Flatboat and Keelboat Age: 1750-1811
earliest days, settlers coming to this area, along with armies and traders
who were just passing through, faced the enormous challenge of crossing
Pennsylvania's tough terrain. In the mid-1700s, settlement of Western
Pennsylvania was a full 100 years behind the eastern part of the state.
In the meantime, Philadelphia was the second-largest English speaking
city in the world! The land at the fork of the Allegheny, Monongahela
and Ohio Rivers, by contrast, was a frontier outpost inhabited by Native
Americans, and French and British fur traders.
British and French troops recognized the significance of this land at
the "Forks of the Ohio," as they called it, and armies from
each side fought to control the river post during the French
and Indian War. Whoever controlled the river post would control
the people and commerce that depended on it for travel.
this power struggle to control the "Gateway to the West" led
to the settlement of the city called Pittsburgh. The first fort at the
rivers' fork was Fort Prince George, a British holding, whose site was
chosen in 1758 by a young George Washington. In 1755 the French
descended on the tiny fort by canoe, capturing it without bloodshed
then built the larger Fort Duquesne. After General Braddock's failed
attempts to cross the mountains with a big enough army to recapture
the Forks, the British under General Forbes finally took possession
of it in 1758. To firmly establish their control of the interior, they
built a then state-of-the-art fortress, Fort Pitt, name after William
Pitt, Britain's Prime Minister. The small village of Pittsburgh grew
around the fort.
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to control Pittsburgh's rivers was not without good reason, at least
from the standpoint of economics. Difficult as it may be to imagine,
the challenges of travel over the mountains isolated Pittsburgh from
the East Coast, and Pittsburgh was akin to the "frontier,"
an untamed outpost, in short, the wild west. Shipping goods the 300
miles from Philadelphia to isolated Pittsburgh was a dangerous, time-consuming,
thus expensive endeavor. Waggoners charged $5 (equivalent to $40 today)
to ship 100 pounds--even something as simple as mailing a letter from
Pittsburgh to Philly cost 37 cents! Such isolation inspired Pittsburghers
to become more self-sufficient.
As the old
saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention and because
Pittsburghers needed goods and services, they invented new businesses
right there in their own small town capable of supplying them. Skilled
craftsmen emerged to take the raw materials produced by the region's
many farmers and turn them into new goods. Wool became cloth, grain
became alcohol, and livestock provided the materials for everything
from meat to leather to lard. Since travel via the "Western Waters"
was much easier than overland, craftsmen soon realized they could ship
and sell these goods to people who lived even further down river
and so it was that Pittsburgh earned nickname, "Gateway to the
and outfitting boats became Pittsburgh's first big business, concentrated
primarily on the shores of the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh's Point.
Inexpensive flatboats, essentially large (20-100 feet long and 12-20
feet wide) rafts with a shelter on deck, were powered solely by river
current and steered with a 30-40 foot oar at the back. They provided
strictly one-way travel. Settlers using flatboats would break them up
at the end of their journey to use as building material. Freight-haulers,
who charged $1 per 100 pounds, would sell both the freight and the boat
in St. Louis or New Orleans, then walk back to Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks
Flatboat in the foreground is is dependent mostly on the current to
move downstream while the keelboat can be poled down and
were more sophisticated boats that could navigate both down and back
upstream. They were 40-80 feet long and 7-10 feet wide and had pointed
ends, rounded bottoms and keels that helped them cut through the water.
that moved the boats on the river was human energy, in the form of men
using long poles to propel and steer. On a trip down river, flatboat
operators were assisted by the current, and could make the 1950-miles
to New Orleans in four - six weeks. Keel boatmen, on the other hand,
fought the current on the trip back to Pittsburgh, so the return trip
upstream took four months!
amount of sheer human energy and endurance required to operate those
boats. For perspective, recall how your arms felt the last time you
took up a new exercise program. Didn't those biceps feel a little achy
the next day? Now try to imagine that you are the operator of a keel
boat, navigating your vessel back up the Ohio, against the current.
For four months you walk the length of the boat, using a long pole in
the water to force your way forward, inch by inch. When you reach the
far end of the boat, you turn around and walk to the front again with
your pole, and you start the process all over again. You do this for
twelve, perhaps fourteen, hours a day. In sweltering heat or freezing
rain. For four months.
Many of the
keel boat operators were Scotch-Irish, a new immigrant group in America,
who made their way west to avoid discrimination in the more settled
eastern cities. To pass the time on the river, and perhaps to pay tribute
to their own strength and endurance looked down upon by "genteel"
of English descent, keel boat operators began the tradition of "brags."
Boat operators engaged in shouting matches across the river, bragging
over their accomplishments. Did these accomplishments perhaps get inflated,
embellished, for the sake of the "brag?" Definitely! A typical
river "brag" often extended to wild claims about the men's
prowess in fights, drinking, and romantic exploits!
keel boat operator was Mike Fink, born in Pittsburgh in 1776.
Fink was an accomplished "bragger," and it's said that his
biggest rival on the river was none other than Davy
Crockett! His brags have been passed down through history and
today he is accorded folk hero status, much like the well-known legend
The steamboat age 1811-1930
both directions on the river became a much easier and practical prospect
in 1811, when Robert
Fulton and Nicholas
Roosevelt (of the Roosevelt family that eventually produced
the Presidents) built the New Orleans the first steamboat on western
waters in Pittsburgh.
Collection of Susan Donley
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks
Postcard of the steam sternwheeler Harriet passing the Fulton Building, named for the inventor of the steam paddleoboat.
Ad for packet service (the equivalent of UPS) on the Steamer Lorena.
to the West moved west--first to Cincinnati, then to Louisville, and
St. Louis as settlement moved west. Shipbuilding and the shipping of
goods continued to flourish in Pittsburgh, however, as steam ships made
river travel more reliable, the rivers themselves remained seasonably
unpredictable. In order for a river to be considered navigable, it had
to have a clear channel at least nine feet deep. Summer droughts, spring floods, winter ice.
. . all managed to thwart river travelers and hamper commerce. Boats
would cluster at Brownsville and Pittsburgh awaiting the spring thaw
when water rose high and current flowed swift. Even during favorable
seasons, keeping an open channel required the continual labor of dredging
sandbars and removing tree snags.
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