High-Pressure, Part I: The Western Steamboat

The next act of the steamboat lay in the west, on the waters of the Mississippi basin. The settler population of this vast region—Mark Twain wrote that “the area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey”—was already growing rapidly in the early 1800s, and inexpensive transport to and from its interior represented a tremendous economic opportunity.[1]

Robert Livingston scored another of his political coups in 1811, when he secured monopoly rights for operating steamboats in the New Orleans Territory. (It did not hurt his cause that he himself had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, nor that his brother Edward was New Orleans’ most prominent lawyer.) The Fulton-Livingston partnership built a workshop in Pittsburgh to build steamboats for the Mississippi trade. Pittsburgh’s central position at the confluence of Monangahela and Allegheny made it a key commercial hub in the trans-Appalachian interior and a major boat-building center. Manufactures made there could be distributed up and down the rivers far more easily than those coming over the mountains from the coast, and so factories for making cloth, hats, nails, and other goods began to sprout up there as well.[2] The confluence of river-based commerce, boat-building and workshop know-how made Pittsburgh the natural wellspring for western steamboating.

Figure 1: The Fulton-Livingston New Orleans. Note the shape of the hull, which resembles that of a typical ocean-going boat.

From Pittsburgh, The Fulton-Livingston boats could ride downstream to New Orleans without touching the ocean. The New Orleans, the first boat launched by the partners, went into regular service from New Orleans to Natchez (about 175 miles to the north) in 1812, but their designs—upscaled versions of their Hudson River boats—fared poorly in the shallow, turbulent waters of the Mississippi. They also suffered sheer bad luck: the New Orleans grounded fatally in 1814, the aptly-named Vesuvius burnt to the waterline in 1816 and had to be rebuilt. The conquest of the Mississippi by steam power would fall to other men, and to a new technology: high-pressure steam.

Strong Steam

A typical Boulton & Watt condensing engine was designed to operate with steam below the pressure of the atmosphere (about fifteen pounds per square inch (psi)). But the possibility of creating much higher pressures by heating steam well above the boiling point was known for well over a century. The use of so-called “strong steam” dated back at least to Denis Papin’s steam digester from the 1670s. It even had been used to do work, in pumping engines based on Thomas Savery’s design from the early 1700s, which used steam pressure to push water up a pipe. But engine-builders did not use it widely in piston engines until well into the nineteenth century. Part of the reason was the suppressive influence of the great James Watt.

Watt knew that expanding high-pressure steam could drive a piston, and laid out plans for high-pressure engines as early as 1769, in a letter to a friend:

I intend in many cases to employ the expansive force of steam to press on the piston, or whatever is used instead of one, in the same manner as the weight of the atmosphere is now employed in common fire-engines. In some cases I intend to use both the condenser and this force of steam, so that the powers of these engines will as much exceed those pressed only by the air, as the expansive power of the steam is greater than the weight of the atmosphere. In other cases, when plenty of cold water cannot be had, I intend to work the engines by the force of steam only, and to discharge it into the air by proper outlets after it has done its office.[3]

But he continued to rely on the vacuum created by his condenser, and never built an engine worked “by the force of steam only.” He went out of his way to ensure that no one else did either, deprecating the use of strong steam at every opportunity.

There was one obvious reason why: high-pressure steam was dangerous. The problem was not the working machinery of the engine but the boiler, which was apt to explode, spewing shrapnel and superheated steam that could kill anyone nearby. Papin had added a safety valve to his digester for exactly this reason. Savery steam pumps were also notorious for their explosive tendencies. Some have imputed a baser motive for Watt’s intransigence: a desire to protect his own business from high-pressure competition. In truth, though, high-pressure boilers did remain dangerous, and would kill many people throughout the nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, the best material for building a strong boiler was the most difficult from which to actually construct one. By the beginning of the nineteenth century copper, lead, wrought iron, and cast iron had all been tried as boiler materials, in various shapes and combinations. Copper and lead were soft, cast iron was hard, but brittle. Wrought iron clearly stood out as the toughest and most resilient option, but it could only be made in ingots or bars, which the prospective boilermaker would then have to flatten and form into small plates, many of which would have to be joined to make a complete boiler.

