Monday, April 2, 2018

Rollin' On the Scioto -- The Steamboat Era


“When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient.

“When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.” 

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Dreams in our youth – energizing thoughts of travel and danger. Before our imaginations faded, we occupied a world of fanciful reveries. For many of us, the sight of an old steamboat making an occasional appearance on the Ohio River set our minds to wander on adventures with the likes of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But, it was not only the Ohio that fascinated me as a boy. I loved my trips to the Scioto. Of course, no vessels of note sailed its waters … or did they?

Steamboats on the Scioto River? As improbable as it seems, for a fleeting moment these vessels plied the waters of the Scioto. We all know that the boats became a staple of transport for people and products on the Ohio River, but it is less known that for a time, enterprising merchants attempted to link the two rivers and take better advantage of the commerce north of the Ohio Valley by applying steam power.

Beginning in the mid-18th century, the Ohio River was one of the great highways of North America and early settlements thrived because of the river trade. Tens of thousands of people used it to float westward down from the Appalachian Mountains into the interior of the continent. As a port along the Ohio River, many steamboats that traveled the Ohio, made stops at Portsmouth. The produce that came down the Ohio-Erie Canal was transferred to the steamboats for delivery to cities along the river. This made Portsmouth a prosperous river town. How much more prosperous would the city be if the Scioto offered portage to steam travel?

The Ohio and its tributaries, which stretched north to nearly the Great Lakes, south to the Nashville Basin, and east to the Cumberland Plateau, sustained the growing population of the valley with crops and goods. Farmers loaded flatboats filled with products of their summer labors, with wheat milled into flour, corn distilled into whiskey and hogs slaughtered into bacon and soap. These and innumerable other goods floated down the Big Sandy, Scioto, Licking, Kentucky, Wabash, Cumberland and Tennessee, then down the Ohio to the Mississippi and on to even hungrier markets in Memphis, Natchez, New Orleans and beyond.

The appearance of the steamboat in the first decade of the 1800s revolutionized river traffic, making it possible to return upriver without walking, riding, pushing or pulling against the river currents. Before the arrival of the steamboat, items had to be carried over the Appalachians to western Pennsylvania and floated downriver. And. the steam-powered boats could travel at the astonishing speed for the time of up to five miles per hour. As a result of this new technology, river travel increased even more over time. By 1820, 73 steamboats were working the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, bringing as much as 33,000 tons of goods back up to Louisville, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

Steamboat navigation of the Scioto River was a pet scheme with steamboat men for many years. The first account of any traffic on the river dates to the winter of 1848. The first steamboat, the “America,” went up the river that winter as far as Waverly. The trip was said to be “prosperous” and “was in the trade during the high water.” “Some three round trips” were made altogether. It was written …

“In December, 1848, a small steamer had been built to run up the Scioto, and the experimental trip was made December 12, 1848. She left her moorings and was watched until she was out of sight, by quite a large number of people. She plowed her way gracefully and successfully against the current, and Piketon gave her an ovation. Her name was the “Relief.” She went up as far as the Feeder dam and Salt Creek, and grounded once, described as 'but slightly.'”

Local history speaks of other steamboats being built in Portsmouth during the early 1800’s. The steamboats built by Kendall and Head reportedly came down the Scioto from about the mouth of Brush Creek, but “probably they received their boilers, etc., at Portsmouth.” The first steamboat built in Scioto County was called the “Herald,” later changed to the “Ohio.”

Then, commencing February 1, 1849, the “handsome little steamboat,” the “John B. Gordon,” became the regular Scioto River packet making regular trips from February until June. She was owned by the Scioto Valley Steamboat Company, and cost $3,500.

Little more regarding the steamboat business can be found of record. Railroads and railroad bridges soon put a stop to much further effort. Although the Scioto was a free highway, steamboats soon vanished from her waters. The last steamer that attempted to do a paying business on the river was “a very pretty little craft” called the Piketon. Belle. She was launched October 26, 1860, and drew only twenty-two inches, was in trade in 1861, and was built and owned at Piketon. She continued her trips until May 10, 1861.

