Shreve, Henry M. (1785-1851)

views updated

Henry M. Shreve (1785-1851)


Steamboat pioneer

Frontier Childhood. Henry Shreves father, Israel, served with distinction in the Revolutionary War, but it cost him dearly. The British destroyed his New Jersey farm, and his Quaker congregation drove him from the church community as punishment for taking up arms. In July 1788 Israel decided to take his family, including three-year-old Henry, out to the western Pennsylvania frontier to start over again. In Fayette County, along the banks of the Monongahela and the Youghiogheny Rivers, young Henry grew up watching boatmen, among them his own brother John, sail off on trading expeditions down the Ohio and the Mississippi, and on to New Orleans or the West Indies, returning months later with tales of their adventures. The young Shreve heard these stories of far-off places and dreamed of following the river himself.

Professional Riverman. At fourteen, after his father died, Henry began working on the keelboats, barges, and pirogues that annually ventured downriver from western Pennsylvania. By the time he was twenty-one Shreve was an experienced riverman, and in the summer of 1807 he decided to go into business for himself. At Brownsville, Pennsylvania, on the Monongahela, Shreve built his own keelboat (thirty-five-ton capacity), hired his own crew of ten, and headed for the Mississippi. For the next three years Shreve carried manufactured goods from Pittsburgh down the Ohio and up the Mississippi to Saint Louis, returning with furs for the Eastern and European markets. Encouraged by his success, Shreve built a larger boat and in 1810 began shipping lead from the Galena district (upriver from Saint Louis) to New Orleans and Philadelphia, coming into direct competition with the British, who previously dominated trade on the upper Mississippi. Soon commercial competition with the British took more-violent form with the outbreak of war in 1812.

Wartime Opportunity. Like many good businessmen, Shreve saw in the conflict with England an opportunity for profit. With the British blockade closing down shipping lanes on the coastwide trade with New Orleans, Eastern merchants would have to depend more than ever on the interior water route to the South while New Orleans merchants would have to find some way to get their goods north and east. Additional keelboats might accommodate the increase in downstream traffic, but only the new steamboats could hope to handle a sharp rise in upstream freight volume. But there were two problems. First, no steamboat had yet been able to ascend the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Second, the Robert FultonRobert Livingston partnership still claimed a legal monopoly on the steamboat trade of the lower Mississippi, and their steamboats were too weak to make the ascent. Moreover, the monopolys New Orleans lawyers threatened to confiscate any steamboat that tried to succeed where they had failed. Knowing the potential of the wartime river trade, Shreve decided to challenge the monopoly anyway. He invested in a new and more powerful steamboat under construction in Pennsylvania and then offered to captain the vessel on its maiden voyage to New Orleans. On the first day in December 1814 Shreve loosed the forty-five-ton stern wheeler Enterprise from its Pittsburgh moorings and headed south with a cargo of ammunition and arms destined for Andrew Jackson and New Orleans.

The Enterprise. Two weeks later Shreve landed in a city under attack. The British fleet controlled the Mississippi outlets, and red-coated troops were poised to descend on the city. Andrew Jacksons army stood in the way, and Jackson not only needed Shreves cargo but also needed Shreves steamboat. For the next several weeks Shreve ferried supplies to the downriver forts past British batteries, ran reinforcements down from the North, and finally manned a cannon; himself during the decisive battle on 8 January 1815; None of this kept the Livingston family from bringing suit against Shreve and taking the Enterprise into custody after the battle. But Shreves lawyer managed to get the boat released in a few hours, and Shreve wasted no time in setting off on the historic return voyage to Pittsburgh.

An Inland Sea. Shreve chose an opportune time to attempt to ascend the Mississippi. The river had overflowed its banks, reducing the currents speed and providing a relatively placid inland sea for the small engines of the Enterprise to push against. In fact, Shreve apparently spent as much time sailing over the flooded flatlands as he did in the rivers channel. Nevertheless, when he landed at Pittsburgh fifty-four days later, the Enterprise became not only the first steamboat to ascend the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers but also the first to make the round-trip to New Orleans and back. Shreve was the toast of the upper Ohio, attending dinners in his honor in Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Brownsville. Acknowledging the captains accomplishment, the Niles Weekly Register said: how do the rivers and canals of this old world dwindle into insignificance compared with this, and what a prospect of commerce is held out to the immense regions of the West by means of these boats.

