The First Steamboat Voyage on the Western Waters

by J. H. B. Latrobe




Louisville . . . was reached on the night of the fourth day after leaving Pittsburg. It was midnight on the first of October, 1811, that the New Orleans dropped anchor opposite the town. There was a brilliant moon. It was as light as day almost, and no one on board had retired. The roar of the escaping steam, then heard for the first time at the place where, now, its echoes are unceasing, roused the population, and, late as it was, crowds came rushing to the bank of the river to learn the cause of the unwonted uproar. A letter now before nme, written by one of those on board, at the time, records the fact -- that there were those who insisted that the comet of 1811


had fallen into the Ohio and had produced the hubbub! The morning after the arrival of the vessel at Louisville, Mr. Roosevelt's acquaintances and others came on board, and here the same things were said that had been said at Cincinnati. Congratulations at having descended the river were, without exception, accompanied by regrets that it was the first and last time a steamboat would be seen above the falls of the Ohio. Still, so far, certainly, Mr. Roosevelt's promises had been fulfilled; and there was a public dinner given to him a few days after his arrival. Here any number of complimentary toasts were drunk, and the usual amount of good feeling on such occasions was manifested. <i>Sed revocare gradum,</i> however, was still the burden of the song. Not to be outdone in hospitality, Mr. Roosevelt invited his hosts to dine on board the New Orleans, which still lay anchored opposite the town. The company met in the forward or gentlemen's cabin, and the feast was at its height, when suddenly there were heard unwonted rumblings, accompanied by a very perceptible motion in the vessel. The company had but one idea. The New Orleans had escaped from her anchor, and was drifting towards the Falls, to the certain destruction of all on board. There was an instant and simultaneous rush to the upper deck, when


the company found, that, instead of drifting towards the Falls of the Ohio, the New Orleans was making good headway up the river and would soon leave Louisville in the distance down stream. As the engine warmed to its work, and the steam blew off at the safety valve, the speed increased. Mr. Roosevelt, of course, had provided this mode of convincing his incredulous guests, and their surprise and delight may readily be imagined. After going up the river for a few miles, the New Orleans returned to her anchorage. It had been intended, on leaving Pittsburg, to proceed as rapidly as possible to New Orleans, to place the boat on the route for which it was designed, between that city and Natchez. It was found, however, on reaching Louisville, that there was not a sufficient depth of water on the Falls of the Ohio to permit the vessel to pass over them in safety. Nothing was to be done, therefore, but to wait, as patiently as possible, for a rise in the river. That this delay might, as far as practicable, be utilized, to the extent, at least, of convincing the incredulous Cincinnatians, the New Orleans returned to that city, where she was greeted with an enthusiasm that exceeded, even, what was displayed on her descent from Pittsburg. No one doubted now. In 1832, I was detained for several days in Cincinnati, on my return from a visit to the South. There were


numbers, then alive, who remembered the first advent of steam, and from some of these I learned what is here stated in regard to the public feeling at the time - the universal incredulity of the first visit - the unbounded confidence inspired by the second. Returning to Louisville, the great interest of all on board the New Orleans centred in watching the rise in the Ohio. Rain in the upper country was what was wanted, and of this there seemed small promise. There was nothing in the aspect of the Heavens that indicated it. On the contrary, there was a dull misty sky without a cloud - a leaden atmosphere that weighed upon the spirits, and the meaning of which would have been better understood at Naples under the shadow of Vesuvius, than on the banks of the Ohio. The sun, when it rose, looked like a globe of red hot iron, whose color brightened at noon, to resume the same look when it sank below the horizon. All day long, one might have gazed on it with unflinching eyes. The air was still and heated; and a sense of weariness was the characteristic of the hours as they wore slowly by. At last, and when a nervous impatience affected every one on board, it was announced, one morning, that there had been a rise in the river during the night. There was another announcement of a very different character. Mrs. Roosevelt had, for the second


time, become a mother. The events of the voyage were certainly multiplying. Fortunately, this addition to the passengers happened when the New Orleans was necessarily detained in port. Morning after morning, the rise in the river during the night was reported; and finally, in the last week in November, it was ascertained that the depth of water in the shallowest portion of the Falls, exceeded by five inches the draught of the boat. It was a narrow margin. But the rise had ceased: there was no telegraph in those days to tell hourly what was the weather in the country drained by the Ohio; and Mr. Roosevelt, assuring himself personally of the condition of the Falls, determined to take the responsibility and go over them if he could. It was an anxious time. All hands were on deck. Mrs. Roosevelt, whom her husband would willingly have left behind to join him below the Falls, refused to remain on shore, and stood near the stern. The two pilots, for an extra one had been engaged for the passage through the rapids, took their places in the bow. The anchor was weighed. To get into the Indiana channel, which was the best, a wide circuit had to be made bringing her head down stream, completing which, the New Orleans began the descent. Steerage way depended upon her speed exceeding that of the current. The faster she could be made to go, the easier would it be to guide her. All


the steam the boiler would bear was put upon her. The safety valve shrieked: The wheels revolved faster than they had ever done before; and the vessel, speaking figuratively, fairly flew away from the crowds collected to witness her departure from Louisville. Instinctively, each one on board now grasped the nearest object, and with bated breath awaited the result. Black ledges of rock appeared only to disappear as the New Orleans flashed by them. The waters whirled and eddied, and threw their spray upon the deck, as a more rapid descent caused the vessel to pitch forward to what at times seemed inevitable destruction. Not a word was spoken. The pilots directed the men at the helm by motions of their hands. Even the great Newfoundland dog seemed affected by the apprehension of danger, and came and crouched at Mrs. Roosevelt's feet. The tension on the nervous system was too great to be long sustained. Fortunately, the passage was soon made; and, with feelings of profound gratitude to the Almighty, at the successful issue of the adventure, on the part of both Mr. Roosevelt and his wife, the New Orleans rounded to in safety below the Falls. There was still the same leaden sky-the same dim sun during the daythe same starless night; - - but the great difficulty had been overcome, and it was believed that there would now, be nothing but plain sailing to the


port of destination.


[Note that J. H. B. Latrobe was Lydia (Latrobe) Roosevelt's brother, and he consulted her as he was writing this history of their 1811-1812 voyage.
The full text of his history is available through the University of Michigan's Digital Library Production Service.]

Steamboat Adventure
Made possible by the Rivers Institute and the
History Department of Hanover College.


How to cite this article:  J.H.B. Latrobe, The First Steamboat Voyage on the Western Waters (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1871), p. 16-21, available at