This article is excerpted from “The Keelboats and Flatboats of the Early Days — Discouragements Overcome by Fulton and his Associates,” originally reprinted from the New Orleans Times-Picayune in The New York Times on August 14, 1891. It was transcribed by Hudson River Maritime Museum volunteer Carl Mayer and slightly edited for clarity and annotated by John Warren.
Of the various persons who have disputed Robert Fulton’s laurels as the inventor of the first perfect steamboat, Edward West’s claims are the strongest. West, father of the noted painter William West [William Edward West, 1788–1859, provided numerous illustrations for the books of Washington Irving].
West, was a Virginian of Welsh extraction, who settled in Lexington, Kentucky, 1785, as a watchmaker, he being the first workman of that nature ever in the town. He was a serious investigator of steam and its possibilities, and constructed all the machinery for his experiments himself; among these machines was a tiny steam engine made in 1799, and which is even yet in the museum of the lunatic asylum at Cincinnati [Longview Asylum, opened in 1860].
In August of 1801 he exhibited to the Lexingtonians a boat wherein he had applied steam to the oars; he obtained a patent for this. Its model was unfortunately destroyed at the burning of Washington City by the British [during the War of 1812] in 1814, along with the model of his patented nail-cutting machine, the first one ever invented; it cut 5,320 pounds of nails in twelve hours. West sold this patent for $10,000.
It was on the Elkhorn [Elkhorn Creek], at Lexington, that West first exhibited his boat. Disappointed at having to yield the palm of successful steamboat navigation to Fulton, he died at Lexington August 23, 1827, aged seventy. It may be that West’s claim was just, but Fulton certainly was the first one to bring steam navigation prominently before the public, the first one to make it useful for commercial and traveling purposes; in consequence of this, greatest credit will always attach to him.
While Fulton was busy working out practically his dream of steam power, many changes had occurred on the Mississippi. Louisiana had passed from the dominion of France to that of Spain, and again from the latter to that of the United States. Its name was no longer “Province of Louisiana,” but “Territory of Orleans.” New-Orleans, its seat of Government, had become an incorporated city, and the Territory itself was knocking loudly at the door of the Union demanding admission as its eighteenth State.
The [Orleans] Territorial Legislature of 1811, which previous to its adjournment received official information of the passage of the act to enable the citizens of the Territory to frame a Constitution and State government preparatory to the admission of the new State into the Union, was the identical one which also passed an act granting to Fulton and his associate, Livingston, “the sole and exclusive privilege to build, construct, make, use, employ, and navigate boats, vessels, and water craft urged or propelled through water by fire or steam, in all the creeks, rivers, bays, and waters whatever within the jurisdiction of the Territory during eighteen years from the 1st of January, 1812.
In the Clermont, which Fulton tested on the Hudson River in 1809, Fulton made use of a vertical wheel invented by Nicholas J. Roosevelt [1767-1854, a great-grand uncle of Theodore Roosevelt, an inventor of the vertical paddle wheel] who was deeply interested in the evolution of Fulton’s invention. After the acknowledged success on the Hudson, it was decided that this Roosevelt should go down the Ohio from Pittsburg, out into the Mississippi, and on down to New-Orleans, studying all the way its topography, and above all its currents.
With this end in view, Roosevelt, accompanied by his wife and the necessary men to handle it, made the trip on a flatboat. It was in May of 1809 that Roosevelt started on his journey, making stops at Cincinnati, Louisville, and Natchez, (the only towns of any note whatsoever between Pittsburg and New-Orleans,) and reaching New-Orleans in November; at each town he had been told it would be utter madness to attempt such a feat as to overcome by steam the wild current of the Mississippi; all to whom he spoke of the joint intention of Fulton and himself to inaugurate steam travel on its turbid waters wished him well, but would depict in strong terms the impossibility of so bold a venture.
On reaching Pittsburg in January of 1810, after having consumed six months with his journey of investigation, Roosevelt made such a report that Fulton and Robert Livingston were encouraged to start the immediate building of the pioneer steamer which was to pit its strength against the velocity of the rushing waters of the mighty river. At that period sawmills were not existent, the lumber for the boat was got out by hand and rafted down to Pittsburg, where the steamer was constructed according to the plan furnished by Fulton.
It was given a 100-ton capacity; a wheel at the stern, and two masts; its length was 116 feet, its width 20 feet; its engine was manufactured at a Pittsburg foundry under the immediate superintendence of Roosevelt and Latrobe, and possessed a 34-inch cylinder. The boat was made comfortable by two separate cabins for passengers, that for ladies containing four berths. [Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820), was also architect of the U.S. Capitol; his daughter Lydia Latrobe Roosevelt (1791-1878) married Nicholas Roosevelt in defiance of her father and made the voyage to New Orleans during her pregnancy].
Latrobe was a noted architect of his day, and in 1816 came to New-Orleans to build the city water works, but failed to do so, as the city could not furnish the necessary funds.
The new boat was baptized the New-Orleans [only the name Orleans was painted on her pilot house], as it was intended to ply between that city and the hill town of Natchez [Mississippi]. In the early days of September this graceful, well-proportioned steam craft left Pittsburg on its experimental journey, its only passengers being Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt and their Newfoundland dog; its crew consisted of six deck hands, a Captain, a pilot, Andrew Jack by name, and Baker, the engineer, in addition to whom there were the cook, a waiter, and two maids.
The mouth of the Ohio was reached without any extraordinary event, but on entering the Mississippi it was discovered in a state of overflow. On each side the land was under water, and the pilot, who had so bravely faced the dangers of the falls at Louisville and brought the boat safely over them, was now terror-stricken, for he had lost all his bearings. Everything was changed, the entire river seemed to have altered its course, whole islands marked on his chart had vanished completely, and the waters had eaten new cut-offs through the forests; but there were brave spirits aboard the New-Orleans, and with trust and hope in Providence they continued cautiously on their way.
