was general rejoicing in St. Louis.
General Charles Gratiot was chief of the engineer corps. As a
boy born in St. Louis, he witnessed the transfer to the United States (Lousiana
Purchase). He was one of the four yound men of the Louisiana Territory
honored by President Jefferson with appointments as cadets to West
Point. He served with honor in the war of 1812, received the vote
of thanks of Congress, and rose to the highest position in the engineer
corps. As soon as the appropriation for the harbor was made, General Gratiot
came to St. Louis to see what must be done to save his native city.
He was a straightforward, unpretending man, although he had reached the
head of the corps. The engineering profession considered him one of its
most accomplished members. Coming to St. Louis, General Gratiot spent
weeks making a careful examination of conditions. When he went back
to Washington he promised to send a competent member of the corps to take
charge of the work. Very soon the officer arrived with a letter commending
him to Mayor Darby. He was Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, afterwards
the Confederate General. From the theories of Gratiot and the practical
experiments of Lee came the scientific knowledge upon the improvement of
the Mississippi from that time to this has been based. It is impossible
to divide the honor. Gratiot and Lee together mastered the Mississippi.
They evolved the plan of dyke and revetment control. They sent the current
back to scour the St. Louis front. They made the river itself dig out the
bars it had formed and restore the old channel.
The method is old now. It looks simple and easy. Seventy years ago it
was a great discovery. The civilian associate with Lieutenant Lee was Henry
Kayser, then just of age. The Kaysers, Henry and Alexander, had come
up the river on a chlorea-stricken boat a few years before. They were German
youth, well educated, seeking homes in a new world. Both were to take high
rank in widely different professions. Alexander Kayser became a
leading lawyer of St. Louis. Henry Kayser was the foremost civil engineer
in St. Louis before the Civil War.
The study which the army Lieutenant and his young assistant gave to
the problem was exhaustive. Far into the nights the twon worked over
the plans. Lieutenant Lee went daily with Mr. Kayser to the Illinois
shore, where the work was being done. He was often there at sunrise. He
ate the rations. He slepton the boat when the construction was at critical
stages. Every survey Lietenant Lee supervised. He watched the driving of
piles and laying of stone and brush. Two years the young Virginian
applied himself with a devotion which caused those who saw it to marvel.
The river was saved to St. Louis. The government appropriation was expended.
But before he went back, Lieutenant Lee prepared the plans to complete
the improvement of the harbor of St. Louis. Further appeals to Congress
for some years went unheeded. At the expense of the city and under efficient
direction of Henry Kayser, St. Louis maintained the control of the Channel.
As would be expected the State of Illinois was not very pleased
to see this engineering project that kept the river from moving to their
advantage, especially since so much of the work was conducted on the Illinois
side of the river. Apparently the State of Illinois sent an officer to
arrest some of those involved, as the following entry was discovered in
the Illinois Executive Record, 1837-1843, p. 233:
Gov Carlin this day made demand on the State of Missouri for the apprehension
and delivery of Edward W. Thomas, John Lowery, Robert E. Lee, Elliott Lee,
Edward Gay, William C. Lane, Isaac A. Letcher, and ARCHIBALD CARR, charged
with "obstructing a navigable river"; "resisting an officer in the discharge
of his duty" and of "an unlawful assembly" to be delivered to Andrew Miller
Sheriff of Madison Co.
Snags were a major hazard on the river, causing the sinking
of many ships. Capt. Henry Miller Shreve, Superintendent of Western
River Improvements invented a boat to pull large snags from the river.
With his invention, the Heliopolis, a "double hulled snagboat" he
not only cleared the Mississippi but also the Ohio and Red Rivers. The
Red River had been completely shut down to steamboat traffic, due to a
150 mile log jam. In appreciation of Capt. Shreve's accomplishments
St. Louis has a street named, Shreve Avenue. Henry Miller Shreve spent
his last days in St. Louis, dying at the home of his son-in-law, Walker
Randolph Carter (his daughter being Rebecca). Shreve's grandson, Maj. Frank
Carter, served in Confederate Army and later worked as a steamboat agent
in St. Louis. The Shreve family is buried at Bellefontaine cemetery of
St. Louis. [Note: Shreveport, Louisiana is named in honor of Capt. Shreve.]
image of a snagboat of Shreve's design.
In order for ships to enter the Mississippi river from the Gulf
of Mexico, they must travel through a narrow channel known as the South
Pass. It is here that the currents would deposit sediments that would form
sand bars, which eventually blocked the channel completely to river traffic.
Capt. James B. Eads of St. Louis offered a solution to the problem. He
could open the river by constructing a series of parallel jetties.
(to be continued)
See also: "St.
Louis Ships of Iron" (Eads' Ironclad ships made in St. Louis)
The City of St.
Louis (built 1883) She was in operation between St. Louis and
New Orleans until 1898.
In 1903 she served as an excusion boat from Carondelet, Mo. Image Source:
St. Louis The Fourth City 1764-1909 by Walter B. Stevens; The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1909.
The St. Louis Levee from the
Eads Bridge Image Source: St. Louis The Fourth City 1764-1909
by Walter B. Stevens; The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1909.
Steamboat Bill, steaming down the Mississippi,
Steamboat Bill, a mighty man was he.
Steamboat Bill, steaming down the Mississippi,
going to beat the record of the "Robert E. Lee."
Up then stepped a gambling man from Louisville,
who tried to get a bet against the Whipperwill.
Billy flashed a roll that surely was a bear,
the boiler, it exploded, blew them up in the air.
The gambler said to Billy as they left the wreck,
"I don't know where we're going, but we're neck in neck."
Says Bill to the gambler, "I'll tell you what I'll do,
I will bet another thousand I'll go higher than you."
Steamboat Bill, he tore up the Mississippi,
Steamboat Bill, the tide it made him swear.
Steamboat Bill, he tore up the Mississippi,
the explosion of the boiler got him up in the air.
River's all in mourning now for Steamboat Bill,
no more you'll hear the puffing of the Whipperwill,
There's crape on ev'ry steamboat that plows those streams,
from Memphis right to Natchez down to New Orleans.
The wife of Mister William was at home in bed,
When she got the telegram that Steamboat's dead.
Says she to the children, "Bless each honey lamb,
the next papa that you will have will be a railroad man."
Steamboat Bill, missing on the Mississippi,
Steamboat Bill, is with an angel band,
Steamboat Bill, missing on the Mississippi,
he's a pilot on the ferry in that Promised Land.