From the book, Technology and Social Change in America.
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Few inventions have been as important as the steamboat, which had a revolutionary effect on western development. It was also the means by which the steam engine was introduced to America. The arrival of the steamboat signaled the beginning of a new age; but, like many technological innovations, its origins have been obscured by the heroic theory of invention, which explains important developments in terms of a single genius.
Louis C. Hunter shows that the western steamboat was not the creation of any single man; it was an evolutionary development to which many men contributed. Hunter, an economic historian, is the author of ’Steamboats on the Western Rivers’ (Cambridge, Mass., 1949), a classic in the history of technology. Now retired, Dr. Hunter was professor of history at American University; he is currently preparing a history of industrial power in the United States.
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The steamboat was the first great American contribution to modern technology. First developed to the point of practical commercial success in this country, the steamboat was quickly incorporated into the economic structure of the nation and within a few years became the principal vehicle of transportation on the main channels of inland commerce.
Eventually the influence of the American steamboat was felt all over the globe, and there were few great river systems that in time did not feel the beat of the paddlewheels by which it was propelled.
That the individual credited with “inventing” a device of such influence and fame should be raised to a high pedestal and ranked among the elite of the nation’s heroes is natural enough.
In the popular history of American technology Robert Fulton occupies a place comparable to that of James Watt in England. The device that he fathered no longer plays as important a role in the internal commerce of the nation as it once did, but the steamboat tradition nevertheless has a firm hold on the American imagination.
In the narrower world of scholarship, however, Fulton’s position has in recent years been badly shaken. The assumption that he was solely or principally responsible for inventing the steamboat has been attacked from many directions, chiefly by biographers intent on asserting the claims of rival contemporary experimenters.
So effectively have the claims of such men as Stevens, Fitch, Rumsey, and Oliver Evans (to mention only the leading contenders) been put forward that the position of Fulton has been reduced, at best, to that of ’primus inter pares.’
While Fulton’s role as the inventor of the steamboat has been undergoing attack from biographers of his eastern rivals, another group of historians has been undercutting with no less determination his position as the father of steam-boating on the western rivers. It will be recalled that within five years of his initial success on the Hudson with the ’Clermont,’ Fulton, in association with Livingston, Roosevelt, and others, introduced steam navigation on the Mississippi-Ohio river system.
Beginning with the ’New Orleans’ in 1811, this eastern group of promoters built and put into operation several steamboats of substantial tonnage. An ambitious plan was projected of providing steamboat service along the whole length of the rivers between Pittsburgh and New Orleans. Grants of exclusive privileges were therefore sought from the States along the way.
While this plan was realized only in part, enough was accomplished to found the tradition that Fulton and his associates were the pioneers who led the way in the development of a system of river transportation which in the nineteenth century was without parallel in other parts of the world.
In the western, as in the eastern sphere, Fulton has therefore long been awarded the fame which, in a brand of history pervaded by the heroic conception of invention, is customarily bestowed upon an individual first in the field.
With this interpretation, which pictures steamboat transportation on the western rivers simply as an extension of eastern ingenuity and enterprise and which casts an eastern man in the role of hero, a number of historians, westerners to be sure, have taken sharp issue. Indeed, they have attacked the Fultonian view so vigorously that it has been generally superseded in works dealing with this phase of western development.
It is not denied that Fulton and his associates introduced the first steamboats on the western rivers; in fact, a certain measure of credit is usually conceded to the eastern group for their labors in the western field.
But the importance of the contributions of Fulton is minimized chiefly on the ground that his western steamboats were technically a failure, and that Fulton contributed virtually nothing to the solution of the basic problems of steamboat navigation on the western rivers.
Whatever stimulus to steam navigation the Fulton group may have given was offset by the deterrent influence of their attempt to enforce monopoly claims, based on the Orleans grant of exclusive franchise. It could be argued, therefore, that the net result of the activities of Fulton and his associates in the West was to delay rather than to hasten the development of steamboat transportation in his region.
Yet the critics who challenge Fulton’s claims to honor, in keeping with the traditional conception of technological change, pull Fulton off his pedestal only to replace him with another hero, a Westerner, Henry Miller Shreve.
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|Steamboat by John Fitch, late 1700’s.|
The case for Henry Shreve as the father of western steam-boating rests on several grounds: his successful challenge of the Fulton-Livingston monopoly on the lower Mississippi; his activities in the field of river improvement, particularly his invention of the snagboat; and his contributions to the structural and mechanical development of the western river steamboat.
The last item is the principal basis for Shreve’s fame and to it I shall direct chief attention. Shreve’s career on the rivers dates from the keelboat age when, as boat owner and captain, he made numerous voyages up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, particularly in the Pittsburgh-New Orleans trade.
