Historical Markers
Boatbuilding Center/Steamboat Enterprise Historical Marker
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Boatbuilding Center/Steamboat Enterprise

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
Dunlap's Creek Park, Bank Street, Brownsville

Behind the Marker

An image of a long line of steam ships docked and a huge crowd in the foreground.
Centennial celebration of steamboat navigation on inland waters, Pittsburgh,...
Steamboats that churned up and down the great Mississippi River basin captured the imagination of Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century. The western river steamer was a particularly American invention that became a symbol of national pride, technological progress, and economic growth. The fact that boiler explosions made steamboats dangerous in some ways added to their allure. To most people, though, the benefits of steamboats to commerce were much greater than the costs of accidents.
Lithograph on stone image of the Steam Engine and Boiler works, bordering the waterway, which is full of all kinds of ships, boats, and sailing vessels.
Penn Steam Engine and Boiler Works, Philadelphia, PA, circa 1854.

In the decades following the American Revolution, settlers poured over the Appalachian Mountains into the Ohio and Mississippi River watersheds. Because the mountains were such a formidable barrier, Midwesterners shipped goods to market by floating them down river to New Orleans, either in flatboats or keelboats. After off-loading their cargoes, crews broke up the flatboats and sold the lumber. The crew members then made the long return trip by foot. Keelboats were often laboriously rowed or poled upstream covering about ten to twenty miles per day. The trip from New Orleans to St. Louis could take three to four months.

As early as the 1780s the idea of developing a river steamboat had occurred to several inventors, including markerJohn Fitch who operated the first American steamboat on the Delaware River in 1786. markerRobert Fulton, when he began operating his Clermont on the Hudson River in 1807, was aware that the real impact of steamboats would be in the west. In 1811, Fulton and associates launched the New Orleans, which traveled two thousand miles from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in two months.
Color postcard of The Point Pittsburgh, Pa. at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, forming the Ohio River.
The point of Pittsburgh, where the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela...

The first round trip was made by another boat, the Enterprise, captained by Henry M. Shreve, who became a major pioneer in Mississippi steamboating. Shreve grew up in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, where he observed boatmen, including his brother John, float by on the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers on their way to distant New Orleans. When his father died in 1799, fourteen-year-old Henry went to work on riverboats. Eight years later he built his own keelboat at Brownsville and went into business for himself hauling goods throughout the Ohio and Mississippi River system. Shreve became interested in steamboats when the British blockaded American ports during the War of 1812. With coastal shipping disrupted, there was the potential for river traffic to increase significantly. To take advantage of this opportunity, in 1814 Shreve invested in an eighty-foot sternwheeler steamboat, the Enterprise, being built at Brownsville, based on the patents of Daniel French.
Sketch of a steam boat.
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John Fitch's First Steam Boat, ca. 1786.

On December 1, 1814, Shreve left Pittsburgh with a cargo of arms and ammunition for Andrew Jackson, who was defending New Orleans from the British. Arriving two weeks later, Shreve found the city under attack. Over the next several weeks he ferried supplies and reinforcements downriver, sometimes under fire from British cannon. During the famous Battle of New Orleans, in which Jackson's improvised army routed the British, Shreve manned a cannon himself.
Engraving of the <i>New Orleans</i>, constructed in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1810.
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Engraving of the New Orleans, constructed in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1810.

After his heroic service to his country, he was rewarded by having his boat confiscated. The Fulton interests had secured a monopoly on steamboat traffic in Louisiana. After his lawyer got the boat released, Shreve attempted the upstream trip with what turned out to be an underpowered boat. Nevertheless, he arrived in Pittsburgh fifty-four days later completing the first round-trip by steamboat. Soon he began working on a larger and more powerful boat, the Washington, which would become a prototype for later ones, though the great American river steamboat was more the result of continuous innovation by many boat builders than the inspiration of a single individual.   

The greater Pittsburgh area, along with Cincinnati and Louisville, became one the major centers of steamboat construction during the nineteenth century, accounting for more than one-third of the boats on western rivers. Brownsville, located fifty miles up the Monongahela from Pittsburgh, had been one of the earliest and most important centers of steamboat construction. Although activity continued there throughout the century, after the 1840s when the river was canalized, the locks limited the size of boats that could be made at Brownsville. Steamboat construction, especially the metalworking skills needed to make steam engines, contributed to the industrial development of the Pittsburgh region, but the biggest impact of steamboats was their efficient transportation of goods before–and even after–the coming of railroads.
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