New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
Monday, July 15, 2024
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1814 The Steamboat New Orleans Sinks

The first steamboat to descend the Mississippi and dock in New Orleans arrived on Jan. 12, 1812. It was appropriately called New Orleans.

Mastering the Mississippi was an idea conceived by Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston after the successful voyage of their steamboat, Clermont, in 1807. Having acquired a monopoly on steamboat operations in New York, the two fancied a similar situation on the Mississippi.

In May, 1809, Fulton hired Nicholas Roosevelt, an engine builder, to survey the mighty river and produce a feasibility study on the potential venture.

Roosevelt was a man of extraordinary skills and knowledge. He not only surveyed the river, but he also solved the problems of energy needs by lining up sources of coal along the way. His survey was completed seven months later, and Roosevelt’s positive report impressed Fulton and Livingston, who could see vast wealth in controlling the economy of the Mississippi River Valley.

Roosevelt and his wife established residence in the frontier town of Pittsburgh in the spring of 1811. At Beelens Iron Foundry, the keel for a steamboat was laid according to Fulton’s plans. It was to be 148 1/2 feet long and 32 1/2 feet wide with a draft of 12 feet. The engine was to have a 34-inch cylinder. In September of 1811, the boat, christened New Orleans, was ready for its trial run. When people heard that the New Orleans planned to travel upriver, as well as down, skeptics thought the idea was absurd.

On Oct. 1, the New Orleans reached Louisville. A large crowd had gathered – but not to see the boat. The comet of 1811 had been in the heavens and sounds of the steam engine attracted multitudes who thought the comet had fallen in the Ohio River and was making a sizzling sound.

Roosevelt was honored with a dinner ashore, and as usual, doubts concerning his going upriver against the current were expressed. On the next evening, Roosevelt had a dinner on board for honored guests, and while they were enjoying the meal, engines were started and the steamboat left its moorage. When guests reached topside, they were dumfounded to find the boat going upstream against the current! Doubting Thomases became instantaneous believers.

The real danger facing Roosevelt was not the current but the falls ahead in the Ohio River. Finally, the day of reckoning was at hand. Two extra pilots who knew the falls inside and out were engaged. As the boat entered the abyss, it dipped into swirling water. Spray whipped the decks and the engine roared. As if stabilized by a giant gyroscope, she spun around and righted herself. The vessel pitched to what seemed certain destruction but bobbed up again. Finally, over the ordeal, the New Orleans landed safely below the rapids.

There was little time for rejoicing. As the New Orleans tied up, the world seemed to tear itself at the seams. The ground heaved and shook; water rushed from bank to bank and, at one point, even flowed upstream! The strongest earthquake to ever affect the North American Continent – the New Madrid tragedy of 1811 – struck at the same time, as though it resented the intrusion of steam’s challenge of the Mississippi. Roosevelt and the New Orleans rode out the night of horror and only through great effort was his boat kept on an even keel.

Beyond the falls and the earthquake were the Indians. Shouting war whoops, they tried to attack the spark-spitting monster they thought was responsible for making the ground shake. As arrows were scraped from the hull, a servant in the forward cabin inadvertently started a fire. Before it could be extinguished, a sizable amount of damage had resulted, but still the New Orleans headed to her destination of the Crescent City.

Neither falls nor earthquake, Indians nor fire could stop the craft. The balance of the trip was without incident. The first steamboat to reach the Port of New Orleans arrived on Jan. 12, 1812. Thereafter used in New Orleans-to-Natchez trade, the New Orleans established the Fulton-Livingston claim to their monopoly.

In operation until July 13, 1814, the historic vessel hit a submerged stump near Baton Rouge. Trying to break loose she took on water and sank to the bottom of the river.

Source: Buddy Stall at