In 1814 he became associated with the group of men at Brownsville, on the lower Monongahela in western Pennsylvania, who offered the first challenge to the Fulton-Livingston plan for monopolizing steamboat transportation on the western rivers. In 1813 this group built the second steamboat in the West, the ’Comet’ (25 tons), and the following year the ’Despatch’ (25 tons) and the ’Enterprise’ (75 tons), all equipped with the type of steam engine invented by Daniel French, an eastern mechanic who had settled in Brownsville.
The ’Comet’ was a failure, but the ’Despatch’ did moderately well, while the ’Enterprise’ was quite successful, making several notable voyages under the command of Shreve, her part owner.
In 1816 Shreve became part owner of a new steamboat built according to his specifications and equipped with machinery of his own design. This was the ’Washington’ (403 tons), celebrated in western tradition as the first great steamboat on the western rivers.
The third of the early steamboats with which Shreve’s name and fame have been intimately associated was the ’George Washington’ (356 tons), built in 1824-1825 and embodying important innovations.
In the ’Washington’ and the ’George Washington,’ so runs the now widely accepted account, Shreve established the prototype of the western river steamboat. In their design and equipment these vessels broke radically with the type of vessel introduced by Fulton in the West and thereby assured the success of the steamboat in this region.
As one writer on the history of western steamboats recently declared, Shreve “produced the ideal vessel to navigate Old Miss and her tributaries—a unique vessel without which the West would never have been “the West.” That ideal vessel was the steamboat and Henry Shreve created it.”
The most prolific historian of western river transportation wrote in similar vein: “The task of constructing a great inland river marine to play the dual role of serving the cotton empire and of extending American migration and commerce into the trans-Mississippi region was solved when he (Shreve] built the ’Washington’ at Wheeling in 1816 . . . . The remarkable success of his design is attested by the fact that in two decades the boats built on his model outweighed in tonnage all the ships of the Atlantic seaboard and Great Lakes combined.”
Still other writings on steamboat history refer to Shreve as “the man who was chiefly responsible for the steamboat as it developed on the western rivers” and as “the real creator of the American steamboat.” Particular weight is given to Shreve’s achievement by alleging the failure of the Fulton boats to overcome the difficulties of western river navigation.
It was the original intention of the eastern group to provide steamboat service all the way from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. But, so runs this story, their vessels proved to have too shiplike a design and too deep a draft to operate on the upper parts of the river system; moreover they lacked the power to overcome the swift currents encountered on the upstream passage from New Orleans to the Ohio River ports.
Consequently the Fulton boats spent most of their time running in the New Orleans-Natchez trade on the lower Mississippi. Since the great and primary need of the West was for a cheap and rapid means of upstream transportation, the conclusion follows that, in the larger sense, the Fulton boats were a failure.
But whereas Fulton failed, Shreve succeeded; and western commerce and settlement advanced as in seven-league boots. As captain of the ’Enterprise,’ Shreve commanded the first steamboat voyage up the river from New Orleans to Louisville, made in 1815.
While Shreve shared in the glory of this achievement, the allegedly exceptional conditions under which this voyage was performed—a flood stage so high as to enable the pilot to “cut across lots” and avoid the full force of the current—in a vessel not of Shreve’s design left the door open for a triumph that could be wholly his.
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The public, we are told, continued to be skeptical of the steamboat’s ability to stem the swift currents of the Ohio and Mississippi under ordinary conditions.
These doubts of the public were put to rest when two years later Shreve made the long, hard trip from New Orleans to Louisville in the ’Washington,’ the vessel which he himself had designed, without the aid of favoring conditions and in the fast time of forty-five days, including the time in port, for the round trip and twenty-five days for the upstream voyage.
“This was the trip,” declared M’Murtrie, a Louisville citizen writing in 1819, “that convinced the despairing public that steamboat navigation would succeed on the western waters.” And this was the statement that, quoted and paraphrased repeatedly in later years, with little or no corroboration, convinced western writers on steamboat history and provided one of the main supports of the Shreve legend.
"After this memorable voyage of the Washington,” wrote Lloyd a generation later, “all doubts and prejudices in reference to steam navigation were removed. Shipyards began to be established in every convenient locality, and the business of steamboat building was vigorously prosecuted.”
According to Dunbar, the population of the Mississippi Valley was as excited over the achievement of the boat designed and captained by Shreve as over Jackson’s victory at New Orleans and as the news spread through the Ohio Valley the construction of numerous steamboats was begun. Other scholars accepted this view of the critical importance of the famous voyage of 1817.
Useful as this interpretation is in building the life of a hero, it does not stand up well under critical examination. At least three steamboats had made the trip up the rivers from New Orleans prior to the ’Washington.’ Two of them were steamboats constructed by the Brownsville group, equipped with engines designed and built by Daniel French.