Advances in two fields in the decades around 1800 resolved the difficulties of wrought iron. The first was metallurgical. In the late eighteenth century, Henry Cort invented the “puddling” process of melting and stirring iron to oxidize out the carbon, producing larger quantities of wrought iron that could be rolled out into plates of up to about five feet long and a foot wide.[4]

These larger plates still had to be riveted together, a tedious and error-prone process, that produced leaky joints. Everything from rope fibers to oatmeal was tried as a caulking material. To make reliable, steam-tight joints required advances in machine tooling. This was a cutting-edge field at the time (pun intended). For example, for most of history craftsmen cut or filed screws by hand. The resulting lack of consistency meant that many of the uses of screws that we take for granted were unknown: one could not cut 100 nuts and 100 bolts, for example, and then expect to thread any pair of them together. Only in the last quarter of the eighteenth centuries did inventors craft sufficiently precise screw-cutting lathes to make it possible to repeatedly produce screws with the same length and pitch.

Careful use of tooling similarly made it possible to bore holes of consistent sizes in wrought iron plates, and then manufacture consistently-sized rivets to fit into them, without the need to hand-fit rivets to holes.[5] One could name a few outstanding early contributors to the improvement of machine tooling in the first decades of the nineteenth century Arthur Woolf in Cornwall, or John Hall at the U.S. Harper’s Ferry Armory. But the steady development of improvements in boilers and other steam engine parts also involved the collective action of thousands of handcraft workers. Accustomed to building liquor stills, clocks, or scientific instruments, they gradually developed the techniques and rules of thumb needed for precision metalworking for large machines.[6]

These changes did not impress Watt, and he stood by his anti-high-pressure position until his death in 1819. Two men would lead the way in rebelling against his strictures. The first appeared in the United States, far from Watt’s zone of influence, and paved the way for the conquest of the Western waters.

Oliver Evans

Oliver Evans was born in Delaware in 1755. He first honed his mechanical skills as an apprentice wheelwright. Around 1783, he began constructing a flour mill with his brothers on Red Clay Creek in northern Delaware. Hezekiah Niles, a boy of six, lived nearby. Niles would become the editor of the most famous magazine in America, from which post he later had occasion to recount that “[m]y earliest recollections pointed him out to me as a person, in the language of the day, that ‘would never be worth any thing, because he was always spending his time on some contrivance or another…’”[7]

Two great “contrivances” dominated Evans’ adult life. The challenges of the mill work at Red Clay Creek led to his first great idea:  an automated flour mill. He eliminated most of the human labor from the mill by linking together the grain-processing steps with a series of water-powered machines (the most famous and delightfully named being the “hopper boy”). Though fascinating in its own right, for the purposes of our story the automated mill only matters in so far as it generated the wealth which allowed him to invest in his second great idea: an engine driven by high-pressure steam.

Figure 2: Evans’ automated flour mill.

In 1795, Evans published an account of his automatic mill entitled The Young Mill-Wright and Miller’s Guide. Something of his personality can be gleaned from the title of his 1805 sequel on the steam engine: The Abortion of the Young Steam Engineer’s Guide. A bill to extend the patent on his automatic flour mill failed to pass Congress in 1805, and so he published his Abortion as a dramatic swoon, a loud declaration that, in response this rebuff, he would be taking his ball and going home:

His [i.e., Evans’] plans have thus proved abortive, all his fair prospects are blasted, and he must suppress a strong propensity for making new and useful inventions and improvements; although, as he believes, they might soon have been worth the labour of one hundred thousand men.[8]

Of course, despite these dour mutterings, he failed entirely to suppress his “strong propensity,” in fact he was in the very midst of launching new steam engine ventures at this time.

