History of  Gallatin County, Part 1a


When the First Steam Boat Passed Warsaw

(the following article is the first in a series prepared by the Women's Club of Sparta, dealing with the History of Gallatin county. - editor)

It is now more than 117 years since the story about to be related, occurred.  It was on the 4th day of December, 1811, a day that the sturdy pioneers of Fredericksburg never forgot.  The first steamboat to descend the Ohio passed on her way to New Orleans.  As soon as Fulton's attempt on the Hudson was crowned with success, they turned their attention toward the great waterways of the west, and sent Capt. Roosevelt out to Pittsburg to go over the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans and report whether they could be navigated or not.  His report was favorable, and resulted in the immediate construction of the  New Orleans the first steam boat to plow the waters of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.  There were but few homes in Warsaw at that time, probably a dozen solitary cabins, nestled along the shore near enough to hear the gurgling eddies of the murky Ohio.

The streets were of mud.  At the wharf lay huge dark flat boats rocking quietly to and fro like a dreamy waltzer stepping to the music of a Hawaiian guitar.  Across the river were to be seen the rolling hills of Indiana.  Behind them arose the forest-covered hills of Kentucky reposing like smooth cumulus clouds in the sky.  In the crooked, rugged gorges of Rocky Branch and mouth of Sugar and other streams, a lone wild cat might be heard to send out a piercing cry upon the evening breeze.  The red deer came in countless numbers to the water's edge to quench their thirst. The bear and wild buffalo came to winter among the cane brakes that existed along these small tributaries.

Farther up the river, where the hills are higher they seemed to raise sheer through the milky way and plow a broad furrow, which ended in a rugged edge.  In the marsh, half a mile away, the chorus of the denizens of the forest, when it swelled up, drowned all nearer noise, no matter how loud.  But one time a loud sound was produced that surpassed any that had yet been heard.  It was a blast blown from the New Orleans, when, on her maiden trip from Pittsburg to the city of New Orleans.  If such was the resident district of Warsaw, when navigation began on the Ohio.  Their companions were the black bear, the panther, and perhaps the catamount their chum, so to speak.  The New Orleans was the third steamboat on the continent - the Clermont and North River were employed on the Hudson.  The New Orleans, on her first trip, took neither freight nor passengers.  Her inmates were Captain Roosevelt (an associate and personal friend of Robert Fulton) , and his wife and children, the engineer, John Baker, the deck hands, and a few colored servants.

The boat was furnished with a propelling wheel at the stern and two masts.  Fulton believed the use of sails would be indispensable.  The capacity of the New Orleans was 100 tons and her speed about ten mile per hour.  Before her ability to move thru the water without the aid of sails or oars had been made known, few people believed she could be of very much value to commerce.  In fact she had made several voyages before the general prejudice began to subside.  Many of the river merchants preferred the old way of transportation, with all its risks, delays, and extra expense, rather than make use of such a contrivance as a steamboat, which they really believed too marvelous and miraculous for the business of everyday life. 

The appearance of the New Orleans produced quite a bit of excitement, admiration, and superstition in Fredericksburg, as well as in other places on her downward trip.  The time of the New Orleans voyage was a period of phenomena.  A fiery comet, [the great Comet of 1811],was blazing in the heavens at the time the boat descended the river and while lying at the mouth of the Ohio, the steamer encountered the great earthquake of 1811, that turned the fertile soil of Fulton Co., in Reelfoot Lake, (the only lake in the state of Kentucky). Many people believed that the steamboat was the cause of the coming of the comet and the earthquake.  And that the comet was the messenger of the approach of the earthquake and the earthquake was the result of its appearance.  They believed this flying in the face of Providence and making a boat that run withy “bilin' water” that caused this terrific convulsion of nature.  Presumptuous man had boiled the water, where as if God had wanted it boiled he would have done so.  People had navigated the river in flat boats, keel boats and canoes and under them the river had glided gently to the ocean.  But when man came with his "fireboat" the earth went into convulsions, and terror and desolation brooded over the land.

It was a still cold December night of wonderful starlight and with a low hanging moon.  There was light enough to see how the crown of the river hills cut a wedge of black into into the spangled blue vault.  The evening twilight was deepening into darker shades when a strange looking craft appeared. Engineer Baker blew a blast that brought all Fredericksburg from their cabins.  This was followed by a strange sound; a distant rumbling and churning, down the great monster came.  A cluster of flickering tallow candles gleamed from the deck.  Sweeping by, her clumsy bulk, churning paddle wheels, and smokestack with real live people standing on board she presented a sight never to be forgotten.

Slowly receding into the uncertain dimness of the night, left as she had come, the flickering lights receded, the noise grew fainter, and in addition, the waves rolled over the low sandy beach.  Again she blew two sonorous blasts, and all was quiet as a morgue.  Then with the light of dawn the moon rose over the Kentucky hills, leaving a flickering pathway on the water, bidding the lonely settlers to retire to their cabins and to leave sentry duty to her watchful care. The New Orleans made better time than was expected.  She arrived in Louisville late at night after traveling 700 miles in 70 hours.  It excited much terror along the shores of the Ohio, as they had never heard of such an invention.  As it is stated, that on the unexpected arrival of the boat before Louisville, in the course of a fine still moonlight night, a strange sound filled the air, as the pent-up steam escaped from the valve, and produced a general alarm as many people arose from their beds to ascertain the cause.

From this rude, imperfect steamboat that made its trial trip amid the throes of earthquakes and the blazing of comets, has come the world's Armada, that plows the waves of every sea and river, until the busy life upon the waters, and its wealth of nations, almost equal those of land.  The steamboat industry has reached its height and passed away with all its romance of the antebellum days. The rude forefathers of Fredericksburg sleep beneath the sod of their adopted state, many of them lie buried in the old cemeteries of Warsaw, but the placid Ohio flows on, silently on, forever.