Steamboat Reports

I thought you might like to read a collection of “steamboat news” taken mainly from this site: The articles I choose offer a short history of some notable occurrences mainly on the Ohio River. Feel free to add information in the comments section of the blog.

The Ohio Repository July 29, 1825

Sunken Treasure

“On the 24th of June, the Steam boat Velocipede in descending the Ohio River, near Portsmouth, struck a snag and sunk in 8 feet of water. No lives were lost, and the cargo was saved, except a bag containing $1000 in silver and notes.”

The Ohio Independent Press – July 20, 1831

“A new steam boat is building in Portsmouth, Ohio, by captain Green of the Belvedere. We understand that thirty new boats are building this season between Louisville & Pittsburgh, some few of these will supply the place of those worn out.

“This is a gratifying evidence of the increase of business on the western waters. The present season has been remarkable profitable, and we have no doubt the next will not be less so, notwithstanding the additional number of boats. The opening of the Ohio canal will immediately create business of this kind to a much greater extent, than has yet existed. The production of the interior will find their way South through this avenue, which will bring back an increased amount of cotton, sugar, coffee, & etc.

“The trade of the south western States with New-York, will then find a direct, expeditious, safe and cheap channel. We do not regard the usual objection to this route, that of the length of time the lake remains closed with ice; as affording an obstacle of much consequence for all mercantile men well know how easy it would be to anticipate that occurrence by providing supplies before hand.

The Ohio Repository – October 19, 1832

Construction of the Ohio Canal

“We understand that the completion of this great work, will be celebrated at Portsmouth on Tuesday the 23d inst. It affords us no ordinary degree of pleasure to announce that this noble, and magnificent work has at length been completed.

“Capt. Knapp, of the Canal Boat Chillicothe, who took his clearance from this place, had the honour, we understand, of commanding the first vessel which floated from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. He arrived at Portsmouth on the 15th.

“It was in contemplation to have celebrated the event, in a manner corresponding with the important epoch which, the successful completion of this splendid improvement, constitutes in the history of our State; but owing to the excitement of the public mind in that quarter, on account of the Cholera, the ceremony was dispensed with.”

The Ohio RepositoryAugust 1834

“On the night of the 17th inst. the steamboat Nimrod struck a rock in the Ohio river, between Portsmouth and Maysville, which caused an explosion of the boiler, killed 4 men and wounded several others.”

The Ohio Repository - March 20, 1850

“The steamer New England No. 2, struck a snag as she was backing out from the landing at Portsmouth, yesterday morning, and sunk to within two feet of the hurricane deck: She was bound to Pittsburgh; no particulars are reported: Several of the deck passengers were drowned.”

The Chester Times – Chester, PA; June 24, 1884

Murder on the Steamer Minnie Bay

Portsmouth, O., June 24

“As the steamer Minnie Bay arrived at Portsmouth with a crowd of excursionists, a dispute arose between Richard Duckworth, of Syracuse, and George Fox, colored, of Huntington. Duckworth crushed Fox's skull with a beer bottle. Duckworth is in jail and Fox is dead. This is Scioto County's second murder within two days.”

The Coshocton Tribune December 17, 1893

Seals Escape into the Scioto River

“Four seals escaped from a dime museum in Columbus, Ohio, the other day and disappeared in the waters of the Scioto River.”

The Cambridge Jeffersonian – January 18, 1904

Ferryboat, B. F. Bennett, Sinks

“Portstmouth, Oh., Jan. 26 -- The Ohio river ferryboat B. F. Bennett, owned by Captain Isaac Miller, sank in the ice at the mouth of the Scioto river. The vessel was valued at $4,000 and will be a total loss. Insurance amounting to $2,000 was carried.”

The Lima News -- April 30, 1936

Steamers Go Aground, Blocking Ohio River

“Rivermen worked today to unscramble two steamers and 16 loaded coal barges which piled up on rocks and sand bars at nearby Sciotoville, blocking Ohio river traffic. The steamers, the E.D. Kenna and the Steel City, ran aground as they attempted to negotiate a narrow channel while towing the barges. Employes in charge of the Ohio river dams said one of the barriers would be opened to raise the water level sufficiently to float the stranded vessels.”

