On the River
The race between the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez took place in 1870. The race was from New Orleans to St. Louis, a distance of about 600 miles as the crow flies but more than 1,200 miles by the river. The Robert E. Lee won that race, reaching St. Louis after three days, eighteen hours and fourteen minutes, six hours ahead of the Natchez. What was generally not appreciated was that the Natchez carried cargo, and tied up one night when it became foggy, as well as to make repairs, losing more than seven hours of travel time. In the eyes of many, the Natchez was the better boat and her captain, Captain Leathers, the better captain, as well as the most experienced man.
It was late summer, and the heat was unbearable. Soon, there would be millions of birds moving along the river, using it as a path in their migrations coming down from the Arctic and the dreadful winters that she had heard about in Canada, even more severe than in Minnesota. She had never been so far north, but she had experienced brief glimpses of winter with snow and when the river froze as she remembered happening once. Egrets and other birds that she could not identify at a distance flew along the cooler river, coming up from the gulf or heading back to it.
She envied those birds their freedom from earthly ties and their ability to soar and to view the world from far above, though nature was cruel and had few happy endings. No happy endings. Death was final, and birds did not tend to live long when something higher up the carnivorous hierarchy appeared to snatch such a beautiful bird out of the air, or they showed signs of injury, or were slowed by age.
There was a constant haze of smoke from the distant sugar cane fields where the dried leaves were being burnt off in preparation for harvesting, and where the already crushed and processed stalks were also being burnt. Setting fire to the fields like that did not damage the crop but did drive snakes and other animals out of the field so that it could be harvested safely. A good man could harvest almost a ton of cane in an hour.
The Caroline was a big wood-fired stern wheeler of about six hundred tons, with a length of almost 250 feet and a beam of forty. Unladen and at her deepest point, she had a draft of about three feet. Loaded with cargo, she went to as much as five feet. After her keel had been laid down, she was taken over by the Union army and completed for service on the river, bombarding enemy positions, and was also used for pushing mortar rafts. She had seen a short spell of action before enemy fire had blown her pilothouse off, killing, or gravely wounding, all in her; and she had then run hard aground.
Once she had been refloated by Jennings under cover of darkness less than a month later, after removal of her heavy ordnance, she was pulled off the mud bank and had been floated down to New Orleans, where she had been stripped and refitted for use on the lower Mississippi to carry cargo for the Confederate cause, and well out of the way, at first, of Union forces. After the war had ended, she was in an ideal position to pick up the commercial activity that was then exploding out of necessity, as trading commenced once more. Jennings got her refitted again, this time to cater to passengers as well as cargo, and re-enforced her to continue what she had been originally built to do, to push a string of rafts, which was not commonly done at that time.
She was driven by a modified Corliss steam engine rather than the older Boulton and Watt engines, which seemed to have more of a tendency to explode if they were carelessly or stupidly handled in trying to get a steam pressure higher than about 125 psi to get a fast start by tying down a safety valve to stop it venting steam.
It was designed to vent steam for a good reason, as those who did such a foolish thing as to tie down a valve, occasionally discovered to their cost. The example they served, if learned by others, and the dreadful scars they usually bore, might save lives on some other boat if not on their own. Those who had survived such explosive venting, or boiler explosions, and often had the scars to prove it, gained a new respect for the power of invisible steam under pressure. It could peel a man’s cooked flesh away from his arm down to the bare bone in a few seconds. The way one searched for a noisy steam leak in the gloom of the engine room, if one felt reckless enough to go searching for it—rather than retreating, dousing the fires, and letting everything cool down—was with a rag tied on the end of a long stick. Better to see the rag torn away than one’s arm or body parts. It was sobering for someone starting to work in the boiler area of a boat to learn that scalding water, which they already knew about, carried just a small fraction of the heat energy in steam at the same temperature. If that steam was pressurized, as in a boiler, and escaping with a hissing sound and usually not visible in a confined area, then it carried even more thermal energy, and you should strive to be somewhere else far, far away. Quickly!
