Fifty years in the Northwest: a machine-readable transcription.


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This page is borrowed from an AMERICAN MEMORY page in the LIBRARY of CONGRESS To view the page in its entirety, links and all, please go HERE.

The Pennsylvania was the first steamer that descended the Mississippi. She came down the Ohio from Pittsburgh, creating the utmost terror in the minds of the simple-hearted people who had lately been rather rudely shaken by an earthquake, and supposed the noise of the coming steamer to be but the precursor of another shake. When the Pennsylvania approached Shawneetown, Illinois, the people crowded the river shore, and in their alarm fell down upon their knees and prayed to be delivered from the muttering, roaring earthquake coming down the river, its furnaces glowing like the open portals of the nether world. Many fled to the hills in utter dismay at the frightful appearance of the hitherto unknown monster, and the dismal sounds it emitted. It produced the same and even greater terror in the scant settlements of the Lower Mississippi.

In 1823 "Capt. Shreve commanded the Gen. Washington, the fastest boat that had as yet traversed the western rivers. This year the Gen. Washington made the trip from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky, in twenty-five days. When at Louisville he anchored his boat in the middle of the river and fired twenty-five guns in honor of the event, one for each day out. The population of Louisville feted and honored the gallant captain for his achievement. He was crowned with flowers, and borne through the streets by the huzzaing crowd. A rich banquet was spread, and amidst the hilarity excited by the flowing bowl, the captain made an eloquent speech which was vociferously applauded. He declared that the time made by the Gen. Washington could never be equaled by any other boat. Curiously enough, some later in the season, the Tecumseh made the trip in nine days. The time made by the Tecumseh was not beaten until 1833, when the Shepherdess carried away the laurels for speed.

We have but little definite information as to navigation on the Mississippi during the ten years subsequent to the trip of the Pennsylvania. The solitude of the Upper Mississippi was unbroken by the advent of any steamer until the year 1823. On the second of May in that year the Virginia, a steamer 118 feet in length 22 in width, with a draught of 6 feet, left her moorings at St. Louis levee for Fort Snelling laden with stores for the fort. She was four days passing the Rock Island rapids, and made but slow progress throughout. It is needless to say that the Indians were as much frightened at the appearance of the "fire canoe" as the settlers of the Ohio valley had been, and made quick time escaping to the hills.

Judge James H. Lockwood narrates (see Vol. II, Wisconsin Historical Collections, page 152) that in 1824 Capt. David G. Bates brought a small boat named the (Rufus-dave)Putnam up to Prairie du Chien, and took it thence to Fort Snelling with supplies for the troops. The steamer Neville also made the voyage to Prairie du Chien in 1824. The following year came the steamer Mandan and in 1826 the Indians and Lawrence. Fletcher Williams, in his history of St. Paul, says that from 1823 to 1826 as many as fifteen steamers had arrived at Fort Snelling, and that afterward their arrivals were more frequent.

During this primitive period, the steamboats had no regular time for arrival and departure at ports. A time table would have been an absurdity. "Go as you please" or "go as you can," was the order of the day. Passengers had rare opportunities for observation and discovery, and were frequently allowed pleasures excursions on shore while the boat was being cordelled over a rapid, was stranded on a bar, or waiting for wood to be cut and carried on board at some wooding station. Sometimes they were called upon to lend a helping hand at the capstan, or to tread the gang plank to a "wood up" quickstep. When on their pleasure excursion they strayed away too far, they were recalled to the boat by the firing of a gun or the ringing of a bell. It is doubtful if in later days, with all the improvements in steamboat travel, more enjoyable voyages have been made than these free and easy excursion in the light draught boats of the decades between 1830 and 1850, under such genial captains and officers as the Harrises, Mark Atchinson, Throckmorton, Brasie, Ward, Blakeley, Lodwick, Munford, Pim, Orrin Smith and others.

Before the government had improved navigation the rapids of Rock Island and Des Moines, and snags, rocks and sandbars elsewhere were serious obstructions. The passengers endured the necessary delays from these causes with great good nature, and the tedium of the voyage was frequently enlivened by boat races with rival steamers. These passenger boats were then liberally patronized. The cost of a trip from St. Louis to St. Paul was frequently reduced to ten dollars, and considering the time spent in making the trip (often as much as two or three weeks) was cheaper than board in a good hotel, while the fare on the boat could not be excelled. The boats were frequently crowded with passengers, whole families were grouped about the tables or strolling on the upper decks, with groups of travelers representing all the professions and callings, travelers for pleasure and for business, explorers, artists, and adventurers. At night the brilliantly lighted cabin would resound with music, furnished by the boat's band of sable minstrels, and trembled to the tread of the dancers as much as to the throbbing of the engine.

The steamer, as the one means of communication with the distant world, as the bearer of mails, of provisions and articles of trade, was greeted at every village with eager and excited groups of people, some perhaps expecting the arrival of friends, while others were there to part with them. These were scenes to be remembered long, in fact many of the associations of river travel produced indelible impressions. In these days of rapid transit by rail more than half the delights of traveling are lost. Before the settlement of the country the wildness of the scene had a peculiar charm. The majestic bluffs with their rugged escarpments of limestone stretched away in solitary grandeur on either side of the river. The perpendicular crags crowning the bluffs seemed like ruined castles, some of them with rounded turrets and battlements, some even with arched portals. Along the slopes of the bluffs was a growth of sturdy oaks, in their general contour and arrangement resembling fruit trees, vast, solitary orchards in appearance, great enough to supply the world with fruit. On the slopes of the river bank might have been seen occasionally the bark wigwams of the Indian, and his birch canoe gliding silently under the shadow of the elms and willows lining the shore. Occasionally a deer would be seen grazing on some upland glade, or bounding away in terror at sight of the steamer.

