The Pioneer Days Of Old-Time Keelboats
Adventures Of Wild, Reckless Mariners On The Ohio River Years Ago


An artist's representation of river traffic on the Ohio River toward the end of the 19th century. This scene shows New Albany, Indiana, in the background with a variety of boat types on the water, including riverboats, keelboats, and flatboats.

By William H. Perrin - 1890

In nothing is the rapid strides of the 19th century more observable than in the mode of transportation. When we see the rushing railroad train "annihilating time and space," and like the renowned John Gilpin, "leaving all the world behind;" when we gaze upon the magnificent ocean palaces that plow the briny deep;"when "____ Swift Commerce spreads her wings and tires the sinewy seabirds as she flies, fanning the solitudes from chime to chime;" and then look back to the keelboat and barge, the first vessels to navigate American rivers after the Indians' birch bark canoe, we must admit the advance has been rapid, since the discovery of the power of steam and its use as a motive bowel.

A look at a chapter on the early navigation of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers will doubtless be of some interest.

Among the most stirring and exciting scenes of Western adventure were the voyages of these barges and keelboats. The bargemen were a peculiar people. They were a distinct class who cared for more and feared none; whose recklessness of habits and laxity of morals rendered them supremely indifferent to the world's opinions and to everybody else.

They were fighting, roistering, drinking, devil-may-care sort of fellows of whom "chief among 10,000 and the one altogether lovely" was Mike Fink. He had boon companions and many imitators, but no equals. He stood alone "like some grand ancient tower," except when he had to steady himself by leaning on someone not so "tired," as he was gauged for, and it floored him. He knew nothing of polite society, nothing of romance or sentiment, and he cared less. Such was Mike Fink, the boatman.

The navigation of the Ohio and Mississippi began about as early as settlements west of the mountains. As early as 1776 two men named Gibson and Linn made a voyage from Pittsburgh to New Orleans for military stores for the Army. They actually succeeded in their expedition, arriving from New Orleans at the Falls of the Ohio in safety with 156 kegs of powder. These they carried around the Falls by hand and then proceeded on their way to Pittsburgh with their valuable cargo.

These early attempts at navigation were soon succeeded by regular voyages in keelboats and barges. In the earlier stages of this sort of navigation it was attended with extreme danger, not only on account of the Indians, whose hunting grounds bordered the rivers the entire distance, but because of the gangs of outlaws and river pirates; bold, cruel, and barbarous as any buccaneers that ever infested the high seas. All southern Illinois abounded with them. Several organized bands had their haunts in bluffs and caverns along the north shore of the Ohio below the mouth of the Wabash.

Thus hedged in on every side by dangers, it became these hardy Western bargemen to cultivate all the wariness of the frontiersmen or the Indian himself and led them to adopt that reckless daring and freedom of manner, which they continued to practice long after the causes that produced them had passed away.

Many stories are told of them, wildly extravagant in their conception and highly improbable in their details. Indeed, no story in which the Western bargemen figured was too improbable to be narrated and even believed, and some of the most thrilling incidents were laid at the door of each distinguished member of the whole fraternity. They serve so well to give an idea of the peculiar characteristics of the bargemen that they form an interesting chapter with all their wild extravagance of that period of Western navigation.

A brief sketch, however, of the manner of navigating the Ohio and Mississippi rivers prior to the era of steamboats will better enable the readers to appreciate some of the incidents of the bargemen.

The keelboat and barge were the only modes of transportation then, except packhorses, and served the purpose the steamboats and railroads do now. A keelboat would carry from 20 to 30 tons and were usually manned by ten hands, principally Canadian-French with a captain or master. The barges were much larger and frequently had from 40 to 50 men with a captain or master or "patroon," as the Canadian-French termed them. They carried 50 or 60 or even 100 tons.

In a voyage up the river from New Orleans, the real difficulties commences after passing Natchez. The tortuous course of the river made many eddies in the sharp bends that had to be guarded against, and every advantage taken of the currents.

The following extract written by Audubon, the celebrated American ornithologist, describes it accurately:

"The men are ordered to take their stations and lay hold of their oars, for the river must be crossed, it being seldom possible to double such a point and proceed along the same shore.

"The boat is crossing, its head standing to the current, which is, however, too strong for the rowers; and when the other side of the river has been reached, it has drifted, perhaps, a quarter of a mile. The men are, by this time, exhausted, and as we shall suppose it to be 12:00 p.m., fasten the boat to a tree on the shore.

"A small glass of whiskey is given to each, when they cook and eat their dinner, and after resting from their fatigue for an hour, recommence their labors. The boat is again seen slowly ascending the stream.

"It has reached the lower end of a sand bar, along the edge of which it is propelled by means of long poles, if the bottom be hard. The men, called bowsmen, remain at the prow to assist in concert with the steersman in managing the boat and keeping its head high. The rest placed themselves on the land side of the footway of the vessel, put one end of their poles in the ground and the other against their shoulders, and push with all their might.

"As each man reaches the stern, he crosses to the other side, runs along it, and comes in to the landward side of the bow; where he recommences operations. The barge, in the meantime, is ascending at a rate not exceeding one mile in the hour.

"The bar is, at length, passed, and as the shore in sight is straight on both sides, the current uniformly strong, the poles are laid aside; and the men being equally divided, those on the land side lay hold of the branches of willows or other trees, and they slowly propel the boat. Here and there, however, the trunk of a fallen tree, partly lying on the bank and partly projecting beyond it, impedes their progress and requires work to be doubled. This is performed by striking into it the iron point of the poles and gaff hooks, and so pulling around it.

"The sun is now quite low, and the barge is again secured in the best harbor within reach for the night, after having accomplished a distance of perhaps 15 miles.

"The next day the wind proves favorable, the sails set (every boat was provided with a mast and square), the boat takes all advantages, and meeting with no accident, has ascended 30 miles; perhaps double that distance, the next day comes with a different ascend. The wind is right ahead, the shores are without trees of any kind, and the cane on the bank is so thick and stout that not even the cordelles can be used.

"This occasions a halt. The time is not altogether lost, as most of the men are provided with rifles and betake themselves to the woods in search of deer, bears, and turkeys that are generally abundant there. Three days may pass before the wind changes and the advantages gained on the previous few days are forgotten.

"Again the boat proceeds, but in passing over a shallow place that runs along a log, swings with the current, but hangs fast with her bowside almost under water.

"Now for the poles! All hands are on deck, bustling and pushing. At length, toward sunset the boat is once again afloat and is again taken to the shore where the wearied crew pass another night."

This was the usual experience from New Orleans to the Falls of the Ohio, a voyage that occupied from three to six months, according to the weather and other good or bad fortunes. A barge that came up in three months, it was considered, had done wonders. Nay, it created almost as much excitement as the Robert E. Lee did a few years ago, when it made its quick trip.

Audubon knew whereof he wrote, for he made a voyage, such as he describes above, and could speak from personal experience. Such was the mode of navigation until steamboats superseded it about 1811-12.

The first steamboat passed down the Ohio into the Mississippi in 1811; and at that time, it is estimated that there were some 30 or more barges plying on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the largest of which had a capacity not to exceed 100 tons burden. But this article has reached its limit without getting to Mike Fink, the notorious bargeman, who must be left for another paper.