A Horrible Scene

Perhaps the most tragic steamboat accident on the Ohio River occurred on the night of July 4, 1882, near Mingo Junction. It was caused by a collision between two excursion boats, the “John Lomas,” of Martin's Ferry, and the “Scioto,” of Wheeling. The Scioto had brought an excursion down from Wellsville, Ohio, in the early part of the day, and was on her return trip; while the Lomas was on her way down with her excursionists. 

The "Scioto" sank almost immediately in sixteen feet of water. The "Lomas", after first discharging its passengers on the riverbank, returned to help rescue survivors. Panic increased the death toll as many passengers on the "Scioto" flung themselves into the water to avoid an imagined outbreak of fire aboard the sinking craft. While some were trapped in cabins and thus lost their lives, most of the victims perished after falling or jumping into the river. Many of the survivors climbed to the "Scioto's"upper decks, which remained above the surface. Several of the victims drowned while attempting to save fellow passengers. The death toll eventually totalled fifty-seven.

Here is a description of the scene ...

“The associated press reporter arrived at the scene at noon, at which time only nine bodies had been recovered. Both banks of the river are lined with people, making a crowd of perhaps 2,000 persons, and the work of dragging in the vicinity for bodies is still going on. William Mulholland, of Wellsville, Ohio, under whose auspices the excursion on the ill-fated Scioto was given, said the boat took on about 200 passengers at East Liverpool, and 250 at Wellsville.

“The boat was very much crowded and the Captain refused to stop at other points where tickets had been sold. Taking his statements with others, it is safe to say that 500 souls were on board at the time of the collision. Captain Smith, of Martin's Ferry, who was on the John Lomas, says: 'When some distance from the Scioto, I noticed the boats would come together and make preparations for the shock.'

“Both steamers had on a full head of steam, the Lomas going down the stream at a rate of fifteen miles an hour, and the ascending Scioto at the rate of twelve miles. It seems to be the prevailing opinion that the collision resulted from a misunderstanding or confusion of signals.”


And, nearly a week later, another report said …

“It has been nearly a week since the “Scioto” with its load of precious human freight was suddenly stricken down and hundred of her passengers were, in the twinkling of an eye, forced to battle with the waves for their lives, or sink down to death beneath the cruel waters from exhaustion or inability to swim. It was a fearful night, and it is no wonder that the scene was so vividly graven on the mind of poor Captain Thomas, and the horrors of the catastrophe for some time drove reason from her throne.

“Standing on the deck of the ill-fated streamer one could hardly believe it was the charnel house of so much death. There was no evidence in the vicinity that the workers were seeking for the dead, except where one caught the strained gaze and pale, sad face of some watcher on the shore. The scene on shore was more like that of a mining camp or the beginning of a young western town.

“Some two or three booths had been erected by parties who made an easy dollar out of the disaster by supplying the wants of those who were hungry. And here and there were the embers of camp fires and marks that showed that some party had pulled up stakes and flown. Under the trees and lining the banks were people looking on the scene with indifference, attracted by mere idle curiosity.

“What a change from last Tuesday night, when the moon between the rifts in the clouds looked down on the waters blackened with struggling human forms, and then veiling her face as the wail of the lost floated over the waters ending in a bubbling cry of despair. One week ago the eyes of those now glassy in death were filled with the light of expectancy, and were, perhaps, anticipating the pleasures the trip would afford. To-day the towering hills on either side of the river stand as mute monuments of their graves, and the waters rush on sending to the shores ripples that die in a sigh on the beach.”



Eagles73. “Steamboats on the Scioto River.” Scioto River Navigation. May 03, 2009.

“A Pall of Egyptian Gloom: The sinking of the “Scioto.” East Liverpool Historical Society, Volume 15/Number 4, pp 18-25. July-August 1998.

Christopher Phillips. “The Breadbasket of the Union.” The New York Times. August 8, 2012.

Portsmouth Library saved to Photos/History of Portsmouth, Ohio

“The Scioto Disaster.” Wheeling Intelligencer. July 10, 1882.

A Standard History of the Hanging Rock Iron Region of Ohio: An ..., Volume 1
edited by Eugene B. Willard, Daniel Webster Williams, George Ott Newman, Charles Boardman Taylor.

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