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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

The Great Miami River And Its Travelers

Dallas Bogan on 30 August 2004
original article by Dallas Bogan
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

August 24, 1997

The Great Miami River begins in Hardin County and flows southward for about 150 miles, empting into the Ohio River near North Bend. The Indians used it long before the white man settled this part of the country. They used this route to maneuver their canoes up the Great Miami and down the Maumee to Lake Erie.
The first record of a European in this part of the country was that of the Frenchman Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle, in 1669. LaSalle went by boat from Lake Erie over the portage of about eight miles to Lake Chautauqua, and thence down the Allegheny and the Ohio to the falls at Louisville, where he was deserted by most of his men. Some historians suggested that he returned to Lake Erie by going up the Great Miami, but there is some uncertainty as to this venture.
Next came the explorers for the Albany fur traders. They came to the Ohio Valley in 1692 but soon left.
In the name of the King of France, in 1749, Celeron de Bienville was sent with a large force of soldiers and Indians to take possession of the whole country northwest of the Ohio. With twenty-three birch canoes he passed down the Ohio and up the Great Miami. He had shortened the trip by traveling up the latter stream, which the French then called Rock River, to the Miami towns where he remained a week.
The water was low at this time of year (autumn), and instead of carrying his canoes over the portage he bought some horses and rode five and one-half days to the Maumee, and then paddled to Lake Erie.
From 1809 thru 1813, complaints were registered concerning the brush obstructions and the fish baskets along the Great Miami, Mad and Stillwater rivers. A petition was presented to the Legislature that the Mad and the Stillwater Rivers be declared a public road, and that the Great Miami so far as the mouth of Stony Creek, be declared the same, using a part of the three per-cent fund set aside by the Government for the improvement of highways.
Fish baskets were considered a bottleneck. A fish basket was a box constructed of wooden slats and placed at the riffles in the center, at a level lower than the dam. An opening allowed the fish to enter, but due to its construction, exiting was next to impossible.
The Dayton Republican published an article, dated September 4, 1815, which expressed concern of the obstructions in the Great Miami River. It says:
"The wealth and increased population of the waters of the Great Miami demand immediate attention to the navigation of that stream, without which the country loses half of its value. Will the people tamely submit to suffer a few men so essentially to injure the country? The obstructions in the river must be removed. All are interested in an object so important, and it is hoped the settlers on the waters of the Great Miami will immediately turn their attention to improving its navigation."
The Great Miami was sometime later considered a public road. But without a policing method, the mill-owners and the fish basket installers were free to do as they pleased.
A navigational board met in Franklin on the fourth Monday of May 1816, which concerned river congestion versus river traffic; board members were William C. Schenck and William Sayre of Warren County, along with persons from Montgomery, Greene, Champaign and Miami counties.
With the obstructions still in place, the early spring rains were the only solution to part time river traffic. The flatboats and keelboats were usually loaded and ready for the water surge. Passage over the milldams was generally performed with ease.
During the last week of March 1819, eight flatboats and one keelboat were loaded at Dayton and passed down the Great Miami, thru Franklin and on to the Ohio River, their destination, New Orleans. Several of the flatboats were loaded with flour, pork and whiskey.
In May of the same year there passed thru Franklin a large keelboat, its dimensions being upward of seventy feet in length, with a load of twelve tons of merchandise from Cincinnati. This was the only keelboat that had ascended the Great Miami from Cincinnati to Dayton in years because of the river obstructions.
During the first part of April 1821, the Great Miami ran high because of heavy rains. Many boats carrying cargo down the river were successful because of the extremely fast current.
In 1822, the Dayton paper, The Watchman," expressed for the first time its doubts about the navigational policy of the Great Miami. It reads:
"On the 16 of March 1822, a combination of seven flat-bottom boats and one keelboat left for New Orleans. The safety of this fleet was in doubt. The low water of the river was the concern. Some of the boats did not arrive safely."
On March 26th and 27th, 1825, a fleet of thirty or more boats was waiting for the river to rise due to a rain that had occurred a few days earlier. The community of Dayton was anxiously awaiting, shouting and hurrahing the gentle rise of the river.
On Saturday, the 26th, many wagons were nervously being unloaded onto the waiting boats. Flour, pork, whiskey, etc., was being loaded for the final trip to New Orleans; these goods were estimated at about $100,000. On Sunday, the 27th, the water slowly began to fall and the boats got underway. Most of them finished their journey.
With the completion of the Miami Canal river traffic was to be an extinct episode in the building of the Miami Valley. In February 1828, the last boat, loaded with produce for New Orleans, passed through Franklin.
This ended an era in which the pioneers of the Miami Valley, through much strife and turmoil, succeeded in carrying on a tradition that was inherited from their fathers and forefathers, which has been expressed in deed, toil and exhausting labor.