In 1815 the ’Enterprise,’ a much smaller boat than the ’Washington,’ made the first trip up the river in the fast time of twenty-five days. Even if we accept the version of this voyage that minimizes its importance—and there are good reasons for questioning it—the solid fact remains that this vessel ascended not only to Louisville but 600 miles further upstream to Pittsburgh and then some fifty miles up the Monongahela to the home port of Brownsville.*
* I have found no contemporary evidence in support of the view expressed above that the ’Enterprise’ was aided by flood conditions. Against this view must be placed the well-known facts that navigation at flood seasons was more difficult than at an ordinary stage, due to the greater swiftness of the current and the presence of great quantities of driftwood. While the distance covered could be shortened somewhat through the use of cutoffs and otherwise impassable island chutes, the force of the current could not be avoided to a much greater extent at flood seasons than at other times, because of the frequent necessity of crossing from one side of the river to the other.
In the contemporary press the feat of the ’Enterprise’ received attention and favorable comment comparable to that received by the ’Washington’ two years later.
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|Before (and after) steamboats on America’s rivers, flatboats made journeys, usually downstream, with varying cargo capacity.|
In 1816, the diminutive ’Despatch’ also made the difficult upstream voyage, completing the trip from New Orleans to Louisville in thirty-four days. Prevented from taking cargo by the representatives of the Fulton group at New Orleans, the Despatch did not receive on this trip a full test of her ability to stem the current of the Mississippi.
To the achievements of the French-engined steamboats there were soon added those of two of the Fulton boats, the ’Vesuvius’ (340 tons) and the ’Aetna’ (360 tons).
The ’Vesuvius’ started up the river for Louisville in the spring of 1814 but failed to complete the trip, thereby adding weight to the charge that the Fulton steamboats were a failure.*
* According to this account in the ’Liberty Hall and Cincinnati Gazette,’ August 3, 1819, the ’Vesuvius’ grounded on a sandbar 700 miles up the river from New Orleans about June 1 and remained there until December 3 when the river rose and floated her off. She then returned to New Orleans where she ran aground a second time on the Batture and lay there until released by a rise in the river about March 1. The precise causes for these mishaps are subjects for conjecture.
Since the contemporaneous account of this voyage does not make clear the cause of failure, whether personal, mechanical, or architectural, judgment must be reserved. Later, however, the ’Vesuvius’ was to redeem herself.
But there can be no blinking the achievement of the ’Aetna,’ since, prior to the “epoch-making” voyage of the ’Washington,’ the ’Aetna’ had completed three trips up the river from New Orleans to Louisville.
The first was made in the autumn of 1815 when she had the misfortune, not uncommon in the early years, to break a shaft, not far from the mouth of the Ohio. After spending fifteen days in an unsuccessful attempt to make repairs, her officers succeeded in completing the voyage on one paddlewheel, no mean feat in itself, in a port-to-port time of sixty days.
In the spring of 1816 the ’Aetna’ made a second trip up the rivers to Louisville with a port-to-port time of thirty-five days but with an actual running time of but thirteen days. A year later she arrived at Louisville from New Orleans for the third time, a week in advance of the ’Washington’ on her much acclaimed trip.
If the ’Aetna’ on this occasion made much slower time than the Shreve-designed boat, her cargo was half again as large as the Washington’s with a freight bill amounting to more than $25,000. "Whilst the Steam Boats are in charge of such persevering and skilful officers as the Captains of the ’Aetna’ and the ’Buffalo,’" ran a Cincinnati editorial, “we need not fear of success in ascending the western rivers to any navigable point.”*
* The ’Buffalo’ had just arrived on her maiden trip from Pittsburgh.
In praising his vessel, Captain Robeson de Hart of the ’Aetna’ remarked to the reporter that the round trip to New Orleans from Louisville could now be made in thirty-five to forty days.*
* The now traditional account of the record voyage of the ’Washington’ describes the public dinner given Shreve at Louisville in celebration of the event but fails to mention that Captain de Hart was also invited. “These two enterprising men,” declared an editorial on the occasion, "have gained much of public esteem by their successful and enterprising exertions to demonstrate the practicability of navigating the Ohio and Mississippi, the high seas of the western country, with steam vessels.”
Altogether, the ’Aetna’ made six voyages from New Orleans to Louisville under Captain de Hart and was continued in the trade under his successor.
During 1817 at least three other steamboats arrived at Louisville from New Orleans: the ’Franklin’ in thirty-six days; the ’Buffalo’ in an unreported time; and the ’Vesuvius,’ rebuilt after damage by fire, two trips, one of them in thirty-two days. Carrying a full cargo, the Vesuvius demonstrated again the ability of a Fulton-designed boat to master the currents of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.”
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|Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston’s ’New Orleans.’|
Clearly the disparagement of the achievements of the Fulton group in the West, colored as it has been by resentment of their attempt to enforce their exclusive franchise on the lower Mississippi, has gone too far. From the fact that the operations of the Fulton boats were confined largely to the lower Mississippi, those unsympathetic to the eastern group have too readily assumed that these vessels were unable to overcome the difficulties of the long upstream trip to Louisville.
