Steamboat 'Round The Bend!
Submitted by Tim Chase
by John Graves
Steam power has always had a romantic appeal for Americans. The "Iron Horse" is a legendary hero in the expansion and development of our nation. Not far behind in popular fancy is the river steamboat, for many years the fastest and safest mode of travel west of the Appalachians. The famous "western waters" were the Ohio, Missourri, Mississippi, and their myriad tributaries.
The Twin Tiers of Southern New York and northern Pennsylvania never saw a spectacle like the celebrated challenge race of the Nachez and Robert E. Lee, but the steamboat believe it or not, could and did connect Olean, NY with Pittsburgh and hence to New Orleans.
Never heard such rubbish? Well, it's all in the record. Regular service was never established, but on two occasions citizens of Cattaraugus County greeted "packets" from Pittsburgh. They had some concern and persisted and invested in the proper preparation of a navigational channel. People from Potter and McKean counties could have made the short trip by carriage, wagon or horseback to Olean and then embarked for any point from Salamanca to the Gulf of Mexico.
Of course, there weren't many people in this area in the 1830's, so such a business venture might have stimulated migration into this "last frontier" of the commonwealth.
Let's take a look at the two voyages of proven record and at the industry which produced the universal ships that made them.
Robert Fulton's Clermont, launched in 1807, is usually in our schools as the "first steamboat." Fulton simply had the financial backing necessary for success; at least four other men have better credentials for the title of "inventor."
Fulton and his partner, Robert Livingston were quick to consider the potential value of steamboats on "western rivers" and took in a junior partner, Nicholas J. Roosevelt, who was to investigate the situation and proceed accordingly.
In 1810 the New Orleans was launched on the banks of the Monongahela near Pittsburgh. Her trip to her namesake city was delayed by the "Great Earthquake" of 1811 but she made the trip to the Gulf and back against the current in handsome style.
Elizabeth Town on the Monongahela became the center of the boat building trade, but several towns pan all three steams radiating from Pittsburgh's Point were soon involved.
In 1826 the 50 - ton packet Albian was launched at Brownsville, PA and entered the Pittsburgh - Lousville trade. The following year she ascended the Allegheny to Kittaning, the first steamboat to make that run. 1828 saw Capt. Benjamin Crooks bring William D. Duncan up to Franklin and on to Oil Creek. The Pittsburgh to Franklin passage took 32 hours. This Duncan was a larger ship, listed at 110 tons.
Mile by mile the shipping trade moved up the Allegheny as far as Warren. This town seemed likely to become and remain the Allegheny's head of navigation. A profitable river commerce existed between Warren and Pittsburgh long after the Civil War.
But the limit had not been reached! A gentleman named Blanchard from Connecticut had designed and now owned the packet Allegheny which was launched at Pittsburgh March 20, 1830. This was a stern-wheeler with the paddle wheel exposed. Up until this time stern wheels had been enclosed in a recess.
Leaving Pittsburgh on May 14, 1830 Allegheny carried 64 passengers and 25 tons of freight as she headed upstream. She arrived in Warren five days later and at Cornplanter (now under the waters of Kinzua Lake) on the sixth day of her maiden voyage.
At 11:00 a.m. on May 21, Allegheny docked at Olean! Her stockholders were exited by the accomplishment of pilots James and Lewis Follett. Unfortunately, no pictures exist to back or deny the claim she had a double stern wheel. Two previous trips had brought the ship as far as Oil Creek and Kinzua.
Allegheny's trip to Olean, for reasons unexplained, was not to be repeated. One can safely assume a financial matter was involved. She finished out her career on the regular low-water runs between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
How did she get so far up a nomally shallow stream, even in May when waters would be relatively high? It seems almost incredible that a craft 91 1/2 feet long with a 16 foot 10 inch beam could draw no more than two feet and seven inches of water! The secret of success is only that the engines were mounted on the deck where the cargo space and passenger accomodations were likewise located.
Seven long years passed before the good citizens of Olean got their second visit from a steamboat.
New Castle, another small sternwheeler of 40 tons, had been built in Freedom, PA on the south shore of the Ohio in Beaver County. She and a sister ship Fallston plied the Pittsburgh-Beaver trade which connected with canal boats.
In 1873 a group of Allegheny River merchants purchased her and assigned Capt. John Leach as her master for the May voyage to Olean which was completed with no major problems but no great speed.
New Castle drew 3 1/2 feet loaded and was listed as 40 deadweight tons. She had an overall length of 100 feet and a mean width of 16 1/2 feet. Among the other feats of this shallow water specialist was ascending the Allegheny's meager tributary the Kiskiminetas as far as Leechburg, PA, the only steamboat ever to make that run successfully.
The Allegheny today, of course, has locks, dams and other features not a factor in 1837. Towboats still operate not far from Pittsburgh but the heavier traffic is on the Monongahela, the Ohio and, of course, the Mississippi.
Olean, alas, never did hear the dramatic, romantic sound of the steamboat whistle which regrettably was not yet invented at the times of the Allegheny's and New Castle's visits.
The saddest of words, it is said, are "it might have been" It can still be a pleasant challenge to the imagination to picture a leisurely water journey from the upper Allegheny to the Mississippi Delta. With only a change of boats at Pittsburgh, it was possible 170 years ago.
Contributors note: Having spent time on the Allegheny both above and below the Kinzua Dam, this feat seems almost impossible. Obviously, with the building of this dam in the early 1960's, the trip is now most definitely so.
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Last Update February 2, 2020