The Caroline had just left the landing in late afternoon, now that all expected passengers were aboard. She was one of the last to leave, and would be the slowest, though the river was still busy with shipping and sail boats moving up and down river, as well as ferries going from one side to the other.
The boat headed out into the main current of the Mississippi, gently nudged deep into a convoy of rafts moored ready in the river, to the extent of about a half boat length, and saw them fastened to her on either side with chains, a yoke of sorts, and heavy rope, so that neither could easily be loosened from the other. She began pushing it ahead of her as she gradually made headway against the current trying to send her down to the gulf, along with the river’s silty cargo, once the rafts had been turned loose from their mooring for the boat to deal with. Rafting was not so very common on the river, though once a pilot became skilled in reading his rafts and maneuvering them, he could move almost as much cargo as the train, though not as quickly, but the money they made on each trip up and downriver easily made up for their lack of speed and the time taken.
Even massive white egrets could outpace her with serene dignity for the first minutes, as the Caroline slowly overcame the current. There would be little to impede or concern them for the first two hundred miles with the river being fairly high and deep over that distance. Ferries crossing the river might be the only momentary hazard as some fool tried to beat the steamer and cross too close ahead of the boat, almost as if he were playing a game of seeing who might give way first. He would always lose, but accidents were rare; the fools were soon sorted out in other ways, if not by irate passengers who did not like to dice with death by being run down by a steamboat that could not easily stop or avoid them. More than one such ferryman had to swim ashore when his angry passengers dumped him overboard.
Most of the rafts were fully laden, though some were empty, and with other empty rafts lashed on either side of her hull for cargo, and even to transfer passengers they would pick up as they went upriver, or to drop off to be loaded with cordwood to join them on the trip down again while others, loaded with firewood, waited for them on the way upriver.
The boat made good speed eventually, though it was hard to judge, other than from the slow change in parallax of those objects on the shore compared with those much farther away. They glided slowly, gracefully, and sedately past open plantations of sugarcane, with their former slave quarters and mills. Everything seemed to be as it had been years earlier despite the proclamation of emancipation. Many of the slaves were still there, working, but under a different arrangement that kept them just as much slaves as they had been earlier but this time with different masters, self-interest, and economic necessity, as well as the illusion of freedom, to which all men were happily bound.
The first part of the journey would be easy—the river was deep and free of wrecks, snags, or other difficulties—and there was no fear of running aground up to Baton Rouge, though before that, above Convent, the river began to sweep around more, especially at White Castle and Plaquemines before one got to Baton Rouge.
Caroline, the woman, was just one pair of eyes seeing the banks gently slide by in the distance, but it all seemed so slow against that current. She knew that there were thousands of pairs of eyes watching the boat from those same banks, seeing it as either no threat to their continued existence in that environment where only the fittest survived, or speculating about its destination; its passengers; and its cargo, though she could see none of them.
Above New Orleans to as far as Baton Rouge, sugar plantations bordered both sides of the river behind the levees, with strips of tall trees, heavily draped with Spanish moss, locating the boundaries between some of them. Where the original growth had not been so well cleared, there were splashes of vibrant color from the riot of flowering shrubs along the shore.
There were many dwellings all the way on both banks though only the upper parts or roofs of those closest to the river might be visible, even from the upper deck, other than for church spires and a few magnificent houses built on higher ground to be above the flood level. The land had long since been cleared of nearly all its pristine natural growth, which could just be seen as a solid gray-green wall of trees, some distance back from the river, and shimmering in the constant haze, if they were not obscured by the smoke from large fires, as the workers burned the crushed canes. A few bearded cypress still survived here and there.
Great plumes of gray-black smoke rose from the chimneys of the mills which crushed the sugarcane stems, to produce sugar and molasses. The further steps of fermentation and distillation were carried out in only a few of those areas; but it was a highly profitable venture, producing various grades of the demon rum, which supposedly alleviated so many of life’s miseries for many.
