February 19, 2015

First Steamboat Up the Missouri River

The first steamboat to travel up the Missouri River was named the Western Engineer in 1819.  Built at the U.S. Arsenal in Pittsburgh, Ohio.  Built of wood, it was 13x75 feet and a draft of only 19 inches (empty) to 30 inches (loaded).  Powered by 3 boilers, 20 inches by 15 feet below deck, and weighed 30 tons.  The Captain was Major Stephen Long, built specifically by the United States of America for an expedition up the Missouri River, to be called the Yellowstone Expedition.

   "The object of the expedition is to acquire as thorough and accurate knowledge as may be practicable of a portion of our country which is daily becoming more interesting, but which is yet imperfectly known.  With this in view, you will permit nothing of notice to escape your attention.  Signed, Secretary of War, John G. Calhoun"

   On June 19, 1819, she reached St. Louis.  It took her 36 days.

   At the front of the boat, a huge black serpent rose from the river, spouting steam and a scream that could be heard for miles.  The object was to scare the hell out of Native Americans who, in the past, had shot arrows and thrown spears.  She also contained three small brass cannons, and traveled upstream at only 3 miles per hour.  But this would have given the captain and crew time to try and avoid sandbars and dead trees. 

   A painting of a white guy shaking hands with a "savage" was painted on her sides.  It has been said that the Western Engineer did more to tame the Natives than all the cannonballs and grapeshot up to that time.  No one threw a spear or shot an arrow.

   She left St. Louis on June 21, 1819.  Before reaching St. Bellefontaine, a distance of only 4 miles, it was stuck on two sandbars.  A Native American in Franklin, Missouri, described it thus:

   "White man bad man, keeping a great spirit chained and built fire under it, and make it work a boat."

   Passing Fort Osage, still in business, in late August, the Captain and crew went into winter quarters September 17, just north of Omaha, Nebraska.

   The second steamboat, called the Yellowstone, passed in 1831.  She was a commercial enterprise of the American Fur Company of Lexington, Kentucky.  She weighed in at 144 tons, was 120 ft x 20 ft, she could carry 72 passengers and a crew of 22.  The Yellowstone's job was eventually to make it to the Yellowstone River, where the company had a trading post.

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