Editor's note: This story was originally printed in the Hannibal Courier-Post during the newspaper's 100th anniversary edition in 1938.
Water has played an important part in the development of Missouri. There is a little more than one acre of running water to 100 acres of land. Water is a big factor in the transportation problems of this as well as other states in the great valley, for the Mississippi river forms the line on which the rates on east and west shipments are based.
"Old Man River," the Mississippi, "just keeps rolling along "and forms the boundaries of the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, lowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and a part of Louisiana.
As the great "Father of Waters" bounds this state on the east so the mighty Missouri known to the Indians as "The Big Muddy," sweeping down from the Northwest, forms part of the state's western boundary, and then, turning east, its waters cut across this great commonwealth and combine with the Mississippi and the united streams move swiftly into the Gulf of Mexico.
Water navigation forms an interesting chapter of Missouri history and, step by step, from the barge operated by oarsmen, assisted by mast and sail, to the modern steamboat, the development of river transportation has been steady. Today, boats powered by Diesel engines, push monster barges, loaded with various kinds of merchandise, and raw products, up and down the navigable streams.
Tuesday, April 2, 1811, a fur trading barge set out from St. Charles, then a mere village, up the Missouri river. This barge was manned by twenty oarsmen, and the boat was commanded by a former sea captain. In addition to a swivel gun on the bow of the boat, which in case of an attack, would make a formidable appearance, the vessel also contained two brass blunderbuses. The great part of the merchandise carried consisted of blankets, lead, tobacco, knives, guns and beads, and this cargo was concealed in a false cabin, ingeniously contrived for the purpose of presenting, as little as possible, to tempt the warlike Sioux Indians. In the early days many other boats of this nature plied the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
Turns Down Monopoly
Robert Fulton, of steamboat fame, and his colleague, Robert R. Livingston in 1810, asked "The Honorable Legislature of Upper Louisiana" for the exclusive privilege of building and operating boats propelled by steam," on the Missouri and Mississippi river, for a period of years, The petitioners explained that New York, to encourage the establishment of steamboats on the waters of the state, had granted them the exclusive right to navigate boats propelled by steam, and that two steamers, "the North River steamboat," running 160 miles between New York and Albany, and the "Car of Neptune," also plying between the two cities, were being operated by the company. The memorial further stated that a colleague had made an examination of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and thought that steamboats could successfully navigate the streams.
The petition was presented October 10 and was ordered to "lie on the table October 23,1910, when it was considered and referred to the next Missouri legislature, sitting at St. Louis"- and this legislature did not accept the proposition.
The Zebulon Pike was the first steamboat to reach St. Louis. It was built like a barge. When the current was rapid the crew used poles to assist the steampower. The steamer ran only during the daylight hours and plied between St Louis and Louisville, Kentucky. It required four weeks to make the round trip. This steamer was such an object of curiosity that the management charged persons who wished to come aboard and look it over, a dollar apiece for the privilege. Frequent]y the boat was crowded with sightseers. The Pike made 3 3/4 miles an hour against the Ohio river current.
The steamer St. Louis was built on the Ohio river a year after the Pike began making its regular trips. The St. Louis was sent to the city for which it was named' and soon after its arrival a number of leading citizens of the metropolis of Missouri, were invited on a sightseeing trip north to the mouth of the Missouri river.
In May 1819 the steamer "Maid of Orleans," started from Philadelphia, out on the Atlantic ocean, around Florida, through the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans and then steamed up the river and into the Port of St. Louis. This boat attracted widespread attention.
When Missouri entered the union there was not a steamboat owned in the state end navigation, above St. Louis, was by barge.
In 1849, during the gold fever rush, something like 75 steamers were plying on the Mississippi river from St. Louis north.
The General Putnam
The first steamboat to ascend the Mississippi river from St. Louis to a point above Louisiana, was the General Putnam. This was a sternwheeler and was without a cabin. It had only one smokestack. The Putnam carried an outfit of axes and at various points the steamer would tie up at the bank and the crew would go out and cut timber for fuel.
In the early days lumber rafting was a great industry. Rafts containing thousands of logs would be brought down the river from the north and, at Hannibal, the rafts would tie up and the logs would be taken from the river and sawed into lumber in the big mills, which operated day and night. This lumber would then be piled in huge stacks or loaded on 3 freight cars and shipped, south, west and southwest. Lumber yards, at that time, extended as far up the Bear creek bottom's as Oakwood. A huge saw mill was located on the river bank in what is now a part of the Burlington shop area. The river and logs made Hannibal a lumber center. Many of the inhabitants worked in the mills. When the rafts came down the river and were safely tied up to the bank near the mills, the logs would be placed on a carrier, one end of this carrier track was in the sawmill, the other end extending out into the river underneath the raft. In this way logs would be rapidly moved from the raft to the mill, and sawed into lumber. This lumber would then be loaded for various yards in the interior. It is said that logs floated down from the Wisconsin woods were sawed into lumber here and shipped to Texas and used in buildings in the "Lone Star" state, in more cities than one.