Actually they have overlooked other considerations which doubtless underlay this policy. As a glance at the population-distribution maps of 1810 and 1820 shows plainly, the portion of the lower river included in the Natchez-New Orleans trade was precisely that serving the region of greatest population density in the entire West outside of the Ohio Valley.
That the Fulton interests should have given first attention to exploiting the rich traffic of this easily navigated 250-mile stretch of deep, even-flowing water was natural enough. From Natchez to Louisville, on the other hand, for a distance of 1,000 miles by river there was little but frontier wilderness with a thinly scattered population of backwoodsmen and no towns or cities of importance to supply traffic and support for the new mode of transportation, to say nothing of assistance in case of accidents.
Why undertake this long and difficult voyage through waters made dangerous by swift currents, narrow twisting channels, snags, and other obstructions when there was ample business to be done at a good profit on the deep and snag-free waters of the lower Mississippi?
More than financial and technical considerations were involved. If the terms of the Orleans (Louisiana) franchise did not expressly require that at least one steamboat be kept in operation chiefly on the waters of this territory, a certain sense of obligation on the part of the grantees may well have been an influence in this direction.
At any rate, one boat was kept on the New Orleans-Natchez run from the beginning. Whatever plans Fulton and his associates may have had originally for the extension of service up the rivers to Louisville and beyond were interrupted by a series of misfortunes which left them with but one steamboat in operation in the West during most of the period prior to the completion of the ’Aetna’ in 1815.
By the time their second boat, the ’Vesuvius,’ was ready for operation in 1814, the ’New Orleans’ was sunk by accident and two years passed before her machinery was installed in the second ’New Orleans.’ This vessel was hardly more than placed in service when a second calamity occurred, the burning and sinking of the ’Vesuvius,’ and it was almost a year before she was salvaged and rebuilt.
A fourth steamboat in the original series, the ’Buffalo,’ was never completed by the Fulton group; financial difficulties encountered during construction resulted in her sale under the sheriff’s hammer. With the second ’New Orleans’ taking care of the business in the New Orleans—Natchez trade, the ’Aetna’ and the rebuilt ’Vesuvius’ were made available for operation in the New Orleans-Louisville trade.
Thus there is no need to resort to the theory of technical deficiencies to explain the confinement of the operations of the Fulton boats chiefly to the New Orleans-Natchez trade and the lower Mississippi.
The marked upswing in steamboat tonnage on the western rivers in 1818 and 1819 is usually attributed to the record voyage of the ’Washington’ in 1817, which allegedly banished all doubts of the practicability of steamboats.
The experience of the year 1817 did, to be sure, promote confidence in the new mode of transportation, but this resulted from the achievement not of one but of a number of steamboats. Moreover, the public was interested in something more than evidence of technical success.
The figures that carried greatest weight with potential investors, one may feel sure, were not so much those of a few days saved on a long trip as the big profits reported for a number of the pioneer steamboats.
According to a detailed account of the ’New Orleans’s first year, given wide publicity in the 1814 and later editions of the popular river guide, ’The Navigator,’ the owners cleared $20,000 over and above expenses, repairs, and interest on investment on a property valued at $40,000, a revenue, commented the editor, “superior to any other establishment in the United States.”
It was reported that the ’Enterprise’ in the 1815 season would clear 40 per cent on her first cost; and 40 per cent, as a Cincinnati writer remarked, “speaks plain to every understanding.” A single trip of the second ’New Orleans’ from New Orleans to Natchez in 1817 netted a profit of $4,000. In the same year the little ’Franklin,’ on her trip from New Orleans to Louisville, cleared some $6,500.
The ’Washington’ paid her entire cost and divided $1,700 among her owners from the proceeds of two round trips between Louisville and New Orleans in the first half of 1817. The handsome freight bill of the ’Aetna,’ on the 1817 trip referred to above, was greatly exceeded a year later by the $47,000 freight revenue of the ’Vesuvius,’ on a single trip in the same trade, half of which was said to be clear profit.
In describing a trip down the rivers in 1818, Estwick Evans declared that a voyage of a few weeks brought a return of 100 percent on the capital employed. With reports such as these in circulation, the investors’ rush into the new branch of enterprise is readily understood.
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|Henry Shreve’s ’George Washington,’ late 1920’s development. Note upper deck.|
The achievements of the Fulton boats have not received adequate recognition. Similarly, the contrast in design between them and Shreve’s steamboats has been exaggerated.
Writers who glorify Shreve assert that his ’Washington’ and ’George Washington’ were the prototype of the standard western river steamboat. The steamboats introduced by Fulton were essentially seagoing boats with deep and sharply modeled hulls and pronounced keels. With their heavy draft they were quite unsuited for use on the shallow waters of the western rivers.
