Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The steamboat venerated

Steamboat legacy to be celebrated in New Orleans

Richard Thompson, The Times-Picayune 
Two centuries ago, Capt. Nicholas Roosevelt set out to do something that no one had done before: Travel from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in the first steamboat to cross the country's inland waterways. With his wife, Lydia, a daughter, Rosetta, and a large Newfoundland dog named Tiger in tow, Roosevelt's journey started in October 1811. Three months later, the steamship New Orleans arrived in the Crescent City, as crowds gathered on the levee and watched the boat steam by.
Now, to mark the bicentennial anniversary of the historic voyage, the River Heritage Foundation and the Propeller Club of New Orleans are teaming up on Jan. 28, 2012, for a full day to reflect on the trip and the legacy of the steamboat, including a symposium at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside hotel, a reenactment of Roosevelt's voyage, a river parade and a horse-and-carriage parade in the French Quarter, followed by a Mass at the St. Louis Cathedral and reception at the Cabildo.
From 1812 on, steamboats began crowding the country's waterways, turning the inland river system into a main route for commerce and westward migration. The waterways establish their place as "the highway that makes the region's economy work," said Mark Fernandez, an associate professor of early American and Southern history at Loyola University.
Fernandez will be on hand to talk about legal hurdles that the burgeoning industry faced early on. Court challenges were filed almost immediately after that first trip, with steamboat operators trying to establish and compete against local steamship monopolies. About a decade later, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and ruled that Congress' right to regulate interstate commerce trumped legislation that individual states could pass, putting an end to localized monopolies.
"That really just kind of opened up the whole bonanza to the riverboats and independent companies and free trade on the river," Fernandez said.
Before Roosevelt's voyage, the main means for transporting freight and passengers on inland waterways was by flatboat. Developed during the late colonial era, flatboats easily floated downriver but struggled to move against the current, said Richard Campanella, a geographer and research assistant professor at Tulane University who recently wrote a book about teenage Abraham Lincoln guiding a flatboat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans in the 1820s.
"Steamboats solved that," Campanella said.
These days, outside of New Orleans, hoping aboard a steamboat can require some effort: Two are still in operation: the local steamboat Natchez, which offers cruises along the Mississippi River, and the Belle of Louisville, which is approaching its 100 year anniversary in 2014, said Chuck Parrish, a retired historian for the Army Corps of Engineers who is slated to discuss highlights since the steamboat New Orleans set sail at the symposium.
"We've seen the influence of steamboats in the culture of our country, especially through the development of music associated with the rivers," Parrish said. "Jazz music originated on steamboats, and Louis Armstrong got his start as a jazz musician on a steamboat."
American Cruise Lines, which specializes in small ship cruising, plans to debut its steamship Queen of the Mississippi next year, which will initially travel from New Orleans to Memphis with six stops along the way, including Baton Rouge and Natchez, Miss.
For his part, Parrish is betting that there's still a calling for it, likely from nostalgic travelers.
"I think many of them will jump at the chance again to experience that form of travel," he said. "Hopefully, if they do their marketing right, they will attract folks who will look at it as a new form of opportunity of tourism and travel as well."
Fernandez agreed, and said he hoped that the day's events could get others to stop and think about the history of the ships.
"I think, especially among younger generations, the awareness of steam and its power is probably not very well recognized. Ancient history, to them, is the floppy disk, and so much of our commerce today is on the Internet," he said. "I think a lot of Americans really don't think about it."
Richard Thompson can be reached at or 504.826.3496.
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