Steamboat Entrepreneur. Having traded on the Mississippi for fifteen years, Shreve knew exactly what prospect of commerce the steamboat offered. Within months of his arrival in Pittsburgh, Shreve began designing and building his own boat at Wheeling. The Washington would be unlike any other steamboat on the river. It had a shallow draft, and its 100-horsepower high-pressure engine (significantly more powerful than the Fulton engines) could make headway against even the strongest Mississippi current. Moreover, Shreve placed the engine on the surface deck, with the boilers on the uppermost deck, leaving the hold for cargo. Finally, unlike earlier steamboats, the Washington actually boasted two floors above the waterline, the topmost for passenger accommodations, including a large bar and spacious cabins. When one of the boilers on the Washington blew up on its maiden voyage, killing fourteen, many thought Shreves designs were folly. But Shreve repaired the boat, sailed to New Orleans in 1818, and returned with a full complement of passengers and 150 tons of freight. By the end of its second round-trip the Washington had not only paid for itself but also yielded a profit of $1, 700 for its owners.

Model for an Era. Like most steamboats, the Washington wore out after six years of service. Nonetheless, its design had become a model for the steamboat age. But Shreve soon came out with yet another innovative steamboat, the George Washington. Completed in 1824, the George Washington was a side wheeler rather than a stern wheeler, and the two wheels could move independently, making it possible to turn the vessel easily. The new vessel, moreover, had four decks and a pilot house balanced on its almost flat hull. The four decks allowed Shreve to offer more extensive and luxurious lodgings for passengers. None of the sleeping rooms have more than two beds, one British traveler wrote, and a gallery and verandah extends entirely around the vessel commanding a fine view of the surrounding scenery. The boat also featured a circulating library and a smoking and drinking room for the gentlemen. With their innovative engineering and advanced passenger accommodations, Shreves steamboat designs helped set the standard for the steamboat era.

Government Service. In 1826 Shreves life took an abrupt turn when he was commissioned head of the Office of Superintendent of Western River Improvement at an annual salary of $5, 000, less than could be made on a single trip of a good steamboat to New Orleans. Shreve liked the challenge of the job, which included responsibility for improving river navigation. To solve the problem of removing snags, or fallen trees, from the river Shreve designed an unusual double-hulled steam vessel that he thought would do the job. In April 1829 the Heliopolis set sail under Shreves command and headed for the most dangerous snag-ridden portions of the Mississippi. With its complicated system of beams, windlasses, levers, and rollers, the Heliopolis outperformed even the optimistic expectations of its designer. Shreve reported to Washington that he had sailed the ship to plum point (the Most dangerous place on the Mississippi River) where I arrived at 12 m. There I made the first attempt to remove snags with the boat & am proud to say the performance far exceeded my most sanguine expectations. In eleven hours that whole forrest of formidable snags was effectually removed.

The Great Raft. Shreve next turned to the two-hundred-mile-long raft of logs that clogged the Red River in upper Louisiana. This Great Raft had been building up for hundreds of years, and the river had so spread out above the obstruction that the entire area had become a maze of bayous, marshes, and lakes. At some points the mat of logs had grown so thick that horsemen could ride over the top of the river and trees grew from the rotting wood to wave over the waterway. Upstream settlers clamored for help in opening the river to commerce with New Orleans. Beginning work on the raft in 1833, Shreve and his crew cleared seventy miles in the first year despite suffering from oppressive heat, alligators, and hordes of mosquitoes. Three hundred thousand dollars and four years later the Red River ran free, and Shreve had a town named after him for the achievement. In less than ten years Shreve and his snag boats cleared the Mississippi, the Red, the Ohio, the Arkansas, and the Cumberland Rivers, leaving only annual federal maintenance to keep newly felled trees from settling into the beds again.

Later Life. Shreve also used his office as a platform to promote improved steamboat safety. He advocated federal testing of steamboat boilers as well as the official inspection of older, more dangerous boats. Like most civil servants, however, he found that probity and efficiency did not deflect constant public criticism while his bureaucratic supervisors in Washington kept up an insistent demand for completed paperwork and sent suspicious letters threatening audits of his accounts. When he was finally fired in 1841 by the incoming Whig administration, Shi eve did not seem chagrined. He moved to i plantation outside Saint Louis, invested in local real estate, became a founder of the Pacific Railroad Company, and died a prosperous and contented man in March 1851.


Florence L. Dorsey, Master of the Mississippi: Henry Shreve and the Conquest of the Mississippi (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941).