Owing to the danger of attack from Indians, instead of tying up at night, the boat was compelled to anchor in the stream. Even under these circumstances the Indians one night endeavored to board it, and it was only by the superiority of the velocity of steam power over that of the Indian canoe paddles that the New-Orleans crew escaped their wild pursuers, who were ready to attack them, even while frightened at a new craft, whose motive power, being invisible to them, filled them with awe.
One evening, in spite of their knowledge that the move was a dangerous one, the crew of the New-Orleans tied her up to some trees growing on an island. During the night they were awakened by a crashing noise, and the fact that the boat was being knocked about by some mysterious agency. Imagine their surprise and fright when they discovered the island had been entirely destroyed by the flood, and the motion of the boat was caused by the timber from it being washed up against the sides of the craft and bumping it about.
Gathering their scattered wits into some kind of order, the officers of the New-Orleans once more started her down the river, moving with care, at a speed rate, it is said, of three miles an hour, although she is declared to have made eight miles on the Ohio.
Finally the yellow, sun-baked bluffs of Natchez were sighted, and as the graceful little steamer came toward them, breasting the Mississippi current with the ease of a swan swimming over a smooth pond, all the inhabitants of the town gathered on the bluffs to view her, and wild, loud, and prolonged were the shouts which welcomed her advent. At Natchez the New-Orleans received the first cotton ever carried on the waters of the Mississippi, or anywhere else, by steam, the shipper being Mr. Samuel Davis [Samuel A. Davis, 1788-1835].
When the New-Orleans, speeding on its way, reached that portion of the river bank above the City of New-Orleans called “the coast,” along which lay the plantations, all animals — domesticated and wild — rushed away from the extraordinary spectacle in amazed affright; masters and slaves quit alike their pleasure and toil to gaze in open-eyed surprise on this great wonder, this steam-breathing Queen of the Waters.
Steadily the well-proportioned boat speeds down stream until the 10th of January  finds the population of New-Orleans flocking en masse to the levee to welcome this name-child of their prosperous city, the steamboat New-Orleans.
After her warm welcome at the Crescent City, the New-Orleans made one trip on the Ohio River, and then ran from New-Orleans to Natchez until she was destroyed by fire at Baton Rouge in the Winter of 1813-14. Her life was short, but she had fulfilled her destiny.
New boats followed in her wake, having as commanders and pilots the flatboatmen and bargemen of former times. Cotton, which had formerly been limited in cultivation owing to the great expense of handling such heavy freight when it was compulsory to transport it on barges, now became the staple crop.
In 1820 it amounted to 600,000 bales, by 1835 it had reached 1,500,000, one-half of which was sent to the New-Orleans market. The population, too, increased marvelously, for men were not slow to flock to the rich lands bordering the Mississippi after the transportation of crops became facile and rapid.
The second boat sent down the Mississippi was the Vesuvius, built at Pittsburg in 1814 [for Fulton and Livingston], and enrolled at New-Orleans the same year, that city being the only port where boats could be enrolled at that time, as there was no Custom House at Pittsburg nor at Cincinnati. [Actually, the much smaller Comet was launched in 1813 at Pittsburgh for Daniel D. Smith.]
The Vesuvius was commanded by Capt. De Hart [Robinson De Hart, who had captained Clermont on the Hudson River in 1807 and 1808], and just prior to the fight at Chalmette [the Battle of New Orleans, during the War of 1812], Gen. Andrew Jackson took possession of her to transport arms and ammunition. She, however, was so unfortunate as to get aground, and reached New-Orleans too late for the battle. Like her predecessor, she was short lived, having burned at New-Orleans in 1816.
As the demands of commerce increased, new boats were supplied, until by 1820 there were fifty plying on the Mississippi, and a regular packet line was the same year established between Vicksburg and New-Orleans, the first one being the Mississippi, built in New-York [other sources say it was built in St. Stephens, Alabama], and placed originally on the Alabama River [in 1818].
Under the steamboat system, travel became a luxurious pleasure, much indulged in by the river planters especially. When a journey was undertaken, a slave was stationed on the river bank to watch for the approach of a steamer; during the day he waved a white flag to signal it, during the night he burned a beacon fire on the levee and rapidly circled a blazing pine torch in the air, while in stentorian tones he cried out, “Steamboat ahoy! ahoy! ahoy! ahoy!” as the boat hove into sight; a few shrill shrieks from the whistle acknowledged the signal, a bell clanged, the steamer rounded to, a gangplank was extended from the lower deck to the shore, and the traveler had begun his journey.
From 1812 until the present time, there has been but one variation in the adopted method of steamboat signaling — a change which had its birth in a new era, a greater era than that of steam navigation, the era of freedom. The man still waves the white flag and circles the blazing torch, but since 1864 [and the end of slavery] the hand with which he grasps them is that of a freedman!
Of late years the steamboat trade of New-Orleans is only a fraction of what it was previous to the laying of so many railroads through Louisiana and its sister States. Yet the levees and piers which extend back from the river some two hundred feet along the whole length of the city, and which in their days of infancy were mostly prized as yielding space for a pleasant promenade, are still a Babel of confusion, an anthill of industry.
Illustrations, from above: Mississippi riverboats at Memphis, Tennessee (1906); Edward West painted by his son William Edward West; Nicholas J. Roosevelt, wife Lydia Latrobe Roosevelt, and their grandson J. Montgomery Roosevelt Schuyler; the New Orleans in an 1856 engraving; and Black roustabouts unloading cotton from a steamboat, 1900.