Like so many other early steam inventors, Evans’ interest in steam began with a dream of a self-propelled carriage. The first tangible evidence that we have of his interest in steam power comes from patents he filed in 1787 which included mention of a “steam-carriage, so constructed to move by the power of steam and the pressure of the atmosphere, for the purpose of conveying burdens without the aid of animal force.” The mention of “the pressure of the atmosphere” is interesting—he may have still been thinking of a low-pressure Watt-style engine at this point.[9]

By 1802, however, Evans had a true high-pressure engine of about five horsepower operating at his workshop at Ninth and Market in Philadelphia. He had established himself in that city in 1792, the better to promote his milling inventions and millwright services. He attracted crowds to his shop with his demonstration of the engine at work: driving a screw mill to pulverize plaster, or cutting slabs of marble with a saw. Bands of iron held reenforcing wooden slats against the outside of the boiler, like the rim of a cartwheel or the hoops of a barrel. This curious hallmark testified to Evans’ background as a millwright and wheelwright [10]

The boiler, of course, had to be as strong as possible to contain the superheated steam, and Evans’ later designs made improvements in this area. Rather than the “wagon” boiler favored by Watt (shaped like a Conestoga wagon or a stereotypical construction worker’s lunchbox), he used a cylinder. A spherical boiler being infeasible to make or use, this shape distributed the force of the steam pressure as evenly as practicable over the surface. In fact, Evans’ boiler consisted of two cylinders in an elongated donut shape, because rather than placing the furnace below the boiler, he placed it inside, to maximize the surface area of water exposed to the hot air. By the time of the Steam Engineer’s Guide, he no longer used copper braced with wood, he now recommended the “best” (i.e. wrought) iron “rolled in large sheets and strongly riveted together. …As cast iron is liable to crack with the heat, it is not to be trusted immediately in contact with the fire.”[11]

Figure 3: Evan’s 1812 design, which he called the Columbian Engine to honor the young United States on the outbreak of the War of 1812. Note the flue carrying heat through the center of the boiler, the riveted wrought iron plates of the boiler, and the dainty proportions of the cylinder, in comparison to that of a Newcomen or Watt engine. Pictured in the corner is the Orukter Amphibolos.

Evans was convinced of the superiority of his high-pressure design because of a rule of thumb that he had gleaned from the article “Steam” in the American edition of the Encylopedia Britannica: “…whatever the present temperature, an increase of 30 degrees doubles the elasticity and the bulk of water vapor.”[12] From this Evans concluded that heating steam to twice the boiling point (from 210 degrees to 420), would increase its elastic force by 128 times (since a 210 degree increase in temperature would make seven doublings). This massive increase in power would require only twice the fuel (to double the heat of the steam). None of this was correct, but it would not be the first or last time that faulty science would produce useful technology.[13]

Nonetheless, the high-pressure engine did have very real advantages. Because the power generated by an engine was proportional to the area of the piston times the pressure exerted on that piston, for any given horsepower, a high-pressure engine could be made much smaller than its low-pressure equivalent. A high-pressure engine also did not require a condenser: it could vent the spent steam directly into the atmosphere. These factors made Evans’ engines smaller, lighter, and simpler and less expensive to build. A non-condensing high-pressure engine of twenty-four horsepower weighed half a ton and had a cylinder nine-inches across. A traditional Boulton & Watt style engine of the same power had a cylinder three times as wide and weighed four times as much overall.[14]  

Such advantages in size and weight would count doubly for an engine used in a vehicle, i.e. an engine that had to haul itself around. In 1804 Evans sold an engine that was intended to drive a New Orleans steamboat, but it ended up in a sawmill instead. This event could serve as a metaphor for his relationship to steam transportation. He declared in his Steam Engineer’s Guide that:

The navigation of the river Mississippi, by steam engines, on the principles here laid down, has for many years been a favourite object with the author and among the fondest wishes of his heart. He has used many endeavours to produce a conviction of its practicability, and never had a doubt of the sufficiency of the power.[15]  

