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1811 The year of the steamboat and earthquake

In the fall of 1811 a dramatic event took place on the Ohio River that would change the course of a nation and open up its interior to expansion and commerce.

On an a crisp, October day an ugly, cumbersome behemoth lumbered down the river, belching smoke and making a noise “like the firing of a gun”. As it passed cities and towns along the river, reactions were quite mixed. In Madison, some men were fishing off the bank of the river when they saw the contraption round the point. They “immediately dropped everything they had with them and made haste for town. They ran until out of breath and then hid under some logs for a time. But finally, becoming more alarmed, they broke from cover and ran through the woods, entering the town streets in wild excitement, crying that the Indians were coming up the river.”

Further downstream, with tensions at a boiling point and war imminent, many thought it was an invasion by the British. Still others thought it had to do with the visitation of a great comet observed in the night skies. It was instead, the first voyage of a steamboat down the Ohio.

Built in Pittsburgh by Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston, the “floating teakettle” was on an exploratory trip down the Western rivers with New Orleans as its destination, even adopting that city’s name for its own.

Some took the boat to be a bad omen, and perhaps their conclusions were born out when the great earthquake of 1811 occurred. The major quake was of such proportions that it forced the Ohio River to reverse its course for a time and it formed a heretofore unknown lake in Kentucky. Bells rang in church belfries as far away as Boston and the Mississippi and Ohio rivers were substantially changed both in the course of their channels and in physical appearance.

We do not know how people in Madison fared during the earthquake but we do know that it soon embraced the steamboat. In a few short years Madison would become a profitable river city, receiving and shipping out such a myriad of products as would rival the great ports in the East. Spices and silks from the Orient and fine china from England would be piled high next to flour barrels and hogsheads of pork on the levee. Products of every description were moved on and off of the dozens of boats jockeying for position at the wharves while hundreds of passengers embarked and arrived. Warehouses and hotels crowded the riverfront and the town expanded from east to west and pushed at the hills to the north. None of the awed spectators who watched the first little steamboat make its torturous way down the river could have foretold what changes it would bring.

Internet: River to Rail
Internet: Nicholas Roosevelt’s 1811 Steamboat New Orleans (rtf document)
Internet: New Orleans Steamboat)
Internet: Steamboat Times
MJCPL: Fifty Years on the Mississippi by Emerson W. Gould