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Rollin' on the river

New Orleans, March 23, 1903: High water on the Mississippi makes the laborious task of loading the old sternwheelers a little bit easier.

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It’s close to the end for these magnificent vessels, freight carriers that once ruled the nation’s inland waterways from the Ohio to the Missouri to the Columbia. The South grew quickly once the steam vessel started bringing passengers to the Crescent City about 1812. During the next 75 years the sternwheeler developed into a complex, specialized vessel defined by the shallow, winding and often swift-flowing waters it worked in.

Look at the maze of wire guys, lines and ropes, ramps and booms. Said one river captain: “I am so indolent, and all forms of study are so hateful to me, that although I was several years constantly on steamboats I never learned all the parts of the steamboat. Names of parts were in my ear daily, whose office and locality I was ignorant of.” He was Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain.

Sternwheelers generally were used as riverboats, sidewheelers as seagoing or tow vessels. The sternwheeler’s paddle wheel was protected from floating logs and snags, and the hull was beamy, with tremendous freight-carrying capacity. The Natchez, built in 1869, measured 301 feet, had eight steam boilers and could carry 5,500 bales of cotton, along with hundreds of passengers.

The sternwheeler on the left in the image here is the Chalmette, and her name reflects the local history: The town of Chalmette is where the Battle of New Orleans was fought in 1815. Americans took great pride in Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British and celebrated Jan. 8 as a national holiday for many years.

Railroads and diesel-powered vessels supplanted the sternwheelers, but the ships and men left behind a legacy of language. “Highfalutin” comes from the fluting on the smokestacks, and the taller the stack, the better. To “blow your stack” is to clear soot with a blast of steam. “Off on the right foot” — it was unlucky to step aboard with the left foot. “Hit rock bottom” and “hit a snag” are obvious.

March 2013 issue