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Journal-News
Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008
 
Monopoly stunted steamboat development on western rivers
 
By Jim Blount
 
News of a technical development between Oct. 20, 1811, and Jan. 12, 1812, may not have caused much excitement in sparsely populated Butler County. There wasn’t a newspaper in the county and, if there had been, it would have paid more attention to Indian affairs and the chance of another war with England.
 
Two Shawnee brothers -- Tecumseh and the Prophet -- had been trying for a few years to unite tribes north and south of the Ohio River to stop the loss of Indian land to Americans moving across the Appalachians into the Ohio Valley.
 
William Henry Harrison, Indiana’s territorial governor, took the offensive against Indian resistance in the fall of 1811. He marched about 1,000 men to Prophetstown, near present West Lafayette, and attacked an undermanned Indian force led by the Prophet. Harrison prevailed in the Nov. 7, 1811, Battle of Tippecanoe. That victory is considered the opening engagement in the War of 1812, although President James Madison waited until June 18, 1812, to declare war on the British.
 
The event that stretched from October 1811 until January 1812 was the deliberate voyage of the New Orleans, the first steamboat to navigate down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in Louisiana Territory.
 
It was not a speed test. The New Orleans left Pittsburgh Oct. 20. It passed Cincinnati Oct. 27 and arrived at Louisville Oct. 28. For a month, it didn’t proceed beyond Louisville. During that time it returned to Cincinnati while waiting for the Ohio River to rise and permit safe passage over the Falls of the Ohio west of Louisville. The $40,000, 116-foot, 300-ton New Orleans arrived at Natchez Dec. 30, and reached New Orleans Jan. 12, 1812.
 
Eventually, steamboats would dominate the rivers, but not immediately. Butler County farmers and merchants continued to rely on homemade flatboats for several years.
 
In addition to the usual resistance to change and doubts about a new machine, there were technical and legal obstacles that delayed a revolution in river commerce.
 
Skeptics were waiting to see how the steamboat performed on a return trip to Pittsburgh. Instead, the New Orleans only operated between New Orleans and Natchez until she hit a stump in the Mississippi and sank.
The partnership that built the New Orleans was headed by Robert Fulton and included Nicholas I. Roosevelt, pilot on the 1811-1812 voyage.
Fulton had introduced the steamboat on New York’s Hudson River in August 1807. Fulton also convinced New York legislators to grant him the exclusive right to steamboat operation within the state.
 
He lost little time in winning a similar monopoly within Louisiana Territory. April 8, 1812 -- less than three months after the New Orleans had arrived in the city of the same name -- Fulton received the exclusive rights to use steam navigation on the territorial rivers for 18 years.
 
Because of the uncertainty of the War of 1812, there wasn’t a rush to challenge Fulton’s monopoly. The war slowed settlement and development in Ohio and restricted river trade.
 
U. S. control of the port of New Orleans was in doubt until Jan. 8, 1815, when American forces led by Andrew Jackson defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans. Unknown to the combatants, the war had ended Dec. 24, 1814, when the Treaty of Ghent was signed in Belgium.
 
Although there had been talk about annexing at least part of Canada -- known as British North America -- no land changed hands as a result of the War of 1812.
 
The good news for Butler County interests -- and other communities that relied on trading over the rivers -- was that the port of New Orleans remained in U. S. possession.
 
A vital question and an important contest remained. The question was about the ability of steamboats to travel upstream -- from New Orleans and Natchez north to St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and other points on the Ohio and Mississippi.
The contest was to be a legal one -- to challenge and eliminate the Fulton monopoly that prevented rival steamboat companies from using the port of New Orleans.
 
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Journal-News
Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008
 
Future county sheriff made history as steamboat captain
 
By Jim Blount
 
The arrival of the first steamboat in New Orleans Jan. 12, 1812, was worth noting, but its voyage over the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from Pittsburgh didn’t cause Butler County farmers and merchants to abandon the practice of hauling their trade goods to New Orleans on flatboats.
 
The flatboats -- dependent on the current and enough water in the rivers -- were one-way vessels. They couldn’t operate upstream. The crude rafts were sold as lumber, burned or abandoned when they reached their southern destinations.
 
The 138-foot New Orleans was larger and promised to carry more cargo, but it didn’t venture up stream beyond Natchez, Miss. The steamboat didn’t try to run against the current and reach Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and other northern ports.
 
After its historic down stream trip, the steamboat ran between New Orleans and Natchez, usually completing a round trip in 17 days.
 