But steam navigation never got much more than his fondest wishes. Unlike a Fitch or a Rumsey, the desire to make a steamboat did not dominate his dreams and waking hours alike. By 1805, he was a well-established man of middle years. If he had ever possessed the Tookish spirit required for riverboat adventures, he had since lost it. He had already given up on the idea of a steam carriage, after failing to sell the Lancaster Turnpike Company on the idea in 1801. His most grandiosely named project, the Orukter Amphibolos, may briefly have run on wheels en route to serve as a steam dredge in the Philadelphia harbor. If it functioned at all, though, it was by no means a practical vehicle, and it had no sequel. Evans’ attention had shifted to industrial power, where the clearest financial opportunity lay—an opportunity that could be seized without leaving Philadelphia.

Despite Evans’ calculations (erroneous, as we have said), a non-condensing high-pressure engine was somewhat less fuel-efficient than an equivalent Watt engine, not more. But because of its size and simplicity, it could be built at half the cost, and transported more cheaply, too. In time, therefore, the Evans-style engine became very popular as a mill or factory engine in the capital- and transportation-poor (but fuel-rich) trans-Appalachian United States.[16]

In 1806, Evans began construction on his “Mars Works” in Philadelphia, to serve market for engines and other equipment. Evans engines sprouted up at sawmills, flour mills, paper factories, and other industrial enterprises across the West. Then, in 1811, he organized the Pittsburgh Steam Engine Company, operated by his twenty-three-year-old son George, to reduce transportation costs for engines to be erected west of the Alleghenies.[17] It was around that nexus of Pittsburgh that Evans’ inventions would find the people with the passion to put them to work, at last, on the rivers.

The Rise of the Western Steamboat

The mature Mississippi paddle steamer differed from its Eastern antecedents in two main respects. First, in its overall shape and layout: a roughly rectangular hull with a shallow draft, layer cake decks, and machinery above the water, not under it. This design was better adapted to an environment where snags and shallows presented a much greater hazard than waves and high winds. Second, in the use of a high-pressure engine, or engines, with a cylinder mounted horizontally along the deck. Many historical accounts attribute both of these essential developments to a keelboatman named Henry Miller Shreve. Economic historian Louis Hunter effectively demolished this legend in the 1940s, but more recent writers (for example Shreve’s 1984 biographer, Edith McCall), have continued to perpetuate it.

In fact, no one can say with certainty where most of these features came from because no one bothered to document their introduction. As Hunter wrote:

From the appearance of the first crude steam vessels on the western waters to the emergence of the fully evolved river steamboat a generation later, we know astonishingly little of the actual course of technological events and we can follow what took place only in its broad outlines. The development of the western steamboat proceeded largely outside the framework of the patent system and in a haze of anonymity.[18]

Some documents came to light in the 1990s, however, that have burned away some of the “haze,” with respect to the introduction of high-pressure engines.[19] the papers of Daniel French reveal that the key events happened in a now-obscure place called Brownsville (originally known as Redstone), about forty miles up the Monongahela from that vital center of western commerce, Pittsburgh. Brownsville was the point where anyone heading west on the main trail over the Alleghenies—which later became part of the National Road—would first reach navigable waters in the Mississippi basin.

Henry Shreve grew up not far from this spot. Born in 1785 to a father who had served as a Colonel in the Revolutionary War, he grew up on a farm near Brownsville on land leased from Washington: one of the general’s many western land-development schemes.[20]

Henry fell in love with the river life, and in by his early twenties had established himself with his own keelboat operating out of Pittsburgh. He made his early fortune off the fur trade boom in St. Louis, which took off after Lewis and Clark returned with reports of widespread beaver activity on the Missouri River.[21]

In the fall of 1812, a newcomer named Daniel French arrived in Shreve’s neighborhood—a newcomer who already had experience building steam watercraft, powered by engines based on the designs of Oliver Evans. French was born in Connecticut 1770, and started planning to build steamboats in his early 20s, perhaps inspired by the work of Samuel Morey, who operated upstream of him on the Connecticut River. But, discouraged from his plans by the local authorities, French turned his inventive energies elsewhere for a time. He met and worked with Evans in Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress to extend the length of patent grants, but did not return to steamboats until Fulton’s 1807 triumph re-energized him.

