Full steam ahead: The invention that forever transformed New Orleans — and the country
From the time of the city’s founding, the Mississippi River has been the lifeblood of New Orleans, a winding, watery highway for products and people. For much of its early history, though, such a journey was an arduous one — particularly for the return trip of flatboat-piloting farmers from northern locales. Then, on Jan. 12, 1812, a technological breakthrough arrived in New Orleans, in the form of the first steamboat to ply the lower Mississippi. Fittingly, it was named the New Orleans, and, with a then-miraculous upstream top speed of 3 mph — a pace that would be continuously improved upon over the next 50 years — it would usher in a new age of transportation. In the process, it would dramatically transform New Orleans and, indeed, all of the young America.
The steamboat revolution came quickly. It disappeared with similar haste, replaced by vessels with ever more efficient, ever more miraculous engines. According to Herbert Asbury’s “The French Quarter,” some 450 steamboats traveled the river by the 1840s. Today, the Natchez is the only true steamboat to operate out of New Orleans. The changes the steam era ushered in, however, have never gone away.
- The steamboat New Orleans was designed by steamboat pioneer Robert Fulton. It was built in Pittsburgh and sailed down the Ohio River — with stops in Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois — to the Mississippi River.
- Within a year of her maiden voyage, she exploded and sank, but not before making three round-trip voyages between Natchez and New Orleans.
- After it sank, Fulton in 1815 built another steamboat named New Orleans, also built in Pittsburgh. It improved on its antecedent’s statistics, with an upriver top speed of 4 mph and a downriver speed of 10 mph.
- Heading upstream from New Orleans, the fare was $16 to Baton Rouge and $30 to Natchez. Downstream from Natchez, it was $11 to Baton Rouge and $15 to New Orleans.
- Initially, steamboats were designed as cargo vessels, as it was assumed passengers would be too scared to ride aboard them, given the possibility of explosions. Those assumptions were wrong. Nearly from the beginning, steamboat owners began outfitting the vessels with more and more luxurious accommodations and ornate decorations, to attract the endless stream of leisure travelers.
- As proud as captains were of the look their steamboats, the competition expended far beyond the aesthetic. Steamboat races were common spectacles, drawing big wagers and generous newspaper coverage.
- Among the more famous steamboat races was the 1870 match between the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez (a forerunner to the present-day Natchez). Starting on June 30, 1870, they set out from New Orleans and headed for St. Louis. The Lee won, making the trip in 3 days, 18 hours and 14 minutes. It remains a steamboat record.
There’s no denying the romantic allure of the steamboat era, with its images of riverboat gamblers, traveling showboats and pull-out-the-stops upriver races. But the steamboat had a profound practical effect on New Orleans beyond the look of the city’s riverfront. The “island of New Orleans” was still hemmed in by river, lake and swamp, but — as the railroad would later do, and the airplane and automobile after that — steamboats connected New Orleans to the rest of the country. By the end of the steamboat era in the 1870s, the one-time remote, exotic outpost was still exotic, but it was no longer remote or an outpost. It was a true American city — whether its residents liked it or not.