The New Orleans "seemed too much of a miracle at first, and many travelers and merchants preferred to use the barges and flatboats with which they were familiar until the new system of transportation had somewhat demonstrated its reliability in practice," wrote Seymour Dunbar in his book, A History of Travel in America.
 
1 Another problem was the design of the $40,000 New Orleans, built by Robert Fulton and partners, based on their steamboat success on New York’s Hudson River since August 1807. Western river men believed Fulton’s boat sat too deep in the water to be reliable on shallower inland streams.
 
Dec. 1, 1814, another steamboat left Pittsburgh, bound for the port of New Orleans. The Enterprise -- with a shallow draft and other structural changes -- was designed and built by Henry M. Shreve and associates.
 
Its captain was Israel Gregg, who had Hamilton connections and several years later would be elected sheriff of Butler County. Gregg and Shreve, the ship’s master, embarked with a veteran crew and reached New Orleans in only 14 days.
 
That feat was secondary to the perilous situation in New Orleans as the War of 1812 continued. "The city was in a state of tension, for the British ships and land troops were indeed approaching" as the Enterprise arrived, wrote Edith McCall, a Shreve biographer. The steamboat and crew "were all commandeered for [U. S.] military service." New Orleans was under martial law as the city prepared for a British attack.
 
The Enterprise’s fast trip from Pittsburgh was because it carried a cargo of supplies for Gen. Andrew Jackson's 6,500-man army, which was maneuvering to oppose the British force of about 7,500 troops supported by a fleet of 50 ships.
 
Upon arrival in New Orleans, Captain Gregg and Master Shreve were ordered to steer their side-wheeler past the British batteries below New Orleans to deliver military supplies to Jackson at Fort St. Philip. The Enterprise delivered and Gregg, Shreve and the crew were hailed for their bravery.
 
The fate of the port of New Orleans and U. S. control of the lower Mississippi were determined Jan. 8, 1815, when Jackson repelled the British in the Battle of New Orleans. News hadn’t reached New Orleans that the war had ended Dec. 24, 1814, with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in Belgium.
 
After the war, the Enterprise continued to make history. Under the guidance of Captain Gregg, it began a trip north from New Orleans, testing the ability of a steamboat to operate up stream. The timing wasn’t ideal. The Mississippi was flooded and the steamboat faced swift currents.
 
Shreve’s Enterprise reached Louisville in 25 days and docked in Cincinnati 28 days after leaving New Orleans. Six days later -- July 5, 1815 -- it became the first steamboat to complete a trip up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers from New Orleans to Pittsburgh.
 
It was a technical breakthrough for Shreve and his partners and promised radical change in the way trade was conducted in states bordering the navigable rivers.
 
Shreve also scored a legal victory that spurred steamboat competition and innovations on the western rivers. That triumph is a topic for a future column.
 
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Journal-News
Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008
 
Steamboat captain became sheriff of Butler County
 
By Jim Blount
 
Legal complications dulled excitement over the successful introduction of steamboats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the prime trade route for the earliest residents of Butler County. In 1811-1812 the New Orleans was the first steamboat to operate down stream. In 1815 the Enterprise proved steamboats could navigate up stream, traveling between New Orleans and Pittsburgh in 28 days.
 
The New Orleans was built by a combine headed by Robert Fulton, who was responsible for the first successful steamboat in the U. S. He had been operating on the Hudson River since August 1807.
 
The Enterprise was constructed by Henry Shreve and associates. It had made history by defying British guns and delivering supplies to Gen. Andrew Jackson before the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. On that trip and its 1815 voyage north against the current, the boat was under the direction of Captain Israel Gregg, a future Butler County sheriff.
 
A Fulton-Shreve rivalry developed as soon as the Enterprise reached New Orleans. The Enterprise defied Fulton’s 18-year monopoly to operate steamboats in the waters within the Territory of Louisiana. He won that privilege April 8, 1812. Earlier, New York legislators had granted him exclusive steamboat rights within that state.
 
Those agreements stymied steamboat improvements and discouraged competition on the rivers. The impact extended beyond Louisiana, discouraging entrepreneurs all along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries.
 
Shreve was determined to promote steamboat transportation without paying Fulton for the right. Shreve planned to ignore Fulton’s monopoly, but territorial authorities seized the Enterprise for violating the law. In 1817 a New Orleans judge ruled against exclusivity, but Fulton continued litigation.
 