At this point he adopted Evans’ high-pressure engine idea, but added his own innovation, an oscillating cylinder that pivoted on trunions as the engine worked. This allowed the piston shaft to be attached to the stern wheel with a simple (and light) crank, without any flywheel or gearing. The small size of the high-pressure cylinder made it feasible to put the cylinder in motion. In 1810, a steam ferry he designed, for a route from Jersey City to Manhattan, successfully crossed and recrossed the North (Hudson) River at about six miles per hour. Nonetheless, Fulton, who still held a New York state monopoly, got the contract from the ferry operators.[22]

French moved to Philadelphia and tried again, constructing the steam ferry Rebecca to carry passengers across the Delaware. She evidently did not produce great profits, because a frustrated French moved west again in the fall of 1812, to establish a steam-engine-building business at Brownsville.[23] His experience with building high-pressure steamboats—simple, relatively low-cost, and powerful—had arrived at the place that would benefit most from those advantages, a place, moreover, where the Fulton-Livingston interests held no legal monopoly.

News about the lucrative profits of the New Orleans on the Natchez run had begun to trickle back up the rivers. This was sufficient to convince the Brownsville notables—Shreve among them—to put up $11,000 to form the Monongahela and Ohio Steam Boat Company in 1813, with French as their engineer. French had their first boat, Enterprise, ready by the spring of 1814. Her exact characteristics are not documented, but based on the fragmentary evidence, she seems in effect to have been a motorized keelboat: 60-80’ long, about 30 tons, and equipped with a twenty-horsepower engine. The power train matched that of French’s 1810 steam ferry, trunions and all.[24]

The Enterprise spent the summer trading along the Ohio between Pittsburgh and Louisville. Then, in December, she headed south with a load of supplies to aid in the defense of New Orleans. For this important voyage into waters mostly unknown to the Brownsville circle, they called on the experienced keelboatman, Henry Shreve. Andrew Jackson had declared martial law, and kept Shreve and the Enterprise on military dutyin New Orleans. With Jackson’s aid, Shreve dodged the legal snares laid for him by the Fulton-Livingston group to protect their New Orleans monopoly. Then in May, after the armistice, he brough the Enterprise on a 2,000-mile ascent back to Brownsville, the first steamboat ever to make such a journey.

Shreve became an instant celebrity. He had contributed to a stunning defeat for the British at New Orleans, carried out an unprecedent voyage. Moreover, he had confounded the monopolists: their attempt to assert exclusive rights over the commons of the river was deeply unpopular west of the Appalachians. Shreve capitalized on his new-found fame to raise money for his own steamboat company in Wheeling, Virginia. The Ohio at Wheeling ran much deeper than the Monongahela at Brownsvile, and Shreve would put this depth to use: he had ambitions to put a French engine into a far larger boat than the Enterprise.

Spurring French to scale up his design was probably Shreve’s largest contribution to the evolution of the western steamboat. French dared not try to repeat his oscillating cylinder trick on the larger cylinder that would drive Shreve’s 100-horsepower, 400-ton two-decker. Instead, he fixed the cylinder horizontally to the hull, and then attached the piston rod to a connecting rod, or “pitman,” that drove the crankshaft of the stern paddle wheel. He thus transferred the oscillating motion from the piston to the pitman, while keeping the overall design simple and relatively low cost.[25]