A complete history of early steamboat navigation on the Upper Mississippi would abound with interesting narratives and incidents, but of these, unfortunately, there is not authentic record, and we can only speak in general terms of the various companies that successively controlled the trade and travel of the river, or were rivals for the patronage of the public. During the decade of the '30s, the Harrises, of Galena, ran several small boats from to St. Louis, occasionally to Fort Snelling, or through the difficult current of the Wisconsin to Fort Winnebago, towing barges laden with supplies for the Wisconsin pineries. Capt. Scribe Harris' favorite boat from 1835 to 1838 was the Smelter. The captain greatly delighted in her speed, decorated her gaily with evergreens, and rounding to at landings, or meeting with other boats, fired a cannon from her prow to announce her imperial presence.

The Smelter and other boats run by the Harris family held the commerce of the river for many years. In 1846 first daily line of steamers above St. Louis was established. These boats ran independently, but on stated days, from St. Louis to Galena and Dubuque. They were the Tempest, Capt. John J. Smith; War Eagle, Capt. Smith Harris; Prairie Bird, Capt. Niebe Wall; Monona, Capt.----Bersie; St. Croix, Capt.----; Fortune, Capt. Mark Atchinson. These boat owners, with others, subsequently formed a consolidated company.

In 1847 a company was formed for the navigation of the Mississippi above Galena. The first boat in the line, the Argo, commanded by Russell Blakeley, was placed upon the river in 1846. The boats in this line were the Argo, Dr. Franklin, Nominee, Ben Campbell, War Eagle, and the Galena.

In 1854 the Galena & Minnesota Packet Company was formed by a consolidation of various interests. The company consisted of the following stockholders. O. Smith, the Harrises, James Carter, H. Corwith, B. H. Campbell, D. B. Morehouse, H. M. Rice, H. L. Dousman, H. H. Sibley, and Russell Blakeley. The boats of the new company were the War Eagle, Galena, Dr. Franklin, Nominee, and West Newton. In 1857 a new company was formed, and the Dubuque boats, the Itasca and Key City were added to the line. This line continued until 1862, and the new boats, Dr. Franklin, No. 2, and the New St. Paul were added. The Galena had been burned at Red Wing in the fall of 1857.

The following is a list of earliest arrivals at St. Paul after the opening of navigation between the years 1843 and 1858. April 5, 1843, steamer Otter, Capt. Harris; April 6, 1844, steamer Otter, Capt. Harris; April 6, 1845, steamer Otter, Capt. Harris; March 31, 1846, steamer Lynx, Capt. Atchison; April 7, 1847, steamer Cora, Capt. Joseph Throckmorton; April 7, 1848, steamer Senator, Capt. Harris; April 9, 1849, steamer Highland Mary, Capt. Mark Atchison; April 19, 1850, steamer Highland Mary, Capt. Atchison; April 4, 1851, steamer Nominee, Capt. Smith; April 16, 1852, steamer Nominee, Capt. Smith; April 11, 1853, steamer West Newton, Capt. Harris; April 8, 1854, steamer Nominee, Capt. Blakeley; April 17, 1855, steamer War Eagle, Capt. Harris; April 18, 1856, steamer Lady Franklin, Capt. Lucas; May 1, 1857, steamer Galena, Capt. Laughton; March 25, 1858, steamer Gray Eagle, Capt. Harris.

Great American Products

The following list includes boats not named in the packet and company lists with date of first appearance as far ad can be ascertained:

The following is made their appearance some time in the '40s. Cora, Lynx, Dr. Franklin, No. 2, and St. Anthony.

The Northern Line Packet Company organized in 1857 and placed the following steamers upon the Mississippi, to run between St. Louis and St. Paul. The Canada, Capt. Ward; Pembina, Capt. Griffith; Denmark, Capt. Gray; Metropolitan, Capt. Rhodes; Lucy May, Capt. Jenks; Wm. L. Ewing, Capt. Green; Henry Clay, Capt. Campbell; Fred Lorenz, Capt. Parker; Northerner, Capt. Alvord; Minnesota Belle, Capt. Hill; Northern Light and York State, Capt.----.

Commodore W. F. Davidson commenced steamboating on the Upper Mississippi in 1856 with the Jacob Trader. In 1857 he added the Frank Steele, and included the Minnesota river in his field of operations. In 1859 he added the Olian, Favorite and Winona. In 1860 he organized the La Crosse & Minnesota Packet Company, with the five above named steamers in the line. In 1862 the Keokuk and Northern Belle were added.

In 1864 the La Crosse & Minnesota and the Northern Line Packet companies were consolidated under the name of the Northwestern Union Packet Company, with the following steamers. The Moses McLellan, Ocean Wave, Itasca, Key City, Milwaukee City, Belle, War Eagle, Phil Sheridan, S. S. Merrill, Alex. Mitchell, City of St. Paul, Tom Jasper, Belle of La Crosse, City of Quincy, and John Kyle. This line controlled the general trade until 1874.

There were upon the river and its tributaries during the period named the following light draught boats. The Julia, Mollie Mohler, Cutter, Chippewa Falls, Mankato, Albany, Ariel, Stella Whipple, Isaac Gray, Morning Star, Antelope, Clara Hine, .Geo. S. Weeks, Dexter, Damsel, Addie Johns(t)on, Annie Johnson, G. H. Wilson, Flora, and Hudson.

This page is borrowed from an AMERICAN MEMORY page in the LIBRARY of CONGRESS To view the page in its entirety, links and all, please go HERE.

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