The Caroline

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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 modification of a 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 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. 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!

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