On This Day (October 7th)


On this day in 1816, the steamboat Washington, with a Henry Miller Shreve-design shallow draft ideal for western rivers, arrives at the docks in New Orleans. Shreve’s cleverly conceived Washington had all the features that would soon come to characterize the classic Mississippi riverboat: a two-story deck, a stern-mounted paddle wheel powered by a high-pressure steam engine, a shallow, flat-bottomed hull, and a pilothouse framed by two tall chimneys.

This being America, once Shreve arrived in the Crescent City, he had to contend with law suits filed by the heirs of the Fulton-Livingston steamship monopoly. Abjuring a ruling on the merits, Judge Dominic Hall of the U.S. District Court dismissed the suits for lack of jurisdiction, clearing the way for a full steam ahead.

Soon the Washington began to offer regular passenger and cargo service between New Orleans and Louisville, steaming upstream at the then-dizzying speed of 16-mph and downstream at as much as 25-mph. With the brilliant success of the ship, other similarly designed steamboats followed. At the peak of the era of the paddle-wheelers in 1850, nearly 750 steamboats regularly moved up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, carrying three million passengers annually.

Later in his career, Shreve designed a “snagboat” to clear lumber and obstructions from rivers, and in 1832 was ordered in by Secretary of War (and former Michigan Territorial Governor) Lewis Cass to clear the Great Raft, 150 miles of dead wood on the Red River. Shreve successfully removed the Raft by 1839, and the area of the Red River where the Raft was most concentrated is today his namesake city of Shreveport, Louisiana.

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