Steam, and Robert Fulton 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.”
Napoleon had time enough on Elba, though little of it at the end, to reconsider his words, as well as to muse upon all of his other blunders, including selling off Louisiana, for a pittance, while Fulton made his mark on the world—by going against wind and tide by lighting a fire below deck—and in a way to rival that of Napoleon, but more peacefully and constructively. He might also have mused upon his own words: “When monarchs abuse the rights with which they have been invested by the confidence of the people and bring down upon their heads the calamity of war, the people have the right to withdraw their allegiance.” As France declined in influence, the American States thrived. It only remained for them to decisively assert themselves against the British one more time, as they did in that war of 1812-1815, while the British were still pre-occupied with Napoleon.
The record time for a steamboat to travel to St. Louis from New Orleans might be just over three days, but that had been a race between two rival boats and captains and was a publicity spectacle. It bore little resemblance to the way commerce was actually practiced, though it was an event that had thousands of people turn out to view the rivals as they powered noisily up the Mississippi and filled the local newspapers for some days and weeks.
It had little to do with the need to profit from passengers or a full load of cargo, though it pointed to possibilities and showed that the difference between rail and boat was not so very great after all. The boat offered a more relaxed congenial setting, and luxury that the rail could not provide for so many people.
They might make a hundred miles or more in a day on the map, and as the crow flew, with a fast ship doing about fourteen miles every hour against the current. Lewis and Clark, and the Corps of Discovery just seventy years earlier, in their quest to explore the newly acquired territory of Louisiana and find a practical route to the Pacific across the Continental Divide, had to be satisfied with twelve or fourteen miles in a day going up the Missouri against a sluggish current that steadily opposed them at about two miles every hour.
They traveled almost twice that distance or more, with the twisting meanderings of the river that could take a ten mile or more sweep around a sharp bend before bringing you back to the same point across a narrow neck of land barely two hundred yards away from where you had been two hours or more earlier. The vagaries of nature were something one had to accept. Such a course might not survive a year when the steady erosive force of the river ate through it (sometimes assisted by man) to create the beginnings of the new river channel. Such a ditch, once started, grew to a sizable torrent and gradually robbed the river of its water as its course was shortened along a chute of faster flowing water that quickly chewed everything out of its path and could send large trees and cabins out into the channel.
A man might farm in Louisiana and find that, because of the changing course of the river around him, he might go to bed in Louisiana but wake up farming in Mississippi and vice versa.
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 too. 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.