Why Ohio Valley Shipbuilding Dream Couldn’t Stay Afloat

Not every economic-development program works out. On a late April morning in 1801, most of Cincinnati’s thousand citizens lined the banks of the Ohio River, eager to watch one of the wonders of the age. A great new sailing ship, St. Clair, was passing downriver from Marietta for its maiden voyage on the high seas.

But something was terribly wrong: Those spectators were 600 miles from the closest salt-water port.

St. Clair, a square-rigged brig named for the Ohio Territory’s first governor, Arthur St. Clair, was the first seagoing vessel to rise in the Ohio River valley. Built in Marietta with a burden of 104 tons, St. Clair required three dozen sailors to manage her at sea.

The large ship floated downriver backward, leading with its stern. To slow its progress, it dragged an anchor.

The launch marked an industrial burst in the Ohio Valley. In 1770, Benjamin Franklin predicted that Americans would build “schooners, sloops &c., on the Ohio, suitable for the West-India or European markets.” The valley combined the elements needed for a ship: great stands of oak, black walnut, cherry, locust and yellow pine, along with nearby iron ore and sources for hemp, flax and tar. When skilled workers arrived from New England, the remaining challenge was how to transport the ships down the Ohio and Mississippi to the sea. That challenge, however, was tremendous.

Spring Thaw

St. Clair’s descent tested the dream of tall ships on the Ohio. At more than 70 feet in length, with towering 60-foot masts, St. Clair was three times longer than riverboats of the era. To ease the craft past sandbars and submerged trees and rocks, it descended in late April, when the river swelled with runoff from melting snows and spring rains.

When the ship reached New Orleans six weeks later, its 70-year-old skipper declared the trip the greatest he had ever completed. Then St. Clair carried a cargo of flour to Havana, where it picked up a load of sugar for Philadelphia.

The boat’s success unleashed a flurry of investment and shipbuilding. From 1802 to 1807, the Ohio Valley yards turned out at least 30 seagoing vessels. Shipbuilders in Marietta and Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Wheeling, Frankfort and Eddyville, raced to build larger and larger ships.

Soon after the success of St. Clair, the Ohio yards drew the attention of powerful men. When President Thomas Jefferson persuaded Congress to build 50 gunboats, almost half of the contracts went to Pittsburgh, Ohio and Kentucky. Suddenly, the Ohio River shipyards were arming America.

Jefferson’s gunboats were open craft 60 feet long by 16 feet across. They carried only four small cannon and one 24-pounder. With room for 26 rowing stations, they were driven by musclepower, though some also carried sails.

Navy men derided the gunboats as too small and weakly armed. Jefferson favored them for their low cost and valued their inadequacy on the open sea; that way, they could only defend American shores, never attack foreign ones.

But not even government gunboat contracts could keep the Ohio Valley in the business of building tall ships for very long, not with the treacherous Falls of the Ohio at Louisville looming as the great obstacle between the shipyards and the sea.

In mid-April 1807, four of the largest ships built on the Ohio loitered above those falls. Penrose, the largest, had waited more than a year for the river to rise in the spring. The other three -- John Atkinson, Rufus King, and Tuscarora -- were each 300 tons or more, at least 100 feet long by 30 feet wide, and required a draft of 9 feet. Each needed a crew of 100 to ply the seas.

Ohio Falls

On April 20, the river dropped. The four crews had to chance the falls immediately or waste another year inland, riding at anchor.

John Atkinson edged into the current, its stern downstream in the usual fashion. It bumped several rocks in the rapids, where the current ran at 12 miles an hour, but slid past them safely. Tuscarora came next, followed by Rufus King. Anxious spectators were thrilled as the stately ships gained speed.

Tuscarora was first to crash, rolling from side to side and lodging on the rocks without breaking up. The crew of Rufus King heaved out every anchor in a desperate bid to avoid the same fate, but then crushed its hull on the same rocks, sheering off the helpless Tuscarora’s bow. Then John Atkinson, already below the falls, broke free of its anchor and beached on a sandbar.

Penrose stayed where it was, its owner resigned to another year of waiting for high water. Remarkably, no lives were lost in the spectacular crashes.

The only fatality was the Ohio Valley shipbuilding industry. American shipping starved when Jefferson won an embargo of foreign trade in 1807 to strike back at British and French limits on American traders. When trade finally revived years later, the Ohio Valley yards could win no contracts to build tall ships. They produced riverboats for decades to come, but the Falls of the Ohio had shattered the dream of an inland shipbuilding empire.

(David O. Stewart is author of three books on American history, most recently “American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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