Some of those rafts loaded with cargo destined for settlements and plantations back from the river would be untied once they came abreast of their destination and would be turned loose with their owner or his agent on board, to be poled, swept, or hauled ashore.
Passengers generally had more than enough time to embark or to disembark once their boat was tied to a raft.
As boats passed, and despite the competition between the various owners, the pilots were gentlemen enough, and wise enough, to exchange information on the state of the stretch of the river they had just traversed, if such an exchange was necessary. They recognized that at low water, if one ship were to run aground and possibly foul a narrow chute or cause a channel to become even more difficult to navigate after all of the clutter from that war, especially up around island ten, that all would suffer. Stupidity would be an unforgiving wreck for which there was a high price to be paid by everyone. Most of the burgeoning commerce of the postwar recovery was moved by the river, the lifeline of the nation, and much more than moved up or down the coasts. The train might be faster, but with only one or two lines, it could move only a minuscule fraction of the commerce moved by hundreds of steamboats each day on that massive river.
When they returned downriver in about two weeks, they would mostly be fully laden with cargo or pushing lumber barges for New Orleans, and even for the eastern seaboard and Europe, and would make fewer calls other than to pick up passengers going to New Orleans.
All passengers were catered to in one way or another. The wealthy were accommodated in the relatively luxurious cabins of the upper deck, with their families, their wives (or their mistresses), or those other temporary distractions, more recently brought aboard to relieve the tedium of the trip. Those latter might be aboard for the entire trip or would be dropped off after a day or so to make their way back downriver escorted by a different gentleman, intending to enjoy the fleshpots of New Orleans and intent on getting a head start on it. Those women and those others in that expensive accommodation and who seemed married, were always well dressed and might be described as beautiful, though wealth and beauty did not always go together.
Those passengers with lesser means, spoke for accommodation on the lower deck, with less spacious cabins and sometimes with several bunks in each one, and paid for their plainer meals if they had not brought enough food with them. Those who could not afford even those limited comforts were housed on one or two of the rafts, where they sat around a fire built upon it and slept wherever they might sleep, in a tent or beneath a canvas. When their destination came up on them, they would sometimes just dive off into the river and swim ashore as the boat continued at speed. They would be far enough from the boat, as it swept by them, that there was little danger of being pulled into the wheel. The boat stopped only for paying passengers and cargo: to avoid a collision, or to make repairs. Rather than an average speed of about fourteen miles an hour against the current, the Caroline was lucky to make an average of four or five with all the rafts ahead of her, or tying up overnight.
Steam, and Robert Fulton in the first part of the Industrial Revolution, had opened up the rich farmland of the Mississippi basin, an area the size of Europe, especially from St. Louis, where the Irish, Scots, Germans, Ukrainians, and various other Europeans took off for all points west to make their fortunes.
When Fulton had tried to interest Napoleon in backing the new steam-propelled ships, Napoleon had lacked vision to see what it might mean, and had commented something disparaging about lighting fires beneath the deck of a wooden ship to make it move against the wind and tide. Napoleon had made history, but he had also made many blunders to go along with it. One might imagine Fulton’s reception in his court as being something like this: “If I understand you, M. Fulton, you are planning to make a ship sail against wind and tide by lighting a fire below deck? I do not have time to listen to that kind of nonsense! Incroyable! Fantastique! Inconcevable!”
After Fulton had left, there would undoubtedly have been gales of laughter follow him, along with some comments about those mad Americans. Napoleon should have better remembered his own words: “‘Impossible’ is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools’.”
There was a cool breeze blowing off the water, a welcome change from the heat of the day. There was a lot to see initially, with seemingly endless sugar plantations along the banks, heading away from the river. Sugarcane-growing, extended almost as far upriver as Baton Rouge.
It took them the best part of ten hours to get up as far as Donaldsville, and a further four hours to Plaquemine, and then it would take them three more to get to Baton Rouge. No one complained over the seemingly slow pace as other steamers blew arrogantly by them, almost in derision.
