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The Good Fortune and Tragedy of the Steamship New Orleans

By Tom Neale, 6/4/2014


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When we think of the early steamships, we think of the Clermont and even earlier creations. But there was one that fought her way through incredible odds and helped to change our country.

For centuries seamen have spoken of lucky ships and cursed ships. Legend and lore describe sure fire ways to cause one or the other. Changes in name, pursuit by an albatross, and departure on a Friday are but a few of the "bad luck" occurrences. There's one ship that not many have heard about. She had a remarkable life. You be the judge as to whether she was cursed or blessed.

The Steamship New Orleans was built to prove that a steamship could travel by river from Pittsburg to New Orleans. Its builder knew that if they could do this and make the public comfortable with this remarkable idea, such a ship could carry commerce and passengers and make money. These men were none other than Robert Fulton who built and sailed the Clermont in 1807 and Robert Livingston, a wealthy partner. Also involved was Nicholas Roosevelt, a wealthy steamship expert.

Deck Box
Steamship New Orleans photo of a replica.

The New Orleans was 26 feet wide and 148 feet long. She was powered by a 160 HP 34 cylinder steam engine that turned paddle wheels located amidships, pushing her at a max speed of 10 miles per hour. She began her voyage, from Pittsburg, on October 20, 1811. Aboard were Nicholas Roosevelt, six hands, two female servants for Mrs. Roosevelt, a waiter, a cook and a Newfoundland dog named Tiger. Also aboard was the river pilot, Andrew Jack, a young man who was to prove very valuable during the trip.

This was a very unusual time filled with not only "omens" but also true calamity. Some said the steamship would never have left Pittsburg if the people aboard knew all that was to be happening. But there was no TV back then, no internet, and fewer histrionic news media and ... well, things were different. People plowed on through life, often unwarned, doing the best they could. Such were the folks on the New Orleans which, despite remarkable events surrounding her voyage, plowed on downriver, survived it all and reached the city for which she was named on January 12, 1812.

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Steamship New Orleans artist rendition.

There were warnings aplenty, at least in the minds of the superstitious, and I hear there were a lot more superstitious in those days than there are now. In the spring of 1811 the Great Comet appeared, showing the brightest in October. There has been much written about it both speculative and factual, but the bottom line is that the world was very impressed and deservedly so. There was also a solar eclipse on September 17, not long before the voyage began. It was a total eclipse in the region, and those events weren't taken lightly. And, if that wasn't enough, the summer and fall of 1811 brought a massive squirrel migration, with thousands and thousands of the rodents "fleeing" southward. Their flight was so urgent, for whatever reason, that they'd even try to swim rivers in their way ... and squirrels really aren't swimmers.

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Tom's Tips On Changes

1. If you're on the water you can't expect things to stay the same.

2. This doesn't include just weather. The bottom, the shores and landmarks change regularly, sometimes overnight. It's a fluid situation.

3. Some changes are rapid as from hurricanes. Some are gradual as from slow river erosion.

4. These changes mean that we always have to be alert to where the bottom is. Charts and GPS and Aids to Navigation are never enough. Learned skills and careful observation are still a part of the equation, like they were in olden days, when the steamship sailed down the river in an earthquake.

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The landmark trip for this ship was difficult enough without the uneasiness that many must have felt because of all the strange happenings. However, the ship not only departed, but persistently headed down river. Early in her trip she had to pass through a two mile set of dangerous rapids on the Ohio River below Louisville. They waited for the water to rise high enough and then the skilled river pilot miraculously maneuvered this unwieldy vessel between the rocks, over the deep spots, through a maelstrom of powerful swirling currents, without damage.

And let's not leave out earthquakes. During a coal stop, on Dec 11, the first of a series of catastrophic earthquakes occurred. Called the New Madrid earthquakes, there were three major quakes. Seismology measurements weren't as accurate as they are now, but it is reported that they were approximately 8.0 magnitudes, at 3 AM, 8 AM and 11 AM. Later ones struck on the 23rd of January (reported at 8.4 magnitude) and the 7th of February in 1812 (8.8 magnitude). During a quake the New Orleans fled down river, at one point anchoring behind an island for protection from racing debris, to find the next morning that the island had been swallowed up and was gone. Familiar piloting landmarks were gone. People on the ship could see trees trembling and ground shifting and heaving on the shore as they passed between the banks. Survivors in villages along the river cried out to be taken aboard. At places the river bottom heaved up, according to many reports, making the waters flow backwards and causing major flooding. They reported that at one point a huge chasm opened in the river ahead and the ship had to find its way around, to keep from going down in it, travelling over what had been dry land now just flooded. The ship survived these massive earthquakes. Then later in the trip, local Chickasaw Indians, according to reports, apparently believing that this "fire canoe" was the cause of earthquakes, headed out into the river to attack her with bows and arrows. The steamship just barely pulled away from the speeding war canoes.

But despite all this, she made it and we know the rest. Soon magnificent steamships would be traveling the river, reaping the harvest that she had proven could be sewn. And what about her future?

After surviving all these potential disasters, and having benefited from such skilled piloting and, yes, perhaps from a fair measure of good luck (which some would say was the making of good people) disaster happened But it was several years later. On July 14, 1814 she tied alongside at a landing to take on a load of wood for fuel. A huge thunderstorm came bringing a deluge of rain. The ship remained over for the night, its captain wisely not wishing to put out into the flooding river in the dark. With this amount of rain it sometimes happened that the river would become so swollen that the waters racing down the main channel would actually suck waters out of the bank areas. This happened and the New Orleans settled on a stump that had remained hidden ... no one knows for how long ... on the bottom. The stump holed her and there she died.

Despite her incredible history of being guided by good seamanship and good luck, and surviving what many of the day considered to be omens of disaster, as well as true calamity, she sank in a freak accident.

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