The First Voyage

River Views™, a River Cruise Blog

american queen steamboat docked
The American Queen travels throughout the Deep South and the Heartland. She wanders as far north as Minneapolis/St. Paul, as far south as New Orleans, as far west as Pittsburgh and even journeys along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. The American Empress calls the Columbia and Snake rivers of the Pacific Northwest her home. Roughly 150 years ago, before train travel became more commonplace, the rivers were the nation’s lifeblood and their meandering paths the country’s veins of commerce. Prior to the invention of the steamboat, they were useful in only one direction: downstream.

Of all the areas that the American Queen Steamboat Company visits, the area between Pittsburgh and New Orleans is the most historic. It was along this route in 1811 that the first practical steamboat made its first voyage. Up until that point, flat boats were the only means of shipping goods along the river. They drifted with the current and those aboard used long poles to avoid obstacles and to move along in calm waters and the occasional eddy. If one made the journey from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, the boat never made a return trip upstream. It was dismantled and the wood sold for profit.

But things changed in 1811. A steamboat would make the journey south and would have the ability to load new cargo and then paddle upstream back to Pittsburgh. Her name was the New Orleans, and she changed everything. Without her, Samuel Clemens would never have become a steamboat pilot or become an author by the name of Mark Twain. Without her, neither the American Queen nor the American Empress would exist. Without her, cities like Memphis and St. Louis would be small towns rather than transportation hubs. Indeed, the New Orleans was a game changer.

The story started a bit earlier than 1811. Robert Fulton, an American inventor, was in Paris in 1803 to demonstrate a prototype steamboat. He was met with plenty of skepticism, but the American ambassador to France, Robert Livingston, was a fan. He found the financing for the project and orchestrated the demonstration of the new technology on the Seine River. On August 9, 1803, Fulton overcame a bad illness, a storm that flooded the boat a few days earlier, and French skeptics as his odd little craft with its flailing paddlewheels proceeded down a stretch of the Seine and then, miraculously, back up again.

Looking toward their homeland, both Fulton and Livingston saw in the vast rivers of the United States the possibility of transforming river travel. In 1810, construction began in Pittsburgh on what would be the New Orleans. No expense was spared to make certain she was a safe, well-built boat. The hull was white oak, the boilers copper. The finished product, painted a sky blue, was 116 feet long or only about one quarter the length of the American Queen. She had just two decks and would comfortably fit on the American Queen’s Sun Deck. On October 20, 1811, the little New Orleans set out for an adventure that would pave the way for thousands of riverboats in the years ahead.

As the New Orleans traveled down the Ohio River she was met by both wonder and fear. Pulling into cities such as Cincinnati, she was the subject of curious exploration among the citizens. Louisville organized a banquet in honor of her arrival. Sailing through the vast stretches of wilderness on either side of the river in other areas, the local Indians and fur traders retreated in terror at the site of the mad monster belching sparks and black smoke splashing water wildly from its paddlewheels.

It should be noted that the journey was undertaken to demonstrate the feasibility of steamboat travel on American rivers, and not for the sake of speed. When boatbuilder Nicholas Roosevelt’s wife, Lydia, gave birth in Louisville, they decided to spend a month there and didn’t depart again until December 1, 1811. The first steamboat voyage was not without its unexpected surprises. While tied up near the tiny hamlet of Yellow Banks, Kentucky, a massive earthquake struck. Though the New Orleans was tossed as the river rippled and bluffs collapsed, she survived unscathed. But her reputation took a bit of a beating; the local settlers thought the steamboat caused the disaster and even went so far as to call it an “instrument of the devil.” A comet in the night sky didn’t do the boat any favors further downriver when observers thought that the flames shooting from the smokestacks was the comet skimming across the river. Nonetheless, the New Orleans was afforded a hero’s welcome when she finally arrived in New Orleans on January 12, 1812. Had it not been for the month-long maternity delay in Louisville and a delay due to the river course changes caused by the earthquake, she would have made pretty good time even by today’s measurement.

Of course, things have changed a bit since the New Orleans. The American Queen and American Empress do not belch black smoke or flames from her smokestacks thanks to modern propulsion, low-sulphur fuels (as opposed to the coal consumed by the New Orleans) and no one fears their arrival. Instead, they are greeted by smiling citizens, brass bands and hoopla in each charming port of call. The rattling, smoke-spewing New Orleans has given way to an infinitely more comfortable and luxurious way to see America. Passengers no longer take trips for transport, but instead for pleasure. The experience of travel on the rivers is vastly different than two centuries ago, but still owes a great debt to the New Orleans for getting the ball rolling with that first voyage.