Shreve called his steamer Washington, after his father’s (and his own) hero. Her maiden voyage in 1817, however, was far from heroic. Evans would have assured French that the high-pressure engine carried little risk: as he wrote in the Steam Engineer’s Guide, “we know how to construct [boilers] with a proportionate strength, to enable us to work with perfect safety.”[26] Yet on her first trip down the Ohio, with twenty-one passengers aboard, the Washington’s boiler exploded, killing seven passengers and three crew. The blast threw Shreve himself into the river, but he did not suffer serious harm.[27]

Ironically, the only steamboat built by the Evans family, the Constitution (née Oliver Evans) suffered a similar fate in the same year, exploding and killing eleven on board. Despite Evans’ confidence in their safety, boiler accidents continued to bedevil steamboats for decades. Though the total numbers killed was not enormous—about 1500 dead across all Western rivers up to 1848—each event provided an exceptionally grisly spectacle. Consider this lurid account of the explosion of the Constitution:

One man had been completely submerged in the boiling liquid which inundated the cabin, and in his removal to the deck, the skin had separated from the entire surface of his body. The unfortunate wretch was literally boiled alive, yet although his flesh parted from his bones, and his agonies were most intense, he survived and retained all his consciousness for several hours. Another passenger was found lying aft of the wheel with an arm and a leg blown off, and as no surgical aid could be rendered him, death from loss of blood soon ended his sufferings. Miss C. Butler, of Massachusetts, was so badly scalded, that, after lingering in unspeakable agony for three hours, death came to her relief.[28]

In response to continued public outcry for an end to such horrors, Congress eventually stepped in, passing acts to improve steamboat safety in 1838 and 1852.

Meanwhile, Shreve was not deterred by the setback. The Washington itself did not suffer grievous damage, so he corrected a fault in the safety valves and tried again. Passengers were understandably reluctant for an encore performance, but after the Washington made national news in 1817 with a freight passage from New Orleans to just twenty-five days, the public quickly forgot and forgave. A few days later, a judge in New Orleans refused to consider a suit by the Fulton-Livingston interests against Shreve, effectively nullifying their monopoly.[29]

Now all comers knew that steamboats could ply the Mississippi successfully, and without risk of any legal action. The age of the western steamboat opened in earnest. By 1820, sixty-nine steamboats could be found on western rivers, and 187 a decade after that.[30] Builders took a variety of approaches to powering these boats: low-pressure engines, engines with vertical cylinders, engines with rocking beams or fly wheels to drive the paddles. Not until the 1830s did a dominant pattern take hold, but when it did it, it was that of the Evans/French/Shreve lineage, as found on the Washington: a high-pressure engine with a horizontal cylinder driving the wheel through an oscillating connecting rod.[31]

Figure 4: A Tennessee river steamboat from the 1860s. The distinctive features include a flat-bottomed hull with very little freeboard, a superstructure to hold passengers and crew, and twin smokestacks. The western steamboat had achieved this basic form by the 1830s and maintained it into the twentieth century.

The Legacy of the Western Steamboat

The Western steamboat was a product of environmental factors that favored the adoption of a shallow-drafted boat with a relatively inefficient but simple and powerful engine: fast, shallow rivers; abundant wood for fuel along the shores of those rivers; and the geographic configuration of the United States after the Louisiana Purchase, with a high ridge of mountains separating the coast from a massive navigable inland watershed.

But, Escher-like, the steamboat then looped back around to reshape the environment from which it had emerged. Just as steam-powered factories had, steam transport flattened out the cycles of nature, bulldozing the hills and valleys of time and space. Before the Washington’s journey, the shallow grade that distinguished upstream from downstream dominated the life of any traveler or trader in the Mississippi. Now goods and people could move easily upriver, in defiance the dictates of gravity.[32] By the 1840s, steamboats were navigating well inland on other rivers of the West as well: up the Tombigbee, for example, over 200 miles inland to Columbus, Mississippi.[33]

What steamboats alone could not do to turn the western waters into turnpike roads, Shreve and others would impose on them through brute force. Steamboats frequently sank or took major damage from snags or “sawyers”: partially submerged tree limbs or trunks that obstructed the water ways. In some places, vast masses of driftwood choked the entire river. Beyond Natchitoches, the Red River was obstructed for miles by an astonishing tangle of such logs known as the Great Raft.[34]

Figure 5: A portrait of Shreve of unknown date, likely the 1840s. The scene outside the window reveals one of his snagboats, a frequently used device in nineteenth century portraits of inventors.

