Early Beginnings

Celebrations continue to build
for Steamboat Bicentennial

Cultural, educational event
honors first steamboat voyage

By Lela Jane Bradshaw
Contributing Writer

(June 2011) – Two hundred years ago a steamship designed by Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston would travel the Ohio River, proving the validity of this new form of transportation. While the New Orleans would mark the start of a new wave of American trade and communication, initially the ship proved something of a shock to those who would first catch sight of it on the water.
The appearance of this strange vessel stirred excitement and fear in a public unprepared for its passage. Many who caught sight and sound of the boat had no idea that it would be coming and there was much confusion about what this strange and noisy thing was. “People were very frightened-it was very loud!” explains Marissa Austin, Director of External Relations for the Rivers Institute at Hanover College.
The Madison-Jefferson County Library has assembled a website tracking river and rail history in Madison during the Age of Steam that includes accounts how the New Orleans was greeted as it past by Madison with “a noise like the firing of a gun.” Some fishermen who happened to be on the banks at that time heard the frightening noise and looked in “the direction of the Kentucky shore. At the same time a strange looking craft rounded the point.”
In light of the fact that Indian attacks were a real danger of the era, “They immediately dropped everything they had with them and made haste for town. They ran until out of breath and then hid under some logs for a time. But finally, becoming more alarmed, they broke from cover and ran through the woods, entering the town streets in wild excitement, crying that the Indians were coming up the river.”
Other witnesses to this new sort of ship claimed that a “sawmill” was traveling in the river, for that was the closest thing many had ever seen to the steam powered boat. Madison was still a brand new town at the time of the New Orleans’ passing, having been founded only two years before. The ship did not stop in the immediate Madison area, but instead spent time in Louisville and Cincinnati.
While the appearance of the strange vessel may have proven an unexpected and frightening vision, residents today have much more of an opportunity to prepare for the Steamboat Celebration cumulating this fall.
“We’re trying to build some excitement building up to the big event in October,” says Austin. While many people are looking forward to the October cruises taking place aboard the Belle of Louisville and the Belle of Cincinnati, steamboat related activities and educational opportunities will be held each month from now through the end of the year all along the Ohio River.
On June 16 the first film in the Steamboat Cultural Series will be shown at 7 p.m. at the Ohio Theater in downtown Madison. The 1928 comedy “Steamboat Bill Jr.” stars silent film era icon Buster Keaton as a young man who reconnects with his steamboat captain father.
Throughout the summer, other river themed films will be presented including “Show Boat” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” For those looking to learn more about the cultural and economic impact of steamboats during the 1800s, the Jefferson County Historical Society will play host to the traveling steamboat exhibit from June 1 through July 12. Other bicentennial events will be taking place throughout Kentuckiana. These include the Indiana University Southeast Concert Band’s performance of an assortment of songs selected in recognition of historic voyage as a part of their Summer Pops Concert. This is scheduled for 3 p.m. on June 5 in New Albany. Certainly, the steamboats arriving in October will be met with enthusiastic delight rather than the suspicion and fear of 200 years ago.
Yet, not everything has changed over the course of time. The Rivers Institute at Hanover College has collected a list of buildings along the Ohio that may have been seen by the crew of the New Orleans and that can still be viewed today. Some of pre-1811 structures include the 1790 Richard Masterson House near Carrollton, Ky., and the 1808 George Ash House near Vevay, Ind. And while no one expects a repeat of the New Madrid earthquake that struck during the 1811 voyage just days after the ship passed over the Falls of the Ohio, modern ships have their own dangers to face.
This year’s Great Steamboat Race has been rescheduled for June 29 due to May flooding along the Ohio River. While the event is typically a part of Louisville’s Kentucky Derby festivities, this year the high water prevented the Belle of Cincinnati from coming down as planned as the high crest made it impossible for the boat to pass under the bridge.
While residents along the Ohio River may now be quite familiar with steamboats, the appearance of one of these ships is still cause for excitement.

• For more information, visit: http://rivers.hanover.edu/steamboat2011/.

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