After steamers began to ply on the Mississippi river, north of Hannibal, boats would push huge rafts From the northland to the saw mill here. Lumber was also transported by barge from Hannibal to St. Louis, and one huge barge, it is said, would carry as much lumber as eight ordinary a trains operating out of here at that time.
Early settlers state that sometimes the St. Louis planing mills would take the rough lumber shipped from this city, finish it and ship it back to this point. It is said that the fluted columns of the two story frame house, on North Main and Hill streets, were finished there and shipped back to Hannibal for use. It is also stated that when that house was built it attracted great attention and people would travel miles to see the fluted front.
Later, as steamboats became more numerous, great barges of coal and other materials moved up and down the river.
In what the river men call the good old days, fast moving packets with their passengers and freight, and slow moving steamers with barges, combined to make lively times on the river front.
A number of small boats and barges were built and launched in Hannibal. River pilots, the successful ones, were looked upon with great respect, and a large number of boys in the river towns, wanted to become steamboat pilots. Steamboats plied up Salt river, for a few miles, to the salt works, and over in Chariton county a small sternwheel steamer made two trips a year up the Chariton river to clean up the hickory nut crop for St. Louis and Kansas City merchants.
Transportation By Water
In the early days there were no packet lines, operating on a regular schedule. A boat starting out from Pittsburgh, Pa., was just as liable to go to St. Paul as to New Orleans or any other river port.
The Eagle was one of the first boats to run in regular trade on the river above St. Louis. It plied between St. Louis and Alton, Ill.,and it was a seven hour trip.
When the Polar Star made the trip from St. Louis to St. Joseph in two days and twenty hours it was hailed as a real feat and the business men of St. Joseph presented the captain with a token of esteem in the shape of a pair of elk horns tipped with silver. Captain Tom Brierly was very proud of the trophy and fastened it in front of the pilot house with a streamer containing the sentence "beat our time and take our horns--St. Louis to St. Joseph two days and twenty hours."
Race For Mail Contract
By this time the boat builders were constructing good steamers regular floating palaces and steamboat travel was popular.
The United States mail was then carried from St. Louis to St. Joseph by boat and turned over to the pony express riders.
The owners of the steamboats plying in the Mississippi river. from St. Louis north, did not take kindly to the fact that a steamer carried the mail up the Missouri to St. Joseph, especially when there was a railroad across the state from Hannibal to St. Joseph and railroad owners and Mississippi river boat owners decided to go after that mail .Contract and the contest was on between the "all water route" and the "water and rail route." The race attracted widespread attention and the all water route seemed to have the most backers, for the people argued a record of two days and twenty hours could not be beaten.
On the day of the big race mail was delivered to the riverboat lines at St. Louis and the two steamers started up the Mississippi river. Upon reaching the mouth of the "Big Muddy" one boat turned up the Missouri while the other continued north up the Mississippi to Hannibal where the mail was turned over to the Hannibal & St. Joseph railroad. The officials had prepared everything along the line for a good run.
April 3, 1860, with Engineer Ad Clark at the throttle of the engine Missouri (engines were named and not numbered in those days), the last leg of the race began. A large crowd was on the depot platform to see the mail train pull out, other persons gathered at towns along the Hannibal & St. Joseph, west to cheer the train crew as the "fast mail" went through the town. The distance, 206 miles, was made by this train in slightly over four hours, averaging better than 50 miles an hour for the entire trip, and running at times as fast as 66-miles an hour. The orders upon leaving Hannibal were simple. Engineer Clark was told to make a speed record that would stand for fifty years. Although more than 50 years have passed since that date the record still stands. It is unnecessary to say that the boat and rail route got the mail into St. Joseph hours ahead of the all water route line.
Some Fine Boats
Some fine steamers were built and placed in service on the Mississippi from St. Louis to Hannibal and beyond. These boats were well patronized, both by people who wanted to move freight fast and by people who wanted to travel with all the comforts of a home. Both were pleased for the steamers beat the old ox teams and the meals served were most satisfying. For a time it looked like the steamboat was here to stay. Those were good old days and great crowds would gather at the landings when the steamers docked and, while the deck hands were unloading and loading the cargo the crowd from the town would join the crowd on the boat, for a dance.
The steamer orchestra, (for all packet boats carried an orchestra) furnishing the music but sometimes, the village musicians would bring their violins along and would play for the dance and so boats carried the produce of the,nation and the travelers met and discussed the issues of the day, or just visited, with the people who lived on shore but boarded the boat when it reached the town and remained on board until the warning bell announced that the steamer was about to get under way.
Steamboats, large and small, began making regular trips up and down the Mississippi river as early as 1830.