continue to build
for Steamboat Bicentennial
honors first steamboat voyage
Lela Jane Bradshaw
(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.
Were 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 Bands 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 years 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 Louisvilles 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
While residents along the Ohio River may now be quite familiar with
steamboats, the appearance of one of these ships is still cause for
For more information, visit: http://rivers.hanover.edu/steamboat2011/.
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