Shreve, we are told, quickly discovered the reason for the failure of these boats, radically altered their design and construction, and thereby made steamboats a practical success on these rivers. “Flagrantly ignoring the conventional wisdom of his day and craft, he built the ’Washington’ to sail ON the water rather than IN it, doing away altogether with a hold and supplying an upper deck in its place.
To few inventors, indeed, does America owe a greater debt of thanks than to this Ohio river shipbuilder. A dozen men were on the way to produce a ’Clermont’ had Fulton failed; but Shreve had no rival in his plan to build a flat-bottomed steamboat.”
Several writers have taken up and repeated this theme: "The ’Washington’ . . . differed from its predecessors in that it had a flat, shallow hull . . .” “First of all she floated on the water and not in it.” “Her hull, having . . . a very shallow draft, sat on the water instead of sinking in it.”
What are the facts in the case? The fully developed western river steamboat had, it is true, a shallow hull and a flat bottom. Believing Shreve to have been the creator of this vessel, steamboat historians have concluded that these important features must have originated with him.
There is, however, no contemporaneous evidence that even suggests that the hull of the ’Washington’ had a flat bottom or departed in other respects from the conventional model. On the contrary, descriptions by several contemporaries referred to her as “frigate built,” “built like a ship,” and “resembling a dismasted frigate.”
There is no contemporaneous evidence yet discovered that gives the draft of the ’Washington,’ loaded or light, and none to support the assertion that she sat “on the water rather than in it.” All we have for the Washington, as for many of the pioneer western steamboats, are the hull dimensions as recorded in the customs-house enrollment documents, and these show a hull depth hardly compatible with shallow draft.
We have but to compare the hull dimensions of the most famous of the Shreve boats with those of other vessels of their day to see how conservative a model was adopted by their designer.
In so far as hull dimensions are indicative of design, neither of Shreve’s famous boats diverged greatly from the pattern of their day. The much vaunted shallow hull of the ’Washington’ proves to have had what was probably the greatest depth of any vessel throughout the steamboat era.
Such post-Civil War leviathans as the ’J. M. White’ (1,399 tons), ’Thompson Dean’ (1,368 tons), and ’Grand Republic’ (1,794 tons) had hull depths of only ten and one-half feet.
The hull of the ’George Washington,’ so far as depth was concerned, represented only a modest improvement over other boats of her class.
The case against the revolutionary influence of the Shreve boats is clinched by a study of the trend of hull dimensions of steamboats in the several tonnage classes. This shows that the shallow depth so characteristic of the western steamboat hull was developed gradually over a period of several decades.
The trend in this direction got under way in the early twenties, proceeded slowly and without spurts, and was not completed until the decade preceding the Civil War. Clearly the shallow hull and the flat bottom which accompanied it were not the product of an inventive "tour de force" of a single individual.
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|Hull dimensions of early Western steamboats (in feet).|
Still another criterion of steamboat design is the relation of cargo capacity to the size of the vessel, obviously a matter of great importance in the economy of steamboat operations. This is best expressed as a ratio of cargo capacity (in tons by weight) to measured tonnage (cubical content).
In the fully developed western steamboat this ratio was ordinarily about 3 to 2 and sometimes reached 2 to 1. Because of their heavy machinery, ship-like design, and staunch construction, the early steamboats were able to carry much less; the ratio was 2 to 3 or less.*
* The lightness of draft, which was the prime object of western steamboat design, was a function not only of hull design and proportions but of the weight of the vessel. To reduce weight was as important as to give the hull a broad and flat bottom. It was partly for this reason that the high-pressure engine was favored over the low-pressure type. It was for this reason, too, that the western steamboat came to be built with a lightness of timber, planking, and superstructure that largely justified the epithet of flimsy.
*(continued) There is no evidence that Shreve made any contribution to this important trend. A statement in his report as superintendent of river improvements in 1833 suggests that he regarded it with disfavor. In defense of his method of snag removal, Shreve declared that so far as good and substantially built boats were concerned, virtually none had recently been sunk by snags. On the other hand, his report continued, “a great many of the boats now navigating the Mississippi river are light timbered, just sufficient to hold the plank together to bear caulking—and hence easily sunk by snags.
The cargo capacities of three of the Fulton steamboats were reported as follows: ’Aetna’ (360 tons), 200 tons; ’Vesuvius’ (340 tons), 230 tons; the second ’New Orleans’ (324 tons), 200 tons. The ’Washington,’ despite the advantage resulting from the light weight of her machinery, lagged behind all these craft with a reported capacity of but 200 tons although she measured 403 tons.
In the first steamboats, both boilers and engine were placed in the hold, and passenger quarters were located either in the hold or on the main deck. On the fully developed western river boat, boilers and machinery were always on the main deck and the passenger cabin on the deck above. Shreve has been credited with both innovations.
