Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

The New Orleans: The Steamboat that Unlocked the West
This past Saturday was the 210th anniversary of the steamer New Orleans completing its year-long voyage down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The first steamboat on western rivers, the New Orleans revolutionized American transportation. On this day in history, Americans unlocked the West, resulting in fateful and quickened cultural exchange often leading to upheavals not seen before on such a human scale. The Pott Library recognizes this important anniversary with a look through the St. Louis Mercantile Library’s collections to retell the New Orleans’ epic adventure.
The New Orleans was designed by Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston, the biggest names in early American waterways transportation. Livingston was a wealthy investor and politician, Fulton a talented inventor and entrepreneur. The pair met in 1801, shortly before Livingston was appointed Ambassador to France by President Thomas Jefferson. While Livingston helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, the two men worked together to create the first commercially successful steamboat, the North River Steamboat (Clermont). Propelled by their success, Livingston and Fulton wasted no time moving on to their next revolutionary project. A mere twelve days after the Clermont’s first voyage in 1807, the pair began work on the New Orleans.
Portrait of Robert Fulton from The Life of Robert Fulton, written by his friend Cadwallader Colden, 1817 (left).  Boat designs from Fulton’s Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation, 1796 (right). From the collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
For their new endeavor, Livingston and Fulton brought in Nicholas Roosevelt, another inventor and widely regarded steamboat expert, who would captain the voyage. The sidewheel steamboat was constructed in Pittsburgh and cost an estimated $38,000. It took four years to complete and featured comfortable living quarters to accommodate Roosevelt’s family. The boat carried a mast, spars, and two sails, in case the engine failed or they ran out of fuel to feed the boilers. In 1809 Roosevelt and his new bride, Lydia (nee Latrobe), honeymooned on a flatboat scouting mission down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. One of their goals was to identify coal deposits that could be used for this trip and future steamboat travel once they unlocked the West.
Photograph of 1911 reproduction of the New Orleans. Built by the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania to commemorate the centennial of its maiden voyage. From the Golden Eagle River Museum Collection, Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library.
On October 20, 1811, the New Orleans steamed out of Pittsburgh, with the Great Comet lingering ominously overhead. A small crew accompanied Roosevelt, Lydia, and their infant daughter Rosetta. It sparked some controversy for Roosevelt to bring his family, considering the dangers the trip presented. Lydia, who was eight months pregnant at the start of the voyage, gave birth to their second child just 10 days after their departure. They lingered in Louisville through November while Lydia recovered, and they waited for the river to rise. They needed to pass through the treacherous Falls of the Ohio with its near 25 foot drop. The falls’ rock ledges were completely submerged at high water, allowing boats to pass through a two-mile, winding, narrow channel.
Plan of the Rapids of the Falls of the Ohio from A Journey in North America, by Victor Collot, 1826. This plan was a product of Collot’s 1796 survey and intelligence mission into Spanish Louisiana. It is one of the rarest and most important plans of the region. From the collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
While they waited, Roosevelt generated attention and sought to impress investors. He held a gala dinner aboard the boat and made a brief trip upstream to Cincinnati. Meanwhile tensions between indigenous communities and foreign settlers were reaching a boiling point throughout the region. Violence broke out on November 7 with the Battle of Tippecanoe in what is now Northwestern Indiana. This battle eventually led to the War of 1812. The precariousness of the New Orleans’ situation had to have been draining on the crew. Reportedly they worried about being perceived as a threat by native peoples they passed along the river.
History of the Late War in the Western Country: Comprising a full account of all the transactions in that quarter from the commencement of hostilities at Tippecanoe to the termination of the contest at New Orleans on the return of peace, by Robert McAfee, 1816 (left). A Collection of Some of the Most Interesting Narratives of Indian Warfare in the West, by Samuel Metcalfe, 1821 (right).
From the collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
The New Orleans set out again on December 8 for the second half of its voyage, becoming the first steamboat to travel on the Mississippi River. Although the New Orleans did not venture upriver, the settlements the crew passed would have looked similar to this 1841 painting of south St. Louis.
View of Carondelet; South St. Louis, by John Caspar Wild, 1841. Watercolor and gouache on paper. From the collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
Just 8 days after their departure the infamous New Madrid earthquake struck. The earthquake completely transformed the Mississippi River and its landmarks, making navigation much more difficult and dangerous. The boat was 200 miles away from the earthquake’s epicenter in New Madrid when it hit. The crew reported feeling the shock, but the boat was cushioned from damage by the water. The small river towns they passed, however, were devastated. Villagers begged to be taken aboard, but the crew had to refuse. They lacked the provisions needed to feed the refugees.
Sketches of Louisville and its environs, by Henry McMurtrie, 1819. The appendix of this publication includes a detailed account of the earthquake pulled from the papers of J. Brookes.
 From the collections of the Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library.
Journal of a Passage from St. Louis to New Orleans, by Henry Drinker, 1812. This is a handwritten copy of the original journal, created in 1878 by Rebecca Drinker’s nephew. It includes a detailed first-hand account of Drinker’s trip down the Mississippi River by canoe, including his experience of the New Madrid earthquake. From the collections of the Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library.
After a remarkably eventful journey, the New Orleans steamed into her namesake city on January 10, 1812. Lydia’s half-brother, John Latrobe, later detailed the New Orleans’ voyage in this 1871 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. He describes the construction of the boat, the dangerous passage over the falls, and how the people of Louisville humorously thought the Great Comet had fallen into the river when the New Orleans arrived.
The First Steamboat Voyage on the Western Waters, by John H.B. Latrobe, 1871.
From the collections of the Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library.
Despite the challenges, and against the odds, the New Orleans was a tremendous success. Fulton, Livingston, and Roosevelt proved steamboat travel on western waterways was possible. The wave of steamboats that flooded the region in the subsequent years helped create a national economy, drawing people and commerce to river cities throughout the West. The Pott Library recognizes this important waterways anniversary and invites you to use our collections to explore the story of the New Orleans and other milestones in river history on our Digital Library
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