Steam in IL

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THE STEAMBOAT ERA IN ILLINOIS

 

 

Before 1865, settlement and commerce in Illinois responded primarily to the facts that the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash rivers together with Lake Michigan surround three fourths of the Prairie State; that the Illinois River flows from near Chicago to a point just above St. Louis; and that steamboats could navigate these waterways.

The first steamboat active on Illinois waters, the "New Orleans," came up the Mississippi in 1811-1812. A heavy traffic soon carried passengers and freight to the lead-mining center of Galena in the northwest corner of Illinois. In the 1830s Alton was the largest city in the state, a prosperous and progressive steamboat and packing center locked in commercial rivalry with St. Louis. But settlement continued to shift northward as small, shallow-draft steamboats explored the inland rivers.

By 1834 the tonnage under steam on the Ohio and Mississippi river systems exceeded that of the Atlantic coast. Beardstown, for example, recorded 450 steamboat arrivals and departures in 1836. By 1837, several hundred steamers plied the Wabash River alone, while the Illinois River saw an even more phenomenal expansion of activity. In 1839, a steamboat captain claimed he carried 10,000 people in 58 trips from St. Louis to Peru, 225 miles above the mouth of the Illinois and the virtual head of navigation. By mid-century, Peoria, the greatest of Illinois' inland river cities, counted 1286 steamboats.

Steamboats were the technical wonders of the age. The light-draft boats developed by the 1830s carried "ten tons of freight on eight inches of water." Scientists came to the river towns to analyze and to publicize the innovations wrought by the western engineers. On the upper deck of a steamer lived the cabin passengers, whose sumptuous appointments were carefully segregated from the deck passengers below. The temporal finery of the cabins contrasted strongly with the minimal protection on the deck, where the best accommodation was to sleep on soft cargo that would not be disturbed. Deck passengers traveled cheaply and miserably for long distances and on occasion found themselves involuntarily assisting the wooding crew to load fuel for the steam engine.

Too often the casualties of overloading, seasonally slack water, shoals, ice, and general abuse, the steamboats averaged a natural working life of four years. Their upper work was frequently designed for light weight and ornament, but the finery was quickly worn out by an uncouth traveling public unsuccessfully encouraged to remove its boots in bed and to use the cuspidors for its chewing tobacco.

'The general practice was to transfer the steam machinery to a new hull two or three times. in the upland rivers of Illinois, the wood structures of the boats were frequently damaged by grounding on shoals, by butting past sand bars in shallow water, and by the general stress of an industry based on speed and rapid delivery.

The waters forming the southwestern border of Illinois constituted the most fearsome stretch of the upper Mississippi. A steamship company president testified before a Senate committee that there were 50 to 60 steamboat hulks submerged at one bend alone, the notorious "Graveyard." A government. report stated that wrecks could be found in this section for hundreds of miles, more than one per mile. An 1843 resolution of the Illinois General Assembly called attention to the hazards of this river section, and another noted that one fifth of the shipping tonnage of the Mississippi had been destroyed by wrecks in the previous 18 months. Legislators were instructed to seek federal assistance to remove obstructions to navigation.

The Cairo to St. Louis stretch of the river witnessed the greatest of all steamboat disasters - the explosion of the "Sultana" just after the end of the Civil War, on April 27, 1865. On this occasion the "Sultana's" captain, moved by mingled greed and patriotism, loaded approximately 2000 Union ex-prisoners of war onto a ship designed for some 330 passengers. The boilers exploded off Cairo, killing at least 1443 men, a loss of life never exceeded on the rivers, and rarely at sea.

Steamboats ultimately carried more men and freight in the Civil War than the faster and more expensive railroads. Experience showed that the rivers were briefly superior to rails as lines of communication. Rivers could not be blown up or diverted by Confederate guerillas and they could carry an extremely heavy volume of traffic. The demand was so great that aged boats were pressed into service and quickly doubled in price.

The first years of peace brought a deceptive Indian summer of prosperity to the downriver trade. But north of Cairo, the riverboat trade never recovered after the Civil War. In the normal conditions of peace time, riverboats sunk to the subordinate position they have occupied ever since, as slow, reliable, inexpensive shippers of bulk cargo. Their glory had passed to the land, to the steam railroad.

The magnificient river boats of the antebellum years gave way to tugs, barges, or small packets. The change is best portrayed by one of the river's closest observers, Mark Twain, in his Life on the Mississippi:

Boat used to land - captain on the hurricane roof - might stiff and straight iron ramrod for a spine - kid gloves, plug hat, hair parted behind - man on shore takes off hat and says:

"Got twenty-eight tons of wheat, cap'n - be great favor if you can take them."

Captain says:

"I'll take two of them" - and don't even condescend to look at him.

But nowadays the captain takes off his old slouch, and smiles all the way around to the back of his ears, and gets off a bow which he hasn't got any ramrod to interfere with, and says:

"Glad to see you, Smith, glad to see you - you're looking well - haven't seen you looking so well for years - what you got for us?"

"Nuth'n," says Smith; and keeps his hat on, and just turns his back and goes to talking with somebody else.

 

 

 

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