Cynics observed,” runs the most fanciful of these attributions, “that with so shallow a hull, there was no place to put the machinery. But when it came time to install the machinery, Shreve gave everybody another shock, by putting it on deck. This seemed the crowning folly. But not so. Since the engines and boilers took up so much of the space on deck, Shreve, nothing daunted, put another one above it, and lo! here was a two decker, the first of the type that was later universal on the Mississippi.”
Just what Shreve did or did not do in these as in other matters is uncertain, for the contemporaneous evidence is slim. We know that in the ’Washington’ the boilers were raised to the main deck but it is equally clear that the engine was placed on the deck below.
The ’George Washington,’ completed in 1825, is customarily described as the first western river boat with an upper cabin, but in this innovation Shreve was anticipated by the builder of at least one boat, the 153-ton ’Emerald,’ completed in the autumn of 1824.*
* An advertisement of the new steamboat ’Emerald’ describes her as particularly well suited to passengers, “her cabin being on the upper deck, entirely secured from accidents.”
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|Fulton and Livingston ’Clermont’ of 1807.|
But although Shreve did not invent the flat-bottomed hull, his contributions to the development of the river-boat engine were certainly substantial even if not so great as some writers claim. Indeed these claims have been entirely too sweeping.
According to one river historian, who refers to the ’Washington’ as “the first real steamboat on the western waters,” “Shreve contributed three ideas to his 403 ton craft; he placed the machinery and the cabin on the main deck, he used horizontal cylinders with vibrations to the pitmans, and employed a double high-pressure engine. Subsequent marine architecture simply improved on these features.”
Another writer declares: “The machinery was almost as revolutionary as the architecture of the boat. Not only were the boilers put on the deck but they were placed horizontally instead of vertically. Unlike the upright stationary cylinders that Fulton had used, those on Shreve’s boat were placed horizontally and had oscillating pitmans. Furthermore, the ’Washington’ was the first boat on the western waters to utilize high pressure engines.”
These claims must now be examined.
The steam engine introduced by Fulton on the western rivers was the low-pressure, condensing engine of the Boulton and Watt type with which his eastern steamboats were equipped. It was efficient and comparatively safe in operation but never attained popularity on the western rivers. Because of its weight, complexity, and cost it was superseded in a few years.
The engine that became standard equipment on western river boats was a high-pressure, non-condensing, direct-acting, horizontal-cylinder affair with a cam-actuated valve gear. Crude and inefficient from an engineering point of view, it had the practical advantages of being light, compact, powerful, cheap to build, and easy to repair.
The high-pressure engine was admirably adapted to the conditions of navigation on the western rivers where shallow depth placed a premium on light weight, where swift currents called for great power, where scarcity of skilled labor dictated simplicity of construction and operation, and scarcity of capital favored low cost.
Efficiency of operation was a minor factor in a region where wood and coal for fuel were abundant and cheap. In its fully developed form, this engine dominated the western rivers for fully three-score years, and was still in wide use in the first decade of the twentieth century.
The most distinctive feature of the western steamboat engine was the use of steam of high pressure, 50 to 125 pounds compared with the four to eight pounds employed in the Boulton and Watt type. It was this high pressure that made possible a maximum of power with a minimum of weight, the importance of which I have already stressed.
The credit for introducing the high-pressure engine in the West belongs not to Shreve, however, but to Oliver Evans. It was Evans who first developed the high-pressure engine in this country, turning out his first engine in 1801, and remaining for some years the only commercial producer of this type of engine in the United States.
It was Evans who in private correspondence, in published writings, and in the public press proclaimed widely the superiority of this type of engine to the conventional Boulton and Watt type and who, years before the introduction of steam navigation in the West, urged the special value of his engine for overcoming the difficulties of navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
The first steam engines used in the trans-Appalachian region were built by Evans. The first steam flour mills in the West went into operation at Pittsburgh and Lexington in 1809, and a third was built at Marietta two years later; and all these mills were equipped with Evans engines.
In 1814 Evans listed thirteen engines of his manufacture in operation throughout the West, five of them at Pittsburgh. In 1811-1812, while the first Fulton steamboat was being built at Pittsburgh, Evans was establishing there the first manufactory of steam engines in the West, with his son George in charge of the works.
Other men quickly entered the new field, and Pittsburgh became the first center of steam-engine and steamboat building west of the Appalachians. A European traveler visiting the rising industrial center in 1816 declared that most of the engines in use were of the Evans type.
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|Oliver Evans horizontal cylinder steam engine of the 1830’s.|
Shreve was preceded not only by Oliver Evans but by Daniel French in his appreciation of the importance for western steamboats of an engine combining much power with small weight. French’s engine, patented in 1809, was used in the first three steamboats built by the Brownsville group, including the first steamboat to ascend the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the ’Enterprise.’
So far as can be determined by the brief references to the French engine, it was direct-acting, dispensing with both beam and flywheel, and it drove a stern paddlewheel. It used steam of high pressure and a contemporaneous account calls it the ideal type for steamboat purposes, since it combined simplicity with compactness and light weight, and had but one tenth the parts of other engines and less than one half as many moving parts.