Seven years later, March 2, 1824, the state monopoly was declared unconstitutional by the U. S. Supreme Court. In Gibbons v. Ogden -- based on a dispute between New York and New Jersey -- the court ruled regulation of navigation was a power reserved to the U. S. Congress, not the states.
 
In 1814 only 21 steamboats had delivered goods to New Orleans, five years later there were 191, and in 1833 more than 1,200 were unloaded in the port.
 
Israel Gregg, who captained the Enterprise, was a native of Virginia (1775) and during his youth in Brownsville, Pa., became a silversmith before working on the rivers.
 
July 12, 1798, Gregg married Elizabeth Hough, a sister of Joseph Hough, "for 20 years the leading merchant of Hamilton" (1806-1825), according to the 1882 history of Butler County. Hough’s business required numerous flatboat trips to New Orleans.
 
After service on the Enterprise, Gregg was the captain of other steamboats until at least 1820. He may have been attracted to Hamilton in the 1820-1822 period when local investors, including Hough, established the Ohio Steam Boat Company. Hough and Gregg were among those who petitioned the Ohio legislature for a charter in 1822.
 
The company intended to build steamboats designed to navigate the Great Miami River. The venture failed, leaving a partially-constructed steamboat in Hamilton.
 
Israel and Elizabeth Gregg had 11 children before she died, and he had two children with a second wife, Phebe Kelley, who he married Dec. 5, 1822.
 
Early histories of Hamilton and Butler County include little information on Gregg’s life and associations in the area. He won the trust of voters in 1835 and was elected sheriff of Butler County, an office he held for four years.
 
The former steamboat captain -- who had participated in historic events on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers -- was 73 years old when he died June 20, 1847, in Hamilton. Compilers of the 1882 Butler County history said "he was a man of great uprightness and benevolence, and his memory is still cherished by those who knew him.
 
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Journal-News
Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008
 
Railway Post Office service ended in Hamilton in 1966
 
By Jim Blount
 
Before e-mail, text messaging and other recent electronic forms of communications, most personal and business correspondence was exchanged in stamped envelopes entrusted to the U. S. Post Office Department. Its delivery system gradually evolved from post rider on horseback, stagecoach, canalboat and steamboat to the railroads.
 
For decades Railway Mail Service distribution relied on the Railway Post Office (RPO), a rail car specially equipped to handle the sorting and delivery of mail. RPOs were part of the frequent and speedy network of passenger trains that once criss-crossed the nation.
 
The birth of the RPO is uncertain, possibly starting with one or more contracts with railroads in 1831 and 1832. The unorganized system gained momentum July 7, 1838, when Congress designated all U. S. railroads as postal routes.
 
At that time, few communities had railroads. By 1840 there were only 30 miles of track in Ohio and 2,181 in the United States. Ohio mileage increased to 515 by 1850 and to 2,999 by 1860. The Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton -- Butler County’s first railroad -- opened in September 1851.
 
The Civil War, 1861-65 -- with thousands of soldiers scattered hundreds of miles from their homes and families -- demanded a faster national system of distributing mail.
 
A brief on-board railroad distribution experiment began in 1862-63 between the Missouri towns of Hannibal and St. Joseph.
 
Aug. 28, 1864, an assistant postmaster in Chicago, placed a car fitted for mail distribution on the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. Similar service soon began between New York and Washington; Chicago and Rock Island, Ill.; Chicago and Burlington, Ill.; and New York and Erie, Pa. About a month before the war ended, March 3, 1865, an act of Congress recognized the U. S. Railway Post Office.
 
George B. Armstrong of the Post Office Department is credited with designing the first RPO cars with cranes and catcher arms that enabled mail bags to be exchanged without stopping the train.
 
Although local railroads had carried bagged mail since the 1850s, the first scheduled RPO car -- with postal clerks sorting mail along the route -- operates through Hamilton Saturday, June 9, 1888. It was part of a Cincinnati-Detroit passenger train on the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton, according to Dan Finfrock of Fairfield, a local railroad authority.
 
In 1944, during World War II, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) boasted that 73 percent of inter-city passenger traffic and 92 percent of U. S. mail were transported on trains.
 
A year later, the AAR said the Railway Mail Service employed 20,796 people, including 19,705 postal clerks who handled more than 22 billion pieces of mail on 1,732 RPO cars.
 
Trucks, buses and planes began taking some short distance mail from the railroads in the late 1920s and early 1930s. To cover all possibilities, in 1949 the Railway Mail Service was renamed the Postal Transportation Service (PTS).
 
