On Tuesday, Jan. 1, 1850, the Evansville Daily Journal’s 27-year old editor Addison H. Sanders wrote, “Happy New Year! — Old 1849 has stepped out, and 1850 comes in brightly. ... We now stand in the middle of a century — on one side of us, the greatest half age that ever human eyes opened upon — in the future, the greatest half age that ever man dreamed of. The age of discoveries and inventions and miracles.”
Transportation revolutionThe statement was not hyperbole. For 83-year old farmer James Blanks (1769-1852), Trigg County’s oldest resident, and his 77-year old wife Sarah, the advances in transportation and communications that had taken place during the past 50 years would have been unimaginable when they made the journey by oxcart and flatboat from near Oxford, North Carolina, to the Wallonia area around 1800. National and foreign news in the Sept. 15, 1821 edition of the Kentucky Republican (oldest of two copies of the Hopkinsville newspaper extant in 1884, when they were shown to historian William Henry Perrin) was “from six weeks to three months old.”
Steamboats and railroads now made it possible for a traveler to make the trip from Cadiz to New York that had taken several weeks in 1820 in about 10 days. With favorable weather, British Royal Mail paddlewheel steamships crossed the Atlantic from Liverpool to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in as little as eight days. Eleven-day crossing times were routine. News that the mail steamers brought from Europe could be instantaneously flashed from Halifax to every major American city east of the Mississippi River by telegraph.
Freight moved by water. America had, since the opening of the Erie Canal — a ditch 40 feet wide with water 4 feet deep from the Hudson River near Albany 363 miles to Lake Erie at Buffalo — in 1821, built more than 4,000 miles of barge canals. Three quarters were in the states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, each of which had about 1,000 miles of canals.
The Ohio and Erie Canal, a waterway that went from Lake Erie at Cleveland via the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas-Muskingum rivers to the Ohio River at Marietta, Ohio, was completed in 1833. It opened an all-water route from New York to the vast Mississippi River watershed, with its more than 16,000 miles of navigable streams. The 2½-mile long Louisville and Portland Canal, cut through solid rock and equipped with three locks that allowed steamboats to go around the Falls of the Ohio, opened in 1830. It removed the last barrier to navigation between Pittsburgh and New Orleans.
More than 550 steamboats were operating on the Mississippi and its tributaries. Routine steamboat service extended to Council Bluffs, on the Missouri River at the western extremity of Iowa. The trading post that was to become Omaha was a mile away across the river. Chartered steamboats occasionally went up the Missouri through the Dakotas to the American Fur Company’s trading post at the future site of Fort Benton, Montana.
SteamboatsEleven-year old James T. Ingram and his 9-year old sister Sarah, the children of Thomas and Nancy J. Ingram; 11-year old orphan Sarah Lander who lived with her widowed 63-year old grandmother Elizabeth McAlister, and the other children who played atop the Indian mound in Canton and looked down at the river saw a procession of steamboats.
The Charleston Mercury of March 27, 1848 described navigation on Cumberland River: “There are thirty-nine steamboats engaged in the trade on this river. One-third to New Orleans, carrying 300 to 1,100 tons. Eight or ten boats run in trade above Nashville during winter and spring, discharging their cargoes at Nashville; and, being of light draft, enter the trade, in the lower Cumberland, in summer and fall. The other boats make up a semi-weekly line of packets to Cincinnati; two semi-weekly lines to Smithland, at the mouth of the Cumberland; weekly lines to St. Louis and to New Orleans; and an irregular, but constant, communication with Wheeling and Pittsburgh.”
People in Canton recognized every steamboat on sight as it came into view round the Devil’s Elbow bend; and their captains, pilots and clerks were familiar personages. Advertisements in New Orleans newspapers identify some of the them. Foremost among the boats was the “new, magnificent, and fast-running passenger steamer America,” commanded by Capt. Jesse Johnson. In November 1849, the big white with red and blue trim side-wheeler made her first 1,300 miles trip from New Orleans to Nashville in nine days. Another new side-wheel boat, the Nashville, built in her namesake city and commanded by Nashvillian Capt. Thomas Ballard, completed her seven-day maiden voyage down the rivers to New Orleans on Jan. 11, 1850 with 100 passengers and 1,200 tons of cargo. During the winter 1849-50 shipping season, the Tennessee, Capt. James Lee; Melodeon, Capt. Jacob Hunter; Old Hickory, Capt. R. Northern; Talleyrand, Capt. B. Duffield; Jas. Dick, Capt. Jenkins, Jamestown, Capt. James C. Leake; and Charles Carroll, Capt. Edward D. Farnsworth, were regular visitors at Canton.
The new year began with a wreck. On Friday, Jan. 11, the Charles Carroll backed away from the Nashville landing and headed down the river enroute to New Orleans. The boat stopped over the weekend at Canton to load cargo. She departed on Monday afternoon laden to capacity with 4,500 barrels of pork and lard. A few hours later, the boat met disaster at Shelly Island, at the Trigg-Lyon county line. A dispatch that appeared in the Evansville Daily Journal of Jan. 22 stated: “Eddyville, Jan. 15.—The steamer Charles Carroll, heavily loaded, while rounding to a mile below Hillman’s iron works and nine miles above this place, at 3 o’clock this morning, struck a stump close to shore, and immediately sunk in about ten feet water. She has since swung round into deep water. The cargo is supposed to be an entire loss. The river, however, is now full of floating freight, which is being collected by rafts and boats.”
Torrential rains in March and April caused flooding that newspapers described as the worst in 50 years. The New Orleans True Delta of April 16 reported, “The last Clarksville Chronicle says: The immense flood in the Cumberland has almost suspended business, by cutting us off from communication with the surrounding country.”
The spring floods were followed by a summer drought of “almost unexampled severity.” Navigation above Canton ceased at the end of June, when the water became too shallow for steamboats to get over Line Island Shoal. From mid-July, the Cumberland became too low for the small steamboats — about the same size as modern houseboats — that operated shuttle service between Canton and Smithland to get over Horse Ford Shoal below Eddyville.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on 1850.