Monday, June 11, 2012

Pioneer Steamboats

This is the third in a series of posts written by John Tholking.  In this article, John discusses the Cincinnati our First Families and Settlers and Builders ancestors may have experienced when we were the steamboat capital.

The Ohio River was the great road into the west.  The trails of the Indians and buffalo led to the river as well as the later main roads of the western country.  Early explorers traveled by canoe, horseback or by foot, but most early immigrants floated down the Ohio with their families, meager possessions and food in canoes, flatboats, barges or keelboats.  In December, 1788, the first group of settlers in Hamilton County, led by Benjamin Stites, landed at Columbia, at the confluence of the Ohio and the Little Miami Rivers.

Steam driven boats were first invented in Europe before 1800.  In 1807, Robert Fulton's steamboat Clermont successfully navigated the Hudson River from New York City to Albany in about thirty hours, becoming the first American steam vessel to offer regular transportation on an inland river.


The first steamboat to descend the Ohio was the Orleans in 1811.  As early as 1809, Nicholas Roosevelt, an associate of Fulton, had floated down the Ohio on a flatboat making measurements of the channels, water levels and noting coal deposits.  After eighteen months of construction, at a cost of $38,000. the Orleans, with Captain Roosevelt and his family and crew left Pittsburgh on October 20, 1811.  The boat first passed Cincinnati on its four day journey to Louisville.  Because of low water at the falls of Louisville, the Orleans had to wait one month for higher water. During this time it steamed 141 miles back up the Ohio to Cincinnati.

Two years before, Mr. Roosevelt had said he would return in a steamboat, but no one had believed him.  When the 116 foot long, bright blue steamboat laid anchor at Cincinnati, it seemed as if all the twenty-six hundred inhabitants gathered on the riverbank to watch. 

No one who lived on the Ohio at that time will ever forget the amazing year 1811.  On September 17, on a bright and cloudless day, the sun was eclipsed by the moon.  In the fall, The Great Comet of 1811, with a head larger than the sun, blazed across the night heavens for months.  Millions of squirrels began migrating south and died in the Ohio River.  In December the strongest earthquake ever recorded in North America caused changes in the course of the Mississippi and other rivers.  Even more amazing, in terms of the settlement of our ancestors, was the two thousand mile voyage of this first steamboat, the Orleans, from Pittsburgh, finally arriving in New Orleans on January 12, 1812. 
The second steamboat on the Ohio was the Comet, built before the summer of 1813, followed by the Vesuvius in November 1813, both built in Pittsburgh.  In 1814 the Enterprise, the Aetna, the Despatch, the Buffalo, the James Monroe, the  Washington and others followed. 
The first steamboat to complete the trip from New Orleans back to Pittsburgh was Henry Miller Schreve's powerful Enterprise in 1815.  Henry Schreve designed boats and boilers much more suited to river travel and developed snag boats to remove the many snags or trees in the channels that sank over half the early steamboats.  This made steamboat travel both more safe and reliable as well as more profitable. 

Charles Goss states the first steamboat built in Cincinnati was the Eagle in 1818 for a Kentucky firm.  The Western Spy reported "The steamboat Cincinnati, launched in February, 1818, was the first steamboat that has been built from the keel in Cincinnati.  She is owned by Mr. J. W. Byrne and Mr. P. Pennywitt, Jr., merchants of this place."  (Cincinnati Western Spy, March 7, 1818)

Cincinnati soon afterward awoke to the importance of the shipbuilding industry, and between 1817 and 1819, about one fourth of the vessels constructed on the western waters were built here.  Several shipyards were located in Cincinnati, North Bend, Fulton (Columbia) and nearby areas.

Most early steamboats were built for freight as well as passengers.  Often the stench of the animals and livestock was unbearable.  As late as 1843, John James Audubon described his passage on the steamboat Gallant as the " filthiest of all filthy rat-traps I have ever traveled in.  Our companions on the voyage, about one hundred fifty, were composed of Buckeyes, Wolverines, Suckers, Hoosiers and gamblers and drunkards of every denomination, their ladies and babies of the same nature, and specially the dirtiest of the dirty.  We had to dip the water for washing from the river in tin basins, soap ourselves all from the same cake, and wipe the one hundred and fifty with the same solitary one towel.  Our stateroom was evidently better fitted for the smoking of hams than the smoking of Christians.  When it rained outside, it rained also within, and on one particular morning, when the snow melted on the upper deck or roof, it was a lively scene to see each person seeking for a spot free from the many spouts overhead."

The General Pike, owned by Cincinnatians John H. Piatt and Philip Grandin, was the first all-passenger luxury packet travelling a regular route between Maysville, Cincinnati and Louisville.  Built in Cincinnati in 1818, it had 14 staterooms and enough berths to carry 86 passengers.  "The center of the large hall is supported by eight marble columns, which together with a handsome carpet covering the floor, crimson berth curtains, the mirrors decorating the wall, the neatness and beauty of the painting, and the remaining furniture, give the whole an air of elegance which borders upon magnificence."  (Western Spy, Cincinnati, March 20, 1819).  The cabin fare in 1819 was $8.00 downstream and $12 up - six years later the corresponding fares were $4 and $6.  For such sums the passenger was provided not only with transportation but with bed and meals on a large boat of excellent accommodations.

As late as the 1840's the principal route of migration for settlers was by wagon through Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, then by steam-boat down the Ohio.  Flatboats, keelboats, and barges were still heavily used until the 1820's, after which steamboats became the primary form of river travel. 

Early newspapers such as the Western Spy and the Cincinnati Gazette often carried lists of passengers as well as cargo for barges, keelboats and steamboats. 

Submitted by: John Tholking
Membership in First Families is open to descendants of pioneers who were residents of Hamilton County before December 31, 1820.  Applications or requests for forms may be sent to FFHC, Hamilton County Chapter OGS, PO Box 15865, Cincinnati, OH 45215-0865.


  1. I have some original documents, letters, addressed to the Philip Grandin and John Piatt mentioned on this page. They relate to their business interests as bankers and merchants as well as steam boat owners dating from 1803-1824. Philip Grandin was my 3x Great Grandfather and Piatt a great Uncle 5 generations back. They started the first private bank in Cincinnati and may have owned the Steamer Eagle in addition to the General Pike. I have a note with a description of the Eagle dated 1818. Phil Grandin also purchased and developed land east of downtown in the area now known as Grandin Road. And the Piatt's donated land that became the first park in Cincinnati located now by the main library and called Piatt Park.

    I'd be happy to share with you any more information you may be interested in.

    Grandin Potter Coe

    1. We would be very much interested in anything you might want to share with us. You can email me directly at

      Kathy Reed


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