WQED changes Lives
shop WQED


Western PA History Bridges and Buildings Rivers and Valleys Folks in Community The Arts Having Fun

FYIRolling on the Rivers

Water transportation on the three rivers

Flatboats and Keelboat Age

Steamboat Age

Taming the Rivers

Rivers and Valleys


Making mountains
Rolling on rivers<
Moving mountains
Burgh & burbs
Cleaning up

Related video
Discussion & activities

The Flatboat and Keelboat Age: 1750-1811

From its 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.

Still, both 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.

In fact, 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.

video icon Related video stories:

The tug-of-war 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 West."

Building 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.

Drawing of flat boat and keelboat
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 upstream.

Keel boats, 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.

The energy 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!

Imagine the 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!

One such 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 of Paul Bunyan.

The steamboat age 1811-1930

Travel in 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.

Postcard of Steamboat passing the Fulton Building
Collection of Susan Donley

Packet service ad

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

TOP: Postcard of the steam sternwheeler Harriet passing the Fulton Building, named for the inventor of the steam paddleoboat.

BOTTOM: Ad for packet service (the equivalent of UPS) on the Steamer Lorena.

The Gateway 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.

video icon Related video stories:

"Taming" the rivers: Locks and dams

To make upstream coal shipments easier, a private company "canalized" the Monongehela in the late 1830s with locks and dams. The towboat--a steamer moving barges beside or in front of it--was developed to push barges up and down the sluggish "pools" between the dams. On the Ohio, the Army Engineers built training walls—dikes jutting from the shore—to force the meager summer flow into navigable channels. Dams for the river were under discussion in the 1870s, but none had been built. Reliability along the Allegheny and Ohio awaited the 20th century.

Postcard of coal fleets on the Mon
Collection of Susan Donley

1909 postcard "Coal fleets ready to go South, Pittsburgh, PA."

The Army Corps of Engineers took over the lock and dam system on the Monongahela in 1897 and continued to work on the canalizing the Ohio and the Allegheny, a process that continued into the 1930s. The result was "pools" at least nine-feet of water year-round, deep enough for navigating towboats and barges. In the past, drought could interrupt navigation for weeks. Locks raised and lowered boats from one river level to the another.

Postcard of Lock #1 on the Mon
Collection of Susan Donley

Postcard of Lock #1 on the Monongahela (c1910) by this time under the control of the Army Corps of Engineers.

video icon Related video stories:

Floods periodically ravaged riverside communities--devastating ones occurred in 1907 and 1936. Waters always ran high in the spring--as they still do. When upstream ice thawed, broke up, floated downstream, and jammed, they created temporary dams that packed up melting snow. Waters rose behind the ice jam, then when it broke loose, could cause flash floods of water flowing at dangerous volumes. If rain coincided with the spring thaw (and rain is always on western Pennsylvania's spring agenda!), the rivers could overflow their banks and demonstrate the awesome power of moving water. This is exactly what happened to cause Pittsburgh's legendary 1936 St. Patrick's Day Flood, the worst in the city's history. Waters rose to the second stories Downtown, engulfing streetcars so that only their roofs crested above the waters!

Postcard of the Mon Wharf during the 1936 Flood

Collection of Susan Donley

Postcards of the Mon Wharf and Penn Avenue during the 1936 Flood.

After the costly disaster of the 1936 Flood, the Army Corps of engineers began building a series of flood control dams on many of the streams that fed the rivers. The dams hold back potential flood water in artificial lakes., then when the threat of flood is over, the water is slowly released from the dams. Those artificial lakes, like Loyalhanna and Crooked Creek, in the meantime, provide recreational opportunities for boating, water-skiing, fishing, and swimming. When Hurricane Agnes dumped torrential rains in 1972, these flood control dams kept damage to a fraction of what it would have been without--almost certainly a replay of the 1936 Flood. Like most things, though, there is a cost: when Kinzua Dam was built in the 1960s the lake it created flooded one of Pennsylvania's last remaining Native American communities and forced them to move.

video icon Related video stories:


[Previous] Making Mountains
Teachers' Guide Home