|In order to fully understand the significant role steam powered riverboats, (sternwheelers & sidewheelers) played in America's development, we
first need to have a clear "mental picture" of exactly what "America" looked like just before and during those wonderful "Riverboat Glory Days".
Compared to today, the 1800's were really rough & tough times. There were no telephones, much less cell phones. There were no computers,
no Internet, and no e-mail. In fact for most of it and most people, there was no electricity. That meant, no radio, no TV, no cars, very few roads, no
trains, no planes, no malls, no microwaves, and no Starbucks, and of course, no Facebook. In fact, not coffee, not tea, but beer was America's #1
American history (until recently) gave all the credit for the invention of the steamboat to Robert Fulton.
Lately however, John Fitch has been getting his fair share. But, there is the question of who should get the credit -
someone that does it and fails? Or someone that does it and succeeds?
Fitch failed, and did so rather miserably. Fitch's biggest mistake may have been claiming the vessel "and the
steam engine" (both) as his inventions. Fitch however was obviously unaware that Ben Franklin not only personally
knew James Watt who invented the steam engine, but Franklin was also responsible for the establishment of the US
Fitch of course, did not invent the steam engine, and therefore Ben Franklin put the nix on Fitch's ability to
convince Congress to give him any money or exclusive rights as was customary for the government to do to
inventors for things considered to be good for the Public or Nation.
History might have been written differently, had Fitch not tried to claim he invented the
steam engine, or had not argued with Ben Franklin.
As a boy, Fitch would have nothing to do with school. His own parents ran him off the family's farm at the age of
19. He then apprenticed himself to a local Clockmaker in Connecticut. He argued with his boss, quit, and then
apprenticed himself to a Metalsmith and repeated his behavior. Then again, he did the same thing with a
Silversmith. After that, he left Connecticut and went to New Jersey and set himself up as a Goldsmith. Accused ot
stealing from customers, and to escape his debt, he left New Jersey and went to Kentucky. There, he again was
accused of stealing gold and silver from his customers.
To escape prosecution and his accusers, Fitch joined the Continental Army. But soon enough, he was caught
up in a turmoil there too, accusing his superior officers of being idiots and derelicts. He deserted and went to W.
Virginia and found work at a surveying company. While working for the surveying company, he began selling beer
and tobacco to Indians; and this, may have been his life's most lucrative venture; until the Indians decided they
didn't want him around, captured him and traded him to the British. The British soon discovered they made a bad
trade and turned Fitch loose. It was at this point in life, in 1785, at age 43, John Fitch, claimed he had the idea
to build a steamboat.
Years later, after his death; discovered in Fitch's own memoirs, Fitch mentions he "returned to Bucks County KY
and dug up the gold and silver he had "hidden" and used that money to build his paddle-wheeled steamboat. So
with stolen money, in 1787; Fitch was able to demonstrate a 3 mph trial run of a 45-ft. steam-powered
paddle-wheeled craft on the Delaware River. As customary, Representatives from Congress were present to witness
It wasn't until Ben Franklin died, that In 1791 - John Fitch (without claim to having invented the steam
engine) finally received a U.S. patent for a paddle-wheeled propulsion, steam-engine powered boat. But,
congress would not give him any money, and his "steamboat" business failed before it ever got off to a start. In
1798 - as a very biased, full of hate and bitter man, John Fitch committed suicide... It would be another 19
years before Robert Fulton demo's his Clermont.
|Do you know?
What does Coke Cola
Geronimo, and the
Statue of Liberty have
Just what - in 1827 -
really made all the
young men "Go West"?
What really wonderful
White House amenity
did Pres. B. Harrison
have (but never use)
that today - we can't
are there no actual
photographs prior to
It wasn't until 1829
when John Quincey Adams
(our 6th President)
became the first President
to actually be
Prior to this, camera's
expensive, difficult, and
unreliable, and the
"images" they took were
not permanent and slowly
disappeared - therefore
they were then simply
traced, or painted over
in-order to preserve the
All these answers...
are on the following
pages on the
history of the
Do you know the
that enjoyed these
In the scheme of things, 1803 America - was really not that long ago. My Dad (for example) was born in 1898. His
Dad in 1875, and my Dad's Grandfather was born in 1848 the year of the first wagon train to California, and his Dad in
1814, the year the British burned the White House.
So in my family, just 5 generations take us back in history to when the first successfully steam powered riverboat (the
"New Orleans") was the most popular form of travel not only on the Mississippi river, but in the USA.
The population in the United States (all 13 of them) in 1803 was just under 5 million and three-fourths of
them lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic ocean. There were only five "popular & frequently" used routes of
travel used by anyone, and they were:
NYC to Albany - 155 miles - and normally took 6 days.
Philadelphia to Raleigh - 421miles - and usually took 20-25 days.
Raleigh to Atlanta - 407 miles - which took 24 days or longer.
Harpers Fairy to Pittsburgh - 512 miles - which took 30 days.
New Orleans to St. Louis was a hard 6 month trip.
All these "routes" were little more than sandy, muddy, bumpy, rugged, and worn trails. Because of the condition of
these routes, or trails; the use of a wagon, did not get the traveler to his destination any faster than walking. In fact,
walking was usually the faster and preferred mode of travel... Wagons and horses were used mainly to help carry the
|1803 - America
In 1803, no one but Indians lived west of the Mississippi; and all the land north from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada,
and from the Mississippi west to the Rockies, belonged to France.
American consumers in Boston, Philadelphia, NYC, Raleigh areas were paying an average of 5 cents per pound
each - for basic staples of beans, rice and flour, and 35 cents a lb. for coffee. While in St. Louis the population of
3,000 French settlers (from Canada) were paying $2.00 a lb. for coffee. Obviously, the demand for coffee exceeded
|So... It is no wonder why people
didn't travel very far from home.
It doesn't have to be boring...
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|Imagine. . . if you can. The Steamship "New Orleans" arriving in New Orleans for the very first time. . .
It would have been far bigger then any ship anyone had ever seen. In addition, it had no sails. And if that wasn't a miracle and
amazing enough - it also promised to take you and your family with all your belongings to St. Louis, in only 18 days. A trip that
previously would have taken you 6 months to a year.
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