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Paddle Wheel Commerce

A visit to the Ohio River Museum, Marietta, OH


During my travels through the mid-west the importance of our the system of rivers came into focus. Coming from the northeast where the mighty St. Lawrence River supplied endless waters for transportation, from the Native Americans to our present time, I took it all for granted. My visit to the WV State Museum clarified it all.
Each State has an abundance of natural resources, but as they pointed out, natural resources are practically worthless unless harvested and transported to market. At these markets the commodities are sold creating money or barter for the seller, who in turn, can purchase goods to enhance his life. The cycle of commerce is completed. Early on, farmers would construct rafts to load their harvested crops on to transport them to market via streams to rivers, etc. Barges were constructed at river ports to enable larger loads to be transported down steam. The process was totally dependent on the watersheds to provide enough water in the rivers to float the barges. During times of drought the rivers were impassable. Lock systems were developed to not only connect rivers but to provide enough water to float the barges. With the development of the railroads a consistency was created for transportation of goods to market & was a vast improvement to the system of commerce. For decades the barge system fed goods to the larger rivers, such as, the Ohio & Mississippi Rivers. Robert Fulton's invention of the steamboat in 1807 revolutionized commercial river travel because it enabled goods to be transported upstream thus creating the commercial cycle of delivering goods in both directions.
The Ohio River Museum in Marietta, OH focuses on this very thing. They have as a static floating display of the last coal-fired paddle wheeler to be used on the Ohio River. Named the "The W.P. SNYDER, JR.", it is the last 'tow boat' of its type in existence. Tow boat is really a misnomer for they push barges not tow them. It was owned by the Crucible Steel Corp. for supplying coal via barges to their furnaces in Pittsburgh. Then, the transportation cycle would be completed by sending the finished product, steel, to world markets by way of the Ohio & Mississippi Rivers to the Port of New Orleans.
In the tour of the boat our docent explained how the crew of 20 men (3 women, cook & housemaids) operated on a 24/7 schedule for about 9 months a year, until ice restricted travel in the winter. It was hard work w/ low wages. Interestingly, the cook's pay was equal to the officers of the boat. A happy crew is directly related to the quality of his food. The captain, of course, was the highest paid. The museum buildings contained riverboat artifacts and models of craft which plied the waters of the Ohio River in days past. Today's paddle wheel boats are either tour boats or gambling casinos. Modern 'tow boats' are diesel-powered tugs seen pushing massive barge flotillas up & down the rivers. A comparative ratio of barge to semi-truck capacity = 1,500 tons vs. 25 tons. You can see the huge amounts of commodities that the rivers carry to market today. Railroads also carry huge amounts of commerce efficiently to market.
All in all, it was a very informative and interesting day.

Posted by dixter 05:23 Archived in USA Tagged boats river

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