Not only commerce was at stake in clearing the waterways of such obstructions; steamboats would be vital to any future war in the West. As early as 1814, Andrew Jackson had put Shreve’s Enterprise to good use, ferrying supplies and troops around the Mississippi delta region.[35] With the encouragement of the Monroe administration, therefore, Congress stepped in with a bill in 1824 to fund the Army’s corps of engineers to improve the western rivers. Shreve was named superintendent of this effort, and secured federal funds to build snagboats such as the Heliopolis, twin-hulled behemoths designed to drive a snag between its hulls and then winch it up onto the middle deck and saw it down to size. Heliopolis and its sister ships successfully cleared large stretches of the Ohio and Mississippi.[36] In 1833, Shreve embarked on the last great venture of his life: an assault on the Great Raft itself. It took six years and a flotilla of rafts, keelboats and steamboats to complete the job, including a new snagboat, Eradicator, built specially for the task.[37]

The clearing of waterways, technical advancements in steamboat design, and other improvements (such as the establishment of fuel depots, so that time was not wasted stopping to gather wood), combined to drive travel times along the rivers down rapidly. In 1819, the James Ross completed the New Orleans to Louisville passage in sixteen-and-a-half days. In 1824 the President covered the same distance in ten-and-a-half days, and in 1833 the Tuscorora clocked a run of seven days, six hours. These ever-decreasing record times translated directly into ever-decreasing shipping rates. Early steamboats charged upstream rates equivalent to those levied by their keelboat competitors: about five dollars per hundred pounds carried from New Orleans to Louisville. By the early 1830s this had dropped to an average of about sixty cents per 100 pounds, and by the 1840s as low as fifteen cents.[38]

By decreasing the cost of river trade, the steamboat cemented the economic preeminence of New Orleans. Cotton, sugar, and other agricultural goods (much of it produced by slave labor) flowed downriver to the port, then out to the wider world; manufactured goods and luxuries like coffee arrived from the ocean trade and were carried upriver; and human traffic, bought and sold at the massive New Orleans slave market, flowed in both directions.[39] In 1820 a steamboat arrived in New Orleans about every other day. By 1840 the city averaged over four arrivals a day; by 1850, nearly eight.[40] The population of the city burgeoned to over 100,000 by 1840, making it the third-largest in the country. Chicago, its big-shouldered days still ahead of it, remained a frontier outpost by comparison, with only 5,000 residents.

Figure 6: A Currier & Ives lithograph of the New Orleans levee. This represents a scene from the late nineteenth century, way past the prime of New Orleans’ economic dominance, but still shows a port bustling with steamboats.

But both New Orleans and the steamboat soon lost their dominance over the western economy. As Mark Twain wrote:

Mississippi steamboating was born about 1812; at the end of thirty years, it had grown to mighty proportions; and in less than thirty more, it was dead! A strangely short life for so majestic a creature.[41]

Several forces connived in the murder of the Mississippi steamboat, but a close cousin lurked among the conspirators: another form of transportation enabled by the harnessing of high-pressure steam. The story of the locomotive takes us back to Britain, and the dawn of the nineteenth century.

[1] Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1883), Chapter 1 (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/245/245-h/245-h.htm).

[2] Margaret Elder, “Pittsburgh Industries That Used To Be,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 12, 4 (October 1929), 212.

[3] Watt to Small, March 1769, quoted in Samuel Smiles, Lives of Boulton and Watt (Chalford: Nonsuch, 2007 [1865]), 144.

