Steamboats were the towboats of the 1800’s

by Hans | September 29th, 2011

This year marks the bicentennial of the first steamboat to travel the inland rivers, the New Orleans.

The 116’ sidewheeler, built in Pittsburgh in 1811 for $40,000, made its first trip on the Ohio River in October of that year, and became the first to travel the Mississippi, arriving in New Orleans on Jan. 12, 1812. This is not a big deal today, but back then it was a big, big deal. 

The invention of the steamboat completely changed river commerce. Think about it. Before the steamboat New Orleans, the only real travel was floating “down river” on a raft or on land via horseback. Well, you could walk but that was not a great option back then because of the “unknowns.” 

The interesting thing about this bicentennial is that not many people know about it, even in the commercial marine industry. Many people look at me and say, “I did not know that.” This is truly surprising since it really goes to the root of the entire marine community. 

These early steamboats started the entire commercial marine industry as we now know it today. For example, all the barge companies that operate on the inland rivers should know that steamboats were the “towing” industry in the early 1830’s. Passenger vessel operators should also have a deep understanding of the roots of that industry, but most don’t. 

Let’s all embrace this bicentennial and celebrate this great accomplishment. 

Editor’s note: The New Orleans was placed in service in 1812 between Natchez,Miss., and New Orleans. Two years later, she hit a stump and sank. In 1814, only 21 steamboats arrived in New Orleans, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1819 there were 191, and in 1833 more than 1,200 steamboat cargoes were unloaded in New Orleans. 

By Capt. Alan Bernstein
September 29, 2011

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