August 31, 1997

The writer has always been fascinated by river traffic and has often found himself sitting along the Ohio River bank in the Cincinnati area simply watching the water-craft going up and down this historic waterway.
Due to simpler transportation methods, such as the vast trucking and rail systems, the great river infrastructure has taken second place and seems to concentrate on hauling heavy freight.
This has not always been the case. The steamboat, in the early days of river traffic, traveled the great Mississippi River valley system for passenger and trade purposes. Secondary water passages such as the Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, White, Arkansas, and Red, were a significant part of this network.
Before the steamboat era, river traffic downstream had always been cheap and easy, the different type boats simply drifting with the current.
I have at another time written about the flatboats and their necessity concerning the migration of the pioneers and the transportation of their merchandise.
Products of the Miami Valley were shipped downstream, via the Great and Little Miami River systems, to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and eventually down to New Orleans.
While researching this subject, I found the first recorded exports down the Mississippi were in the first half of 1801. From January 1 to June 30, 1801, goods were transported in 450 flatboats, 20 keelboats and 7 large canoes.
Twenty-five different types of cargo were recorded in this vast enterprise, the largest being flour, cordage (ropes and cords), and meats and skins, respectively. Also included was whiskey, peach brandy, cider, lard, iron nails, soap and ten pairs of mill-stones.
The number of flatboats on the western rivers increased until after the War of 1812. On the Ohio River in the first months of the winter of 1810-11, there passed over the falls at Louisville Ky., 197 flatboats and 14 keelboats.
The "Despatch," a steamboat built around 1817, recorded on a voyage of 25 days from Natchez to Louisville that it passed 2,000 flatboats going down stream; no record was made during the night trip.
The sight of several flatboats being fastened together was not uncommon. One gentleman recorded on one occasion that he was on board a fleet of eight flatboats moving together in a way that resembled a kind of floating town. He could travel over the roofs and take a sizable walk.
Bartering was the main feature on the trip southward. Each flatboat carried different consignments. On one craft hogs were killed, and on another limited amounts of whiskey were bargained for. A dry goods store was in operation on one of the boats and stopped at different towns to trade.
Our story teller relates that at one point 100 boats would land at New Madrid in a single day and would cover several acres. At dawn the next morning, all would be underway.
The Ohio was the main tributary of the Mississippi River system. At the height of river traffic Cincinnati was considered the nucleus of all ports. It was centered in the richest agricultural district in the West, the Miami Valley. During the War of 1812, the city annually exported several thousand barrels of flour.
Large droves of hogs were moved to the city to be slaughtered and shipped down river. Because of the many pork packing facilities, Cincinnati was accordingly called "Porkopolis."
Flatboats did not return up river. One estimate revealed that for a period of several years, 500 persons descended the river from Cincinnati to New Orleans with their loads and returned by foot.
At a later time, the introduction of larger craft resulted in a vessel called a barge. It could be maneuvered upstream by means of oars, poles and ropes. Sails were used when the winds were right.
Freight was transported up the river systems from New Orleans rather than over the mountains of the East. Barges could normally make two round trips from this southern city annually. Cargo would consist mainly of sugar, cotton, molasses, and coffee.
Keelboats were built not only to descend but ascend the river, this type craft appearing at the end of the 18th century. As the name implies, it was fitted with a keel which also had a pointed bow and stern. Propulsion was provided by sail, oars or poles, the latter being most common in a shallow river such as the Great Miami.
On the top end of the pole was fitted a shoulder piece, while the opposite end was ironshod for digging into the river bed or bank. Polers pushed in relays while walking along planks mounted on the gunwales (the upper edge of the side of the boat).
A more practical method was needed to transport freight up the numerous waterways. The invention of the steam engine, and eventually the steamboat, elevated river traffic to great heights, and in the process, eliminated the labors of the past.

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