Steamboats on the Mississippi River, circa 1860. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Steamboats on the Mississippi River, circa 1860. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

When the New Orleans chugged into the city for which it was named on Jan. 10, 1812, it made history as the first steam-powered vessel to travel the western waters of the U.S. At the time, few people thought it would touch off a commercial revolution.

Within 10 years, however, western-river steamboats carried twice as much freight in two weeks as had gone upriver in all of 1811. The Mississippi River pulsated with commerce. People and goods moved with relative ease between Pittsburgh, St. Paul, St. Louis, New Orleans and even Montana.

But this sudden commercial surge came at a price. Besides the unfortunate tendency for steamboat boilers to explode without warning, a host of natural phenomena threatened river traffic. Low water, ice chunks, shifting sandbars and large rocks inhibited river traffic. The worst obstacle, however, was the snag.

Thousands of snags lurked in the western waters. They were formed when raging waters wore away river banks, sweeping trees into the swollen streams. The waterlogged trees, whose roots still clutched masses of earth, sank and became embedded in river bottoms. Strong currents stripped away leaves and small branches, making the underwater skeletons difficult to spot.

These submerged trees ripped holes in riverboats, causing the fragile craft to sink in a matter of minutes. Between 1822 and 1827, snags caused a loss of $1,362,500 in property on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, according to “Notes on the Western States,” by James Hall. Snagging was so frequent that not only did the phrase “hit a snag” enter the general American lexicon, but insurance rates skyrocketed.

Begging for Help

Residents along the western rivers -- particularly those in slave states -- responded by begging the federal government to embark on a program of river improvements. Citizens of Louisville and St. Louis and the state legislatures of Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama were among those that pressured the federal government to act. They argued that Washington should undertake internal improvements to promote the general welfare.

That southerners would clamor for the expansion of federal power might seem surprising. After all, these petitions were arriving at the same time that Vice President John C. Calhoun was leaving Washington to return to his home state of South Carolina, where the “cast iron man” would emerge as the leading advocate of states’ rights. He argued that a state could nullify a federal law, and South Carolina responded by negating the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832.

But Calhoun’s political philosophy found no fertile soil west of the Appalachian Mountains because residents of the slave states in the Mississippi River Valley were forming an identity around their river commerce. They welcomed federal intervention in the market economy because they needed it. In the days before railroads crisscrossed the landscape, steamboats were the most efficient and least expensive way to move goods to market. But a river-improvements program wouldn’t have been effective on a state-by-state level because all states bordering the Ohio and Mississippi rivers would need to participate to make navigation safe. Only the federal government could coordinate such a program.

Snag Boat

After a fitful start, the government delivered the goods. Henry M. Shreve became superintendent of western rivers in 1827. Shreve was a veteran steamboat captain who had helped bring down the Robert Fulton-Robert Livingston monopoly that controlled trade through New Orleans. He is also credited with improving the design of steamboats by moving the boilers out of the hull and putting them on the main deck.

But it was in remaking the environment of the western rivers where Shreve had his greatest influence. He designed a machine that was capable of, in his words, “breaking off and raising monster snags so firmly embedded in the sand.”

The Heliopolis snag boat, as it was called, had two hulls connected by beams, including a snag beam encased in iron. Each hull had its own engine and a 20-foot-high windlass that was bolted to the deck. Employing all the subtlety of an enraged bull, the Heliopolis raised a full head of steam and crashed into a snag, hoping to knock it free from the river bottom or snap it off and render it harmless. In either case, workers could haul the snag up on deck and saw it apart.

The first test for the Heliopolis came in 1829 at Plum Point, a particularly treacherous stretch of the Mississippi River about 50 miles south of Memphis. It took 11 punishing hours, but the ship removed all the snags from this graveyard of the Mississippi.

That was just the start. Shreve’s boat removed 1,548 snags in the next seven months, including one 60-ton monster that was 160 feet long and 3.5 feet in diameter. From 1830 to 1837, Shreve’s men tore up at least 6,700 snags, a figure that is both a testament to their raw physical labor and the western rivers’ dynamism and power.

Besides removing the dangerous snags, Shreve and his men also blasted away rocks, scraped sandbars, dug cutoffs to straighten the rivers and cut timber along the banks. Their efforts paid immediate dividends, as losses to snags plummeted and insurance rates for western steamboats dropped by half. Steamboats could now run faster and travel around the clock because they didn’t have to pick their way through dangerous snag fields.

The improvements program was a smashing success. River traffic boomed and commerce soared. But federal funding on the project receded after 1837 (mainly because of an economic panic, but also because the hardest work had been done). By the late 1840s, residents of the lower Mississippi River Valley turned away from a system of federal improvements and increasingly set their sights on building railroads. During the building frenzy of the 1850s, an embryonic southern rail system emerged, one that linked the slave states of the Atlantic seaboard to the slave states west of the Appalachian Mountains. And when advocates of secession triumphed in the Deep South after Abraham Lincoln’s election, the pleas for strong federal economic intervention were long forgotten.

(Robert Gudmestad teaches history at Colorado State University. He is the author of “Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this post: Robert Gudmestad at Robert.Gudmestad@colostate.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.