With Evans and French pioneering in the development of a steam engine that was simple, light, and powerful, what then was the nature of Shreve’s contribution? How solidly are the sweeping claims made in his behalf? These claims are based chiefly on two articles about Shreve published in the ’Democratic Review’ in 1848, a full generation after the episode described. The pertinent passage, referring to the ’Washington,’ follows:
"Previously, the boiler had always been placed in the hold of the vessel; and under Fulton’s patent upright and stationary cylinders used—under French’s the vibrating cylinder. Despite the ridicule with which his suggestions were received, he ordered the cylinder to be placed in a horizontal position, and the vibration to be given to the pitrnan. Fulton and French used a single low-pressure engine; Captain S. built a double, high-pressure engine, (the first used on the western rivers,) with cranks at right angles, and the boilers on the upper deck.
"Mr. David Prentice had previously employed the cam wheel for working the valves to the cylinder; and Capt. Shreve added his great invention of the “cam cut-off,” by which three-fifths of the fuel was saved. Most of these improvements, originating with him, have long been in universal use, although their origin has not been generally known.
"The machinery weighed only one-twentieth as much as the Fulton engine, and was worked with about one-half of the usual amount of fuel. The alterations and improvements by Capt. S. made the engine essentially a new machine; and in the course of a few years, no other model was used west of the Alleghenies."
Contradicting the assertion here that the French engine was a low-pressure engine are the facts of its light weight, simplicity, and oscillating cylinder, all of which argue against its using low pressure, and the assertion of a rival, George Evans, who declared in a letter to Oliver Evans in 1814 that French used forty pounds pressure and over.
Contemporaneous references to the machinery of the ’Washington,’ although very meager, confirm the light weight (given as 9,000 pounds), the great power (100 H.P.), the direct action, the horizontal cylinder, and the location of the boilers on the main deck.
Newspaper descriptions of the ’Washington’ on the occasion of her maiden voyage refer to her engine in the singular. But even the author of the ’Democratic Review’ articles did not claim for Shreve the cam-actuated valve gear which was so vital a part of this engine. No contemporaneous evidence has come to my attention which supports the same author’s assertion that Shreve invented the “cam cut-off,” a device by which steam was used expansively by shutting off the flow of steam into the cylinder before the stroke was completed.
Major Stephen H. Long, testifying in 1849, declared that he was the one responsible for the cam cut-off, having devised it in 1818 for use on the ’Western Engineer,’ built at Pittsburgh under his direction for the Yellowstone Expedition of 1819.*
*Since few western steamboat engines cut off before the completion of five eighths of the stroke, the assertion that the cutoff saved three fifths of the fuel is somewhat exaggerated. Equally to be doubted is the statement that Shreve’s engine used but one half the fuel required by other engines. A similar claim was made by Oliver Evans for his high-pressure engine but the verdict of both logic and experience supports the superior fuel economy of the low-pressure engine.
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|Robert Fulton’s vertical cylinder steam engine in the Clermont.|
The most important feature of the western steamboat engine that appears clearly to stem from Shreve was the horizontal cylinder. The great size and weight of the piston in the low-pressure engine virtually compelled the use of a vertical cylinder in order to avoid excessive friction and wear. With the much smaller cylinder and piston of the high-pressure engine, a horizontal cylinder became a practical possibility. Its use on the western steamboat was very likely prompted in the first instance by the difficulty of connecting a vertical cylinder engine with a paddlewheel placed at the stern.
Since all the steamboats in which the Brownsville group were interested were sternwheelers, French was faced with this problem before Shreve. It is quite possible that he partly anticipated Shreve’s solution by giving his oscillating cylinder a position which, within the limits of its motion, approximated a horizontal position.
Shreve in turn may have been led to conclude from his experience with the 75-ton ’Enterprise’ that a French engine of the size necessary to drive the 403-ton ’Washington’ would prove quite impracticable as a result of the vibrations set up by so large a moving part as the cylinder. By fixing the cylinder in a horizontal position and giving the oscillation to the pitman (connecting rod), this difficulty was overcome.
By whatever route arrived at, the adoption of the horizontal cylinder was an important innovation. The horizontal cylinder eliminated the necessity for using large and heavy braces—the clumsy gallows frame of eastern river boats—to give support and rigidity to the engine.
Instead, the engine was bolted fast along its entire length to cylinder timbers that were one structurally with the framing of the hull. A maximum of support and stiffness was obtained with the simplest of means, and at a substantial saving of space, weight, and cost.
The innovation was to prove of particular importance for the western rivers where the trend toward an increasingly shallow hull would soon have forced some modification of the vertical engine.