[4] Richard L. Hills, Power from Steam: A History of the Stationary Steam Engine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 126-27. An equivalent puddling process seems to have been known in Han China, but never reached the West.

[5] Hills, 131.

[6] Louis C. Hunter, A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 1780-1930, v. 2: Steam Power (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985), 121.

[7] H. Niles, The Weekly Register, vol. 3 (Baltimore: Franklin Press, 1813), 495.

[8] Oliver Evans, The Abortion of the Young Steam Engineer’s Guide (Philadelphia: Fry and Kammerer, 1805), iv-v.

[9] Quoted in Ferguson, 35.

[10] Hunter, 37.

[11] Evans, 22.

[12] The quote here is extracted from the equivalent British 3rd edition Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 17, p. 741, available at https://digital.nls.uk/encyclopaedia-britannica/archive/190218832.

[13] Ferguson, 44.

[14] Charles R. Morris, The Dawn of Innovation: The First American Industrial Revolution           (), 110.

[15] Evans, vi.

[16] Harlan I. Halsey, “Choice Between High-Pressure and Low-Pressure Steam Power in America in the Early Nineteenth Century,” The Journal of Economic History 41, 4 (December 1981), 723-744.

[17] Louis C. Hunter, Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History (New York: Dover, 1993 [1949]), 124-125.

[18] Louis C. Hunter, “The Invention of the Western Steamboat,” The Journal of Economic History, 3, 2 (1943), 220.

[19] “Daniel French Papers,” Indiana Historical Society (https://indianahistory.org/wp-content/uploads/daniel-french-papers-ca-1796-1816.pdf).

[20] Edith McCall, Conquering the Rivers: Henry Miller Shreve and the Navigation of America’s Inland Wtaerways (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), 8-15.

[21] McCall, 16-17, 155-56.

[22] Alfred R. Maass, “Daniel French and the Western Steamboat Engine,” The American Neptune 56, 1 (1996), 29-34.

[23] Maass, 34-35.

[24] Maass, 36-37.

[25] Maass, 40. This horizontal orientation had been tried once before, on William Symington’s Charlotte Dundas in Scotland, but it’s doubtful that French knew of it.             

[26] Evans, 22.

[27] McCall, 145-146.

[28] James T. Llloyd, Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory, and Disasters on the Western Waters (Cincinatti: James T. Lloyd & Co., 1856), 57-59.

[29] McCall, 153.

[30] Hunter, Steamboats on the Western Rivers, 33.

[31] Hunter, Steamboats on the Western Rivers, 136-137.

[32] Gravity was defied but could not be entirely ignored. An upriver journey took longer and therefore cost more: a cabin from New Orleans up to Shippingport in 1819 cost $125, but it cost only $75 for the same accommodation on the trip back down to New Orleans.

[33] John Hebron Moore, The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom in the Old Southwest : Mississippi, 1770-1860 (Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 163

[34] McCall, 127.

[35] McCall, 124-128.

[36] McCall, 184-188.

[37] McCall, 196, 222, 230-32.

[38] Hunter, Steamboats on the Western Rivers, 22-27.

[39] James E. Winston, “Notes on the Economic History of New Orleans, 1803-1836,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 11, 2 (September 1924), 200-226; “History of New Orleans,” Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/place/New-Orleans-Louisiana/History)

[40] Hunter, Steamboats on the Western Rivers, 644-645.

[41] Twain, Life on the Mississippi), Chapter 22.

2 thoughts on “High-Pressure, Part I: The Western Steamboat”

  1. Very interesting as always! I hope the next chapter will give a few details about something that I found intriguing: How did early machinists make metal pipes?

    Type: “Manufactures made rcould be distributed up and down the rivers ” – A few words seem to be missing.


    1. Thanks for the typo report, it should be fixed now.

      Good question. I would guess that either they were drilled out from a metal rod, or beaten into shape by hammering hot pieces of metal around a cold rod. Both techniques were used for gun barrels. But I’ve never researched that specifically.


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