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  • James Wheeling

Rivers Were Our First Superhighways

Growing up in the San Juan Mountains, where rivers and streams start their journeys, it wasn’t until I started my story’s research that I fully appreciated how important the North American river systems have been for our economic development and migration. I was struck by how unique the North American continent is to have both north/south and east/west river systems and hundreds of miles of Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes coastlines.

But, consider this – until the steamboat arrived in the early 1840’s every floating vessel, be it a bull boat, flat boat, raft, whatever floated, all had to follow the river current. Canoes had the advantage of being able to be rowed against the current but whew! What a job! Otherwise, if one started in Pittsburgh on the Ohio River, one ended up downriver somewhere. It was a common practice for flatboats hauling goods to New Orleans from Ohio or Indiana to be deconstructed upon arrival, the hardwood lumber valued in the South. Abraham Lincoln, as a young man, made two trips to New Orleans on a flatboat, delivered the goods, deconstructed the vessel, sold it all and then walked back to Indiana. It had to have been an exhilarating adventure for young men at that time.

Lewis and Clark made their way westward by rowing against the current of the Missouri River as they pushed into the western interior. By the time of the western expansion and the California goldrush, the river steamboat was well-established as a major player in commerce and emigration. When the flow of goods reversed, commerce exploded along the riverways. Cities developed along river banks, especially at jumping off points for those intending to move across the uncharted, western territories. St. Louis, St. Joseph, Ft. Leavenworth, Fort Buford, Fort Union, all became major hubs for trading or traveling, merchants selling everything required for the journey.

As the river traffic picked up, there became rules of travel, much like our vehicle laws on roads, except it was all about the smallest vessels yielding to the biggest. Steamboats ruled the riverways, mostly because they could travel upstream and they were faster no matter which direction they went. Keelboats and flatboats were the major commercial workhorses, their decks filled with barrels, bales and buckets. Rafts, canoes, and bull boats all provided transportation for a few people at a time. When any of these heard the shrill whistle of the oncoming steamboat, they would skitter to the closest bank and allow the machine pass by.

To get a hands-on feeling for what it must have been like to travel on a steamboat, I bought a ticket on the steamboat, “Natchez,” while in New Orleans a few years ago. I explored every corner of the ship, including the engine room where the massive machinery driving the paddle wheel was deafening. I tried to imagine what it had been like to be on a raft or a flatboat when one of these large-for-their-times ships would pass by. Just about the time I had that image clear in my head, a barge heading downstream to the Gulf of Mexico passed us and I felt the true feeling of what a flatboat operator had to have felt next to a steamboat – puny.

In our modern-day river travel, vast amounts of money are spent to keep the waterways navigable: sand dredging and other mechanical processes keep the water deep enough, the banks clear and the debris from flooding cleared. In 1850, those who plied the river systems had nothing but their wits to keep them from disaster caused by shifting currents and hidden debris. In a future blog, I will go into the special language of riverboat operators and the hazards of their profession.

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