Saturday, March 3, 2012

Henry Shreve and the Washington

The steamboat Washington. Photo courtesy US Army Corps of Engineers.

Acting upon a single wheel placed in the stern, without a beam or fly wheel, it propels the vessel at the rate of 10 mph with the current and the captain assured us that he could make seven miles against it.
-- Cincinnati Gazette, September 23 1816, on the arrival of the Washington.
On March 2, 1817, shipbuilder and Captain Henry M. Shreve set out on a voyage that would make history. In command of the paddlewheel steamboat Washington, Shreve left New Orleans for Louisville. Forty-one days later (the upriver passage took 25 days, tying the existing record) he returned, marking the first time a steam-powered vessel completed a round trip on the Mississippi River.

At the time of the Washington’s voyage, steamboats had been running on the Mississippi for only six years. In 1811, the New Orleans left Pittsburgh for her namesake city under the command of Nicolas Roosevelt, inventor of the vertical paddlewheel and great grand-uncle of President Theodore Roosevelt. Although she was caught in the New Madrid Earthquake while en route, she eventually reached New Orleans and made regular runs between there and Natchez until running aground in 1814.

Meanwhile, Shreve had built the Enterprise, also in Pittsburgh. On her first voyage, in December 1814, the ship successfully ran a British blockade and delivered supplies to General Andrew Jackson’s army near New Orleans.

Shreve’s battles didn’t end with Jackson’s victory: for years he was engaged in a lawsuit filed by the heirs of steamboat pioneer Robert Fulton and others, who claimed a monopoly on Mississippi steamboat trade. The monopoly was eventually broken, in part because many of Shreve’s technical innovations (like high-pressure boilers) made steamboat travel on the Mississippi practical in the first place.

The Washington incorporated many of those innovations, including a look that is associated with paddlewheelers to this day: flat bottoms, two decks (the upper for passengers, the lower for the boiler), two tall stacks behind the pilothouse. In later boats, Shreve would build separate boilers for each side paddlewheel and vertical pistons into his designs. Shreve also coined the term stateroom for passenger cabins on a ship; the cabins on the Washington were named after US states.

Thanks in part to Shreve's inventions and his breaking of the Fulton monopoly, steamboat trade on the Western Rivers (the Mississippi and its tributaries) exploded. Ten years after Shreve's first round trip, more than a hundred boats were engaged in active trade on the rivers. By the time of his death in 1851, there was a steamboat arriving at New Orleans every day.

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