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This Week in History
December 25 - 31, 1767 —
Birth of Nicholas Roosevelt,
Who Made a Steamboat Link
to the American West

December 2011

December 27, 1767 was the birthday of Nicholas Roosevelt, a cousin of Franklin Roosevelt's great-grandfather, and one of America's leading engineers and inventors. After working with Robert Livingston, John Stevens, and Robert Fulton on the development of the steamboat, Nicholas and his intrepid wife, Lydia, embarked on a daring expedition which would prove that steam transportation could be used on the Ohio and Mississippi River systems.

After the American Revolution, settlers had flocked to the Ohio River Valley, and thence to the Mississippi River Valley, but taking a boat down those rivers was essentially a one-way trip. The currents were so strong that anyone trying to sell their farm surplus or other goods in the markets of the eastern United States had to float them down to New Orleans and then proceed by ocean to the Atlantic coast. An arduous trip back up the rivers by keelboat to Pittsburgh took many months and was very dangerous, due to the snags and sandbars in the rivers.

The isolated situation of the new settlements was a problem that George Washington tried to solve by sponsoring canals that would cut through the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains to the Ohio Valley. There was also a political problem involved, for Britain and its cat's-paw Spain bent their efforts to luring the western settlers away from their allegiance to the new United States and into breakaway groupings that would be under the sway of European powers. Therefore, the development of a swifter mode of transportation than packhorses and keelboats was an urgent necessity.

George Washington and Benjamin Franklin coordinated their efforts to make that development one of their priorities, and over the years, they sponsored the work of inventors such as William Henry, James Rumsey, and Robert Fulton. Nicholas Roosevelt, who would soon join the quest for a reliable steamboat, grew up in New York during the period of the American Revolution, and in 1782, at the age of 15, he built a model boat propelled by paddle wheels over the side, which were turned by hickory and whalebone springs.

In 1793, Roosevelt became a director of the New Jersey Copper Mine Association, which was organized to rework the abandoned Schuyler mine. When that project had to be abandoned, Nicholas persuaded his associates to buy land on Second River, now Belleville, New Jersey, and erect a metal foundry and shop. Roosevelt called this enterprise the Soho Works after the Boulton & Watts steam-engine works in England, which had been established with the encouragement of Benjamin Franklin. All interchange between American engineers and scientists and their British counterparts was cut off during the American Revolution, but Robert Fulton would shortly reconnect with Franklin's friend Matthew Boulton to obtain an engine for his projected steamboat.

Roosevelt's Soho Works became one of the premier ironworks in the new nation, and was called upon to provide engines for many new industrial projects. Like Paul Revere, Nicholas Roosevelt also became a copper manufacturer. During the administration of President John Adams, Roosevelt received a government contract to build a copper rolling mill and provide the copper sheathing for the hulls of six 74-gun U.S. Navy ships. After Nicholas had invested heavily in order to fulfill the contract, Thomas Jefferson was elected to the Presidency and ship construction was abandoned. As a result, Roosevelt suffered severe financial losses.

Beginning in 1797, Roosevelt was also working with Robert Livingston and John Stevens in developing a steamboat. Roosevelt was to build the engines at his Soho Works. After several trials, the partners' steamboat "Polacca" attained a speed of three miles an hour in still water on October 21, 1798. But there were many technical problems still to be solved, and Livingston refused to let Nicholas attempt to use his old design of a paddlewheel over each side of the boat, a design which would eventually be used by Robert Fulton and by all the Ohio and Mississippi "sidewheelers."

One day in 1799, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the future architect of the U.S. Capitol, walked into the Soho Works and proposed that Roosevelt build the two enormous steam-driven pumps that he had designed for the new Philadelphia Waterworks. Roosevelt mortgaged his engine works in order to finance the building of the engines, and the project was successfully completed. A few years later, in 1808, Latrobe's daughter Lydia became Mrs. Nicholas Roosevelt. The education Lydia had received from her father served her in good stead when she and Nicholas embarked on the daring adventure which was to come.

