By Mark W. Danielson
I recently wrote about Old Sacramento and the Delta King riverboat. The mid-1800s was a colorful time, and the Delta King was quite a ship for its day. But long before the King came along, getting upstream was a chore. My long-time 95 year-old buddy Paul gave me another glimpse into the past when I saw him the other day.
Paul grew up in Burnside, Kentucky, near the Cumberland River where the river was the town’s lifeline. While some US rivers allowed horses to draw barges up stream, the Cumberland’s steep terrain precluded any such thing. As a result, cargo was floated downstream on disposable barges while their replacements were being built. An apparent early recycler, Paul’s grandfather figured there was a better way to do business so he installed a paddle wheel on the back of a barge and started a business ferrying goods upstream.
At night, or when the visibility was poor, river pilots used sound to determine their position on the river. After blasting his horn, Gramps would listen for the echoes. If the echo was the same on both sides, he knew he was in the middle. If it was different, then he corrected his course until the echoes were equal. In swollen rivers, his shallow-draft barge allowed him to cut corners. Gramps spent so much time on that river, he probably knew it better than he did his kids. In those days, driving a boat was an art form and Gramps was pretty good at it. His son followed suit, although Paul didn’t believe his father was ever a licensed river pilot. In the early 1800’s, life was hard, but no one complained.
Paul’s grandfather was hardly the first to attach an engine to a paddle wheel, though. The first known paddle steamer was built in 1783 by Marquis Claude De Jouffroy of Lyons in France. A double-acting steam engine drove two paddle wheels on the sides of his craft. On July 15th of that year, the Pyroscaphe steamed up the Saône for fifteen minutes before its engine quit. Sadly, political turmoil grounded the Pyroscaphe faster than its failed engine.
Scottish engineer William Symington took the next stab at a paddle-driven steam ship. Following his success in 1788 and 1789, in 1802 he delivered a powered barge named the Charlotte Dundas to the Forth And Clyde Canal Company. In spite of the Charlotte Dundas successfully hauling two 70-ton barges almost 20 miles in 6 hours against a strong headwind, some company directors weary of riverbank erosion sunk Symington’s dream.
Robert Fulton's North River Steam Boat is credited with being the first commercial paddleboat success, which in 1807 ran between New York City and Albany. Whether Paul’s grandfather was inspired Jouffroy, Symington, or Fulton is not known, but paddle-equipped riverboats were soon seen on rivers around the world. The multi-decked Delta King and Delta Queen showboats came much later as follow-ons to these early barges.
Normally such trips to the past are found in books or through the Internet, but they mean so much more when heard first-hand. If you know anyone who has an interesting story, please share it. They are not only fun to read, we can all learn from them.