Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

River Records: Waterways Innovation Changes the Course of American History
Inland waterways transportation is on the precipice of a transformation to rival the introduction of steamboats in the 19th century. American Patriot Holdings LLC is spearheading a major multi-state public-private alliance to develop international trade routes along the Mississippi, Arkansas, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers. Though still in its infant stages, the project promises to revolutionize the American shipping industry by creating seaports at Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Little Rock, Fort Smith, Joliet, and Pittsburgh. (Yes, you read that right, inland “seaports”.)

To pull off this ambitious feat, American Patriot Holdings has proposed a shift away from the current container-on-barge shipping model, to a container-on-vessel model. Canadian naval architect Naviform Consulting and Research Ltd. has designed new ships unlike anything seen before on American rivers. The vessels possess an innovative exoskeleton hull structure that reduces the weight of the ship, allowing for maximum container payload. The design also eliminates any wake the vessel might generate. The new ships are expected to travel upriver, against a 5 mph current, at speeds of 13 mph, two to three times faster than a conventional towboat and barge.
American Patriot Holdings proposed “HYBRID” vessels are narrower and more nimble than their “LINER” ships that will serve St. Louis and Memphis. The smaller boats would be used to access Mississippi tributary rivers. Image Courtesy of American Patriot Holdings LLC.
At 595 feet in overall length, the ships will be the largest ever put into service above Baton Rouge. The proposed “LINER” vessels could haul as much cargo as 2,375 highway trucks. In contrast, towboats are currently only able to handle barges laden with about 48 ocean-going containers. The new system is expected to be much faster than the current barge program and is projected to generate up to a 45% savings per shipment when compared to containerized rail shipping. It is also expected to mitigate issues associated with trucking including traffic accidents, high emissions, and road and bridge infrastructure repair. The new boats are also being touted as green, with American Patriot Holdings committing all the vessels will run off liquefied natural gas instead of diesel fuel.

To celebrate this potentially record-shattering project, let’s take a look at a few river records and milestones in the St. Louis Mercantile Library’s collections.

The First Steamboat on Western Rivers
In 1811 the New Orleans embarked on a year-long voyage from Pittsburgh, down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, to New Orleans. Although steamboats had been gaining popularity on the east coast, particularly Robert Fulton’s Clermont, no one had attempted a trip on America’s western rivers. Fulton teamed up with other big names in river transportation, Robert Livingston and Nicholas Roosevelt, to make the New Orleans trip a reality.
The sidewheel steamboat was 148 feet in total length, nearly 50 feet longer than the average barge or rivercraft at the time. Similar to Fulton’s steamboat designs, the New Orleans carried a mast, spars, and two sails in case the engine failed or they ran out of fuel to feed the boilers. The cabinets below deck provided space for up to sixty passengers. Roosevelt captained the ship’s first voyage, accompanied by his wife, young daughter, and a small crew. During the trip, the party was held at the Falls of the Ohio for over a month while they waited for the water to rise enough to make the crossing. After that minor hiccup, the rest of the trip was smooth sailing; Roosevelt’s wife gave birth to their second child, a fire broke out aboard, they witnessed a solar eclipse, the great comet of 1811 lingered overhead, and the infamous New Madrid earthquake struck. The earthquake completely transformed the Mississippi River and its landmarks, making navigation that much harder. Despite all the challenges, the New Orleans arrived safely at its destination on January 10, 1812. This momentous and remarkably eventful trip paved the way for the rise of steamboat travel in the 19th century.
John H.B. Latrobe was an American lawyer, inventor, and the half-brother of Nicholas Roosevelt’s wife, Lydia Sellon Latrobe. In 1871 Latrobe authored this pamphlet published through the Maryland Historical Society. It recalls stories he heard as a child of his eldest sister’s adventures aboard the New Orleans. From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
In 1911, when Nicholas Roosevelt’s great grand-nephew Theodore was president of the United States, the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania had this replica of the New Orleans built to celebrate the centennial of its maiden voyage. Photograph from the Golden Eagle River Museum Collection, Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library.
The First Steamboat to Reach St. Louis
The Zebulon M. Pike was the first steamboat to take the Mississippi River north of the Ohio River, the first passenger service-mail carrier, and the first steamboat to reach St. Louis.  The Pike was also the first boat in the Cincinnati-based U.S. Mail Line, the longest lasting steamboat line in America. Modeled after Robert Fulton's designs, the ship possessed a barge-like hull, single smokestack, and cabins on the main deck. The boat used a single low-pressure engine to power its stern paddle wheel. The crew often had to use poles to assist the ship through swift currents. The paddles had no wheelhouse, leaving the boards exposed. This apparently disturbed some who saw it. Prominent St. Louis Philanthropist Anne Lucas Hunt recalled her initial reaction to seeing the boat, “the naked wheels looked for all the world like windmills”.
The ship’s first trip from Louisville to St. Louis took six weeks, as the crew only traveled during the day and moved at a pace of 3 ¾ mph. On August 2, 1817, the Pike arrived in St. Louis, bringing with it a new era of transportation. Distant and remote cities were made accessible. Trips that once took months using barges or keelboats, could be made in days. In the years after the Pike's arrival, St. Louis transformed from a fur-trading post into a major urban hub and the true gateway to the West.
Photocopy of Missouri Gazette newspaper clipping announcing the imminent arrival of the
steamer Zebulon M. Pike, July 25, 1817. From the Ruth Ferris Collection,
Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library.
The Biggest Steamboat