In the 1950s and 1960s, more mail was diverted to highways because railroads were canceling passenger service on some routes, especially short branch lines. In several cases, cancellation of mail contracts -- a reliable source of income for railroads -- caused the demise of passenger trains.
 
Another factor in RPO decline was the opening of Interstate highways across the U. S..
 
By Jan. 1, 1962, only 262 RPO routes remained.
 
The last RPO cars through Hamilton, according to Finfrock, were Dec. 31, 1966. They were parts of the Baltimore & Ohio’s passenger train No. 58 (Detroit-Dayton-Cincinnati) and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s passenger train No. 58 (Chicago-Richmond-Cincinnati).
 
The last RPO route in the U. S. -- between New York and Washington -- made its last run the night of June 30, 1977.
Some mail is still hauled long distance by rail, but it is in containers or trailers on flat cars -- not in railway post office cars manned by clerks who collect, postmark, sort and deliver letters, cards and business correspondence to every city and town in Butler County and beyond.
 
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Journal-News
Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2008
 
Railway postal work required special skills and knowledge
 
By Jim Blount
 
When numerous passenger trains served Butler County, most included mobile post offices staffed by postal employees, not railroad workers. They worked in tight space on specially equipped cars owned by the postal service. The train’s schedule posed constant deadlines as they processed the mail.
 
Railway Post Office (RPO) cars were parts of most local passenger trains from the late 1880s until the mid 1960s. Working on a RPO required special training and periodic testing. Employees had to perform all the tasks of other postal workers -- and more -- with speed and accuracy.
 
RPO clerks had to know the train’s route and schedule, the locations of thousands of other towns, the railroads that served them and the best routings for mail addressed to those communities. According to one source, 97 percent was the score required on a test of a clerk’s geography and railroad knowledge.
 
Two types of mail bags were placed aboard when a passenger train began its run. Sealed bags -- marked with train numbers and station destinations -- had been sorted at a local post office. Other pouches held mail to be sorted by RPO clerks during the trip.
 
Inside the car were one or more sorting tables, and racks holding open bags labeled with names of stations or post offices. The car walls were lined with pigeon holes of various size, each cubicle bearing destination names.
 
As trains reached speeds up to 70 miles an hour, clerks stood beside the sorting table handling all types of mail, ranging from first-class to post cards, newspapers, magazines and registered mail.
 
Few people not associated with the Railway Mail Service witnessed what happened inside the postal cars. However, one of the most interesting RPO tasks was on public view -- but only for a split second.
 
Part of the standard equipment on each mail car was a catcher arm, used to collect bags without stopping the train.
 
Complementing the arm was a crane mounted on the ground at trackside at stations in small towns. A station agent or postal worker placed an outgoing mail bag on the crane. As a train approached that site, a postal clerk extended the arm.
 
In quick succession, the arm snatched the bag off the crane, a clerk took the bag off the arm and, in some cases, kicked one or more pouches off the train with a foot.
 
This exchange took place at stations where passenger trains no longer stopped, or at stations bypassed by the fastest named trains, the limiteds. Pouches were loaded and unloaded at a slower pace at scheduled stops.
 
Most RPO cars had a mail slot on the side for public mail deposit. Business patrons familiar with local train schedules took advantage of this feature to be sure their mail wasn’t delayed at the post office.
 
In the 1940s, most weekday evenings a Hamilton salesman met the day’s last Chicago-bound Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train at the station and deposited his orders for that day in the RPO slot or handed the envelope to a clerk.
 
In some remote towns businesses timed their daily operations around the arrivals and departures of passenger trains with RPO service.
 
Although local railroads had carried bagged mail since the 1850s, the first scheduled RPO car didn’t serve Hamilton until June 9, 1888, as part of a Cincinnati-Detroit passenger train on the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton RR.
 
RPO business -- without the aid of scanners or computers -- was still healthy in 1951 when the national network handled 93 percent of non-local mail. The 165,000-mile system included about 30,000 clerks working on 3,200 cars. By the end of the decade, trucks and planes had grabbed large shares of postal transportation.
 
RPO service ended in Hamilton Dec. 31, 1966, at the Baltimore & Ohio station on South Fifth Street (now Martin Luther King Blvd.) and at the Pennsylvania depot on South Seventh Street.
 
Nationally, the last RPO run was June 30, 1977, between New York and Washington, ending one of the glamorous eras of railroad history.
 
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