For the further claims that Shreve introduced the use of cranks placed at right angles on the stern paddlewheel shaft (on two-engine boats to avoid stalling on dead center), that he was the first to drive side-wheels independently by separate engines, thereby greatly increasing the maneuverability of the vessel, and that he was the first to use double flues in boilers, and that he devised a way of supplying the latter through “aft stands,” the meager contemporaneous evidence supplies neither confirmation nor contradiction.*
* Even if Shreve was the first to use two engines and to place the cranks at right angles on sternwheel shafts, he started no revolution. Single-engined boats predominated on the western rivers until well into the forties and sternwheelers played a distinctly minor role to 1850.
Writers who have taken the ’Democratic Review’ articles as their authority for the sweeping claims on behalf of Shreve have failed to note the implications of the anticlimactic remark with which the author concluded his discussion of this subject:
“It is possible that, simultaneously with many of his improvements, other persons were, in different parts of the United States or Europe, working out the same results; but if so, it was in this case as in that of Newton and Leibnitz; none the less praise is due to his genius.”
Of the five basic features of the western steamboat engine: high-pressure steam, lever-valve gear, direct action, cam cut-off, and horizontal cylinder, only the last stems indisputably from Shreve. That Shreve devised an engine that for its day was very effective is demonstrated by the performance of the ’Washington,’ although of the precise manner in which this engine was constructed and operated we know very little.
It is reasonable to assume that this engine was influential in bringing about the ultimate adoption of the horizontal high-pressure engine, but whether the fully evolved steamboat engine that first comes into view in the late thirties bore anything more than the most general resemblance to that of the ’Washington’ is a matter for mere conjecture.
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|Steamboats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers proved profitable from the beginning.|
With the other bases for Shreve’s fame—his role in the overthrow of the Fulton-Livingston monopoly on the lower Mississippi and his activities in river improvement—I need deal but briefly here. Shreve certainly was the leading figure in the attack on the exclusive rights granted the eastern partners by the territory of Orleans.
Yet it must be remembered that he played no lone hand in this controversy, and he and his partners received the strong support of public opinion. Moreover, other steamboat owners joined him in refusing to bow to the claims of the monopolists.
While tradition portrays Shreve as a plumed knight battling for the right in disregard of personal advantage, it will hardly be denied that substantial financial rewards were directly at stake. The exclusive rights asserted by the eastern firm could hardly have been maintained long in the face of the rising temper of the West, and were, in any event, to be nullified by the Supreme Court’s action in ’Gibbons v. Ogden’ within a few years.
The spirited opposition led by Shreve no doubt hastened the day when the steamboat would run down the western rivers unvexed to the sea.
Much more important were Shreve’s activities as superintendent of western river improvements from 1827 to 1841. In that office he distinguished himself by his success in dealing with the snag problem. He developed a highly effective steam snagboat, he directed the removal of the Raft of the Red River, and he championed a snag-prevention as well as a snag-removal program.
Not until the history of western river improvements is written will it be possible to assign Shreve his proper place and importance in this field.
In the meantime it is well to remember that snag removal was but one phase of river improvement, although a most pressing one in the early steamboat years, and that credit for progress in this as in the more fundamental aspects of river improvement during these years must be shared with members of the United States Engineer Corps who participated in the planning and execution of these activities.
Enthusiasm in the discovery of a new western hero should not lead us to accept some current versions which picture Shreve as solely responsible for the successes achieved while he was superintendent. Those who have accepted the Patent Office decision crediting Shreve with the invention of the snagboat will do well to read the account of its origin by Major Stephen H. Long, Shreve’s immediate predecessor and successor as superintendent of western river improvements, later Chief of the Topographical Engineers, and an engineer of distinction.
The suggestion of the method for attacking the Raft of the Red River which proved successful originated in the Office of the Chief of Engineers. When Shreve put it into effect, the seemingly Herculean task of clearing a river jammed with trees and logs from shore to shore over a distance of 140 miles assumed in large part the routine character of pulling out and floating off this timber.
On the first two days of operations on the Raft, the river was cleared for a distance of five miles and in less than four weeks the Raft was removed over a stretch of forty miles. Not all the going was so easy as this and Shreve’s ingenuity and engineering skill counted for much in the final achievement.
Shreve’s place as one of the leading mechanics and engineers of the West’s industrial infancy is securely established. On the basis of the scanty evidence now available, one can readily support the thesis that he did more for the development of steam navigation on the western rivers than any other one man, including Fulton.
Freely to concede this is not to subscribe to the traditional account in which he is pictured as the creator of the American steamboat and the genius "who, by his gifted intellect and untiring perseverance, has opened the arteries of a continent and sent through them the life blood of commerce.”
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. Historians have been too prone to compensate for the wide gaps in our knowledge by playing up the achievements of the few men whose names have come down to us.
There is reason to believe that if the returns were all in, the accomplishments of a Fulton, a Shreve, an Evans, or a French would assume a quite modest position beside the collective contribution of scores of master mechanics, ship carpenters, and shop foremen in whose hands the detailed work of construction, adaptation, and innovation largely rested.
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