The American Queen is said to be the largest river steamboat ever built and is remarkably still in operation today. At 418 feet, the vessel’s length exceeds the average 19th century steamboat by roughly 100 feet. The sternwheeler was built by McDermott Shipyard for the Delta Queen Steamboat company in 1995. Designed as a passenger vessel, the American Queen boasts six decks and 222 state rooms. To create the Queen, at least 15 different architects conducted extensive photographic research, drawing inspiration from the great steamboats of history, including the Natchez, J.M. White, and Robert E. Lee. The ship features a dining room modeled after the J.M. White’s grand saloon, a replica of Ford’s Theatre, and a custom-made calliope with 37 gold-plated brass pipes. At her christening in May 1995 there was no traditional bottle of champagne broken over the bow. Instead she was launched with a 2-foot-high bottle of Louisiana-made tabasco sauce.

On one of her first trips, the American Queen nosed ashore outside Troy, Indiana. The Newburgh Dam gates were opened during the night and the water level dipped seven feet. The American Queen was stuck for three days, as media helicopters buzzed overhead, before the water rose high enough for dredgers and tugboats to pull the ship free. Jeff Krida, the then president of Delta Queen Steamboat Company, recalled the fiasco in a 2012 post in an online travel forum. He described how bookings initially soared as a result of the amplified media coverage. The American Queen went on to experience ups and downs, changing hands several times, but it has managed to weather it all. The boat is still providing cruises today, even during the pandemic, pairing the nostalgia of the golden days of riverboating with 21st century technologies.
The top of the American Queen’s smokestacks rise a staggering 109 feet above the water, making the vessel far too tall to fit under many Mississippi River bridges. To work around this, the faux smokestacks were designed on hinges, so the upper 40 feet can be lowered, allowing the boat to pass safely. The pilot house can also be retracted into a pit. Photograph by Bill Smith, June 28, 1995. From the Ruth Ferris Collection, Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library.
Photograph of the J.M. White grand saloon, the inspiration and namesake for the dining room on the American Queen. From the Carpenter-Moore Riverboat Scrapbook Collection,
Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library.
From the steamboats of the 19th century to the waterways projects of today, ingenuity and innovation in river transportation has long shaped the history of the United States, and will continue to do so far into the future. American Patriot’s vision may or may not come to pass, but one thing is certain; rivers possess enormous potential to redefine American transportation and shipping. They have done it before, and American Patriot’s project has shown there are local governments, businesses, and individuals around the country who have the drive, capacity, and creativity to make it happen again.
Explore the history of river innovation preserved in the Pott Waterways Library from the safe and socially distanced comfort of your own home by visiting our Digital Library.
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