Friday, May 4, 2012

Pittsburgh's Waterways (Part 2)

An Early Account of Doing Business on the River -
One of the first known written accounts of river trade between Pittsburgh and New Orleans took place nearly 200 years ago. In the early spring of 1807, a group of farmers in Greensburg were in need of basic supplies such as coffee, tea, and flour but had little money to purchase these provisions. What they did have was an abundance of distilled whiskey but not much of a local market for the liquor. A businessman from Irwin named James Fleming, Sr. proposed a solution to the farmer’s plight: transport the whiskey from Pittsburgh to New Orleans on a flatboat to sell or trade for the much needed supplies. Fleming kept a well written account of his journey.

The voyage began on April 3, 1807 on the flat boat laden with 14 barrels of whiskey, totaling over 500 gallons, over 500 pounds of deer skins that would later be sold for ten cents a pound, and various supplies for the trip. Along the way, stops for trade and sales were made in Steubenville, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; Baton Rouge, Louisiana and then New Orleans. The river trip took seven weeks and, except for a “strong spring storm”, was fairly uneventful. After traveling from Steamer ship from New Orleans to New York, home via stage coach, Fleming arrived back in Greensburg in August with a nearly $200 profit for the farmers. Little did Fleming know, this same trip would be made countless times in years to come by riverboat captains, merchants, and packet boat travelers.

River Trade was Prosperous -
It’s hard to visualize a time when the air around Pittsburgh, especially at the Point, was thick with smoke. Smoke not from the area’s steel mills but from the steamboats that clogged the three rivers and lined the shores of the Allegheny and Monongahela. During the 1830’s Pittsburgh was the hub of industry in boat building as some of the finest steam ships and sternwheelers that sailed the Mississippi and beyond were constructed in the Pittsburgh area.

Mrs. V.D. Drynan, the 1929 Pittsburgh Civic Club President was quoted then as saying; “In 1837 before Pittsburgh was considered much, most of the boat building business was centered in Glenwillard or Shoustown as it was known then. The boatyards employed several hundred people and they were among the best boat builders on the river.”

American writer Mark Twain helped conjure the images of life on the Mississippi River that was traversed by the grand paddle wheel steam boats. Not only were these ships ornate and graceful but they were also the powerhouses of the waterways. In the early days of river traffic, these steam driven workhorses moved massive amounts of materials.

The mid 19th century brought much prosperity to the trade companies who operated on the waterways. In one shipment from the upper Allegheny to Pittsburgh, over 3 million feet of board lumber was floated down river to be used for the construction of homes and buildings. The cost to move this material was about nine dollars per 1,000 feet. Another load saw 14,000 barrels of salt from mines in New York State transported south down the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers at a cost of 8 dollars per barrel. On the return trip to Pittsburgh and points north, many water craft were loaded with apples, cider, bacon and other useful household items as a river trip was rarely wasted with empty cargo bays or ship’s holds.

While transportation companies often reaped great profits, the average roustabout or deck hand was paid about 50 cents a day. Work on the rivers was hard and dangerous and many were exposed to hazards including falling over board into the frigid and unforgiving waters or being crushed by tons of shifting cargo.

The opportunity for work on the rivers was plentiful. In 1918, the tonnage of materials transported on the Monongahela River exceeded the tonnage transported through both the Panama and Suez Canals combined. The Monongahela saw 17 million tons of cargo transported past Pittsburgh while both canals combined saw less than 15 million tons pass through their locks. This cargo included the fresh cut lumber from the Allegheny Forrest passing through Pittsburgh on its way south as well as steel produced in Homestead and Duquesne in route to destinations in the west.


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  2. Great info would like to use as reference to make a video... Your Permission?