Captain Holmes waved at their pilots, unfazed by their turn of speed, and smiled. “We’ll see some of them again before long when they get grounded, get holed, or hit a snag, or meet up with idiots like themselves coming racing downriver under a full head of steam on one of those sharp meanders, and no chance to easily get out of his way.”
They reached Baton Rouge in the early hours of the next day and were held up there for several hours as cargo was offloaded from a few of their rafts and with other cargo brought out to replace it. Most of the agricultural produce of the area, headed downriver to New Orleans and from there, was loaded onto seagoing ships for Europe. Over the year, there was a constant flow of hundreds of thousands of bales of cotton; thousands of sacks of cottonseed; hogsheads of sugar; barrels of molasses, and rum; all depending upon the season and how fast it could be moved. Cattle, pigs, and chickens by the hundreds of thousands, along with perishable agricultural produce, tended to go to the larger population centers.
Once above Baton Rouge, the river and other boats coming at them demanded more attention. The water shallowed, and the river began to meander in a noticeably different way. About twenty miles above Baton Rouge was where the levees began, at St. Francisville, a growing community that not so long before had been about the same size as Baton Rouge.
By the late evening of the following day, they were still only two hundred miles upriver from New Orleans, and the river current was sluggish and not as high as it should have been for that time of year. Other things conspired to slow them. The ever-present need for wood to fuel the fires, clean water for the boilers, food supplies, and the unexpected need to stop for repairs, which, fortunately did not happen very often, and was soon accomplished.
Caroline’s first night had been restless, so she had dressed and had sat out on the hurricane deck in the dark for an hour until she could think of sleeping, thankful for the cooler breeze that kept the temperature a good ten degrees cooler where she was, than onshore or in her room.
The noises from the boat and the river had been unlike those she had noticed on the Osprey. There were no sounds of the creaking and straining of rigging or the shouts of men aloft. She could hear the steady hiss of the river against the hull or the rafts, the steady low roar of the smoke from the chimneys, one of which was somewhere behind her cabin wall. It felt warmer there. She could also hear the constant chug of steam, vented from the pistons, as well as the constant steady swish of the stern wheel if she walked closer to the stern. She could feel the vibration of the engines through the boat when she laid down to rest. She had been jolted awake occasionally by the sudden blast of their whistle, warning others of their approach, or in answer to another steamboat somewhere out of sight but rapidly approaching around one of the bends or coming up fast behind them. They had all eventually driven her to sleep when her senses could no longer fight them.
The captain decided after the first two days, and once they were above Baton Rouge, that they would anchor or tie up out of the main channel each night when one could not clearly see the river itself. There had been a major rainfall somewhere up on the Ohio (so they heard from those coming downriver); and with the sudden flush of water through that area—flooding several sawmills and washing their timbers and lumber into the river, as well as uprooting trees from the river bank—there were numerous hazards coming at them downriver despite others intercepting them where they could and getting them into the bank either to recover lumber or good saw logs that might be five feet or more in diameter.
Some of the trees drifting down were even bigger than that and were easily seen and avoided with their branches protruding at all angles and rolling or swinging about, as they touched bottom. The most dangerous hazards were the heavier waterlogged older logs that had been picked up from being buried in the mud of the riverbank and that floated, barely visible, at the surface. One of those could easily hole a boat or see its paddle wheel wrecked. There was something to be said for pushing a battering ram of rafts ahead of the boat. At night, the low fires, or candles in lanterns on those same rafts, told the pilot where the front of that convoy was but told him nothing of the river or what was coming at them out of the dark.
There were well-known places for the more cautious boatmen to tie up for the night.
Clean water was always in demand for the boilers and the salon and cabins rather than the often silt-laden soup that was the Mississippi. Another luxury, rarely available but which was always available for a price, was ice. It was brought downriver from the northern states, preserved in sawdust, packed in covered sheds on rafts that raced down with the current toward New Orleans where it commanded a good price by the well-to-do. Other raftsmen traded ice wherever they might; and if they could get rid of it farther upriver, they did so, trading some of the last of it for a push back upriver.