Roosevelt's financial problems stemming from his waterworks project and the cancelled copper-sheathing contract meant that he could no longer employ the workmen he had so carefully trained. Therefore, they moved a few miles down the Hudson River to work for Robert Fulton as he built his successful North River Steamboat, which came to be known as the "Clermont." Two years later, in 1809, Benjamin Latrobe suggested to Fulton and Livingston that they take Roosevelt into partnership to build steamboats for the western rivers.

Nicholas and Lydia travelled by wagon to Pittsburgh, where they jointly designed a large flatboat, and on it, they sailed away to New Orleans for their honeymoon. The voyage was also a scouting expedition designed to determine the possible problems and impediments which would face the steamboats to come. At every town, they disembarked and told the local citizens about the new technical wonder which would be coming soon. When they reached Indiana, Nicholas saw coal outcroppings, and he bought several small coal mines and paid the farmers to dig out the fuel and pile it on the shore for his projected steamboat's later journey down the Ohio.

The New Orleans steamboat.

When the couple reached New Orleans, they booked passage on an ocean vessel to New York. Lydia, who had become pregnant with her first child, just made it back in time to give birth to a baby girl. There were only a few months to rest, for Robert Fulton was encouraged by Roosevelt's report of the trip, and sent the Roosevelts back to Pittsburgh, this time to supervise the building of the first steamboat on the Ohio River. Fulton designed the vessel, and many of his workmen were sent west to bring it to completion.

Route of the New Orleans steamboat's maiden voyage.

The work was begun in 1810, and the census that year showed that there were more than 1 million Americans living beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Fulton sent his steamboat plans to Pittsburgh, but Nicholas and Lydia changed them to produce a larger, more stable boat. The steamboat New Orleans, the first on the western waters, was launched in May of 1811, and set out on her journey downriver on August 26. There were at first only minor problems. The water level was too low to pass the falls of the Ohio at Louisville, so Nicholas took advantage of the lull by taking the steamboat back up the river to Cincinnati, proving that it could easily outpace any keelboat going upriver.

Lydia, who had scandalized the matrons of Pittsburgh by accompanying her husband on the trip while eight months pregnant, had her second child in Cincinnati. On the last day of November, soundings at the falls showed that the water had risen enough to allow five inches of clearance for the steamboat, and the Roosevelts set out again. They sent their two children around the falls by carriage, and successfully ran the treacherous passage.

When they reached Indiana, Nicholas was gladdened by the sight of large piles of coal placed at intervals along the shore, mined by the farmers he had hired. A fire in the ship's kitchen was dealt with successfully, and all seemed to be going well until the Roosevelt's large dog, Tiger, began pacing the deck and moaning. What came next was an earthquake so major that it occurred in the Mississippi Valley only every 350 years or so. It was dubbed the New Madrid Earthquake because its epicenter was near that small town in southeastern Missouri. The banks of the Ohio and Mississippi began to crumble, islands appeared where there had been none, and others disappeared overnight, one of which was serving as the tie-up point for the steamboat.

The air filled with sulphur, the sun was blacked out, and the desperate birds and farm animals of the area flocked to stay near the terrified humans. But the New Orleans was large and well-balanced, and was able to continue its journey, even though, as Lydia wrote, "I lived in a constant fright, unable to sleep or sew or read." Finally, as the steamboat neared Natchez, the earthquake began to abate, and the Roosevelts were greeted by cheering crowds. Only one person in Natchez, however, dared to risk sending a load of cotton to New Orleans on the new contraption. But the ship reached New Orleans in January, proving that steamboats could be used for swift passenger and freight runs on the Ohio and Mississippi. The New Orleans was subsequently put to work on the deeper New Orleans to Natchez run.

It was clear to Roosevelt that a ship designed for the Hudson had too deep a draft for the perils of the Mississippi. His father-in-law, Benjamin Latrobe, then invested heavily in a new firm with Roosevelt and Fulton to build shallow-draft steamboats at Pittsburgh. But the War of 1812 interfered, and Fulton died before the war ended. Both Roosevelt and Latrobe were plunged deeply into debt; Latrobe returned to working as an architect and the Roosevelts had to return to New York. But others took up the task, and from one steamboat on the western rivers in 1811, the number grew to 12 in 1817, and more than 60 by 1819, a fitting tribute to the daring spirit of the Roosevelts and the plans of Washington and Franklin.  


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