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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Early Transportation Methods On The River

Dallas Bogan on 19 September 2004
original article by Dallas Bogan
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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 watercraft 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 were whiskey, peach brandy, cider, lard, iron nails, soap and ten pairs of millstones.
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 also ascend the river, this type craft appearing at the end of the 18th century. As the name implies, it was fitted with a keel that also had a pointed bow and stern. Sail, oars or poles provided propulsion, 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 riverbed 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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This page created 19 September 2004 and last updated 28 September, 2008
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