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Bad Timing

This piece first appeared in the 2006 Waterman & Hill-Traveller's Companion, © 2005 Jim Jung. Used by permission

In the winter of 1795 a recent German immigrant arrived in Pittsburgh. His name is lost to history but he – along with thousands of others – had been drawn to the infinite possibilities of the western frontier of the infant United States.

Pittsburgh was the jumping off spot – literally – for the frontier. At the headwaters of the Ohio River the village of Pittsburgh did a thriving business supplying the settlers with everything needed for life beyond the fringes of civilization. And Pittsburgh's biggest business by far was the manufacture of boats to carry the settlers on their way – Kentucky boats, New Orleans boats, pirogues and keelboats.

Settlers heading down river would contract a boat-builder to construct a craft for their journey. Those unable to afford this sort of skilled labor would often construct their own. Raw materials were never lacking since all it required was timber – and Pittsburgh in 1796 had no lack of that.

Our anonymous German and five of his friends – all skilled woodworkers – followed this latter course. In the space of five months they built an impressive and unique craft that became the talk of Pittsburgh. Unlike all other river boats of the time this one had two large paddle wheels on either side of the craft. Between these paddle wheels, and connected to them by an axle, was an equally large "squirrel cage" – a circular treadmill large enough for two horses to walk abreast. Pittsburgh had never seen anything like it.

It's (relatively) easy to follow a river downstream, all you have to do is stay in the current and avoid hitting any rocks, snags or either shoreline – the current does the work. The trick is returning upstream against the current – and that's serious work. The anonymous German and his companions believed they had solved this problem with their ingenious horse-powered paddlewheel boat.

Rivers were the arteries of settlement and commerce on the frontier since they were the only convenient and practical way to move goods and people. Even in 1796 considerable shipments of furs, grain, and other commodities were regularly heading downriver to the port of New Orleans. However relatively little trade flowed upriver due to the difficulty of navigating against the current. In fact most boats that made the trip to New Orleans were sold there for the lumber they contained and the crew then walked or rode home. Our anonymous German and his friends were determined to change the equation of trade on the Mississippi. So with stoic German fortitude they set out.

The trip down river apparently occurred without incident and they made the Pittsburgh to New Orleans run in the usual three months – but it was here that their troubles began. After purchasing ponies for their treadmill (horses turned out to be too large and inefficient) they searched for some suitable cargo for their return trip to Pittsburgh. But they searched in vain. The idea of shipping large quantities of anything upstream was so radical – and until the coming of the Germans – so impractical that no one had any cargo for their venture.

Disheartened by their lack of cargo they decided to make the return trip to Pittsburgh anyway, with an empty vessel. So in June of 1796 they set out with their strange little craft and headed upstream.

Their horse-powered paddlewheel boat worked, after a fashion, and was able – slowly – to make headway against the powerful current of the Mississippi. But the strain on the ponies, the constant stops for "fuel" for their motive power and the drain on their financial resources proved too much. By July they had gotten as far as Natchez and there they threw in the towel. They sold the ponies and boat and – like thousands of other river crews before them – set out overland for Pittsburgh along the Natchez Trace.

I wish this story had a happy ending; or at least a satisfying ending; or even an ending at all. But it doesn't.

Somewhere in Tennessee, after passing the fledgling village of Nashville, the entire company was overcome by illness and stopped at a friendly Indian village to recuperate. I've been unable to discover anything further concerning the fate of the expedition.

My hope is that they eventually recovered and returned to Pittsburgh where they became part of the thriving boat building community there. But since this particular piece of the frontier erupted in one of the numerous and frequent Indian wars while they were incapacitated my fear is that their luck (such as it was) held and they perished in the wilderness. But we just don't know.

As it turned out they were truly ahead of their time. Upstream river commerce had to wait another two decades to catch on. Just fifteen years later another paddlewheel boat, the New Orleans, left Pittsburgh on a journey to her namesake city - this time powered by steam. Within five years the river was alive with steam-powered commerce and goods were regularly heading upriver. Within another twenty years New Orleans was rivaling New York City itself for the title of largest shipping port in the nation.

But in 1796 these events were still far in the distant future. We can only hope that the Germans eventually made it home.

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Copyright © 2006 Jim Jung