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Keelboat

As with everything about the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1), each scientific or technological sub-story is also an historical accounting of the period, and a link to some past or future period in time as well. So it is with the tale of the keelboat that was used to descend the Ohio River from Pittsburgh at the outset of the voyage in 1803, even though it was in the service of the Expedition for less than half the voyage.

By winter of 1804, the Corps of Discovery and keelboat had ascended the Missouri River as far as the Mandan villages near what is today Bismarck, North Dakota (1). On April 7, 1805 the keelboat was sent back to St. Louis with data, Indian objects, plant specimens, zoological specimens, minerals, four live magpies, a prairie dog and a prairie sharp-tailed grouse, all meant for delivery to President Thomas Jefferson (2), This marked the end of the keelboat's useful life with the Expedition. A 32-person Corps continued up the Missouri without it, in the two original pirogues that accompanied the keelboat, and six dugout canoes (1,2). So, how did Lewis come to use the keelboat in this way?

As a result of the Whisky Rebellion of 1794 in four counties of Western Pennsylvania (www.virginia.edu/gwpapers/whiskey/), President George Washington called out a militia to march to Pittsburgh (3). One of the volunteers, at a restless age of 20 years old, was Meriwether Lewis. He enlisted as a private and was promoted to ensign later in the year. This historical insurrection in the "west" of the times, occupied by less than 10% of America's approximately five million people, resulted in Lewis coming to Pittsburgh for the first time. He remained in the military and in the region after the militia went home that year. He joined the regular army on May 1, 1795 with the rank of ensign. In the fall of 1795, he ended up in the Chosen Rifle Company under Captain William Clark, until Clark left the military six months later. Lewis became a captain on December 5, 1800. Most importantly, Lewis was immersed in frontier Ohio, went back and forth to Pittsburgh and Detroit, and traveled along the Ohio River. He came to know the frontier and river transport by keelboat (3).

Eleven days before his first presidential inauguration, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Lewis, dated February 23, 1801, asking him to serve as the President's Private Secretary in Washington (1,3). At the same time Jefferson wrote a letter requesting Lewis's release from active duty in the army, with rank and all rights of promotion. The letter to Lewis reached him in Pittsburgh two weeks later, and the offer was accepted by his reply letter of March 10, 1801 (1,3). Although Jefferson had other motives for choosing Lewis (3), thus began the direct circumstances leading to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Meriwether Lewis began this two-year assignment already knowing much about the "west of the Allegheny Mountains," and particularly about keelboats.

At one point, Lewis hoped to have the Expedition's keelboat built in Nashville, Tennessee, but it was built in Pittsburgh, and not without the anguish born of impatience for Lewis (3). The problem was that the Pittsburgh boatbuilders were not sober souls, so Lewis spent much more time in Western Pennsylvania than he had intended. He spent half of July and virtually all of August 1803 there while trying to get the work done, and then departed, as quickly as possible, on the 31st of August (1,3).

It was a considerable concern to him that the rivers were low, partly so because of the lateness of the summer, and partly because the season had been particularly dry (2,3). Keelboats were intended to carry cargo, and the sum total of that staged in Pittsburgh from Philadelphia alone has been given as 2300 or 3500 pounds (2,3). So, Archimedes' Principle was at work, even if Lewis may not have known it by name: A body immersed in a fluid is buoyed up with a force equal to the weight of the displaced fluid. If the volume, keelboat plus cargo, intended to be floated has an effective density greater than that of the river water displaced, it will sink. (See if you can work this out.) Lewis was only concerned about scraping bottom however. So, on the downstream leg from Pittsburgh, it was necessary to divert some of the load to a wagon, which was sent overland to Wheeling (3).

Lewis's keelboat was planked, 55' in length, eight feet wide in the middle, and fitted with one square sail on a 32 foot high mast (1,3). It had 22 oars. A model of it has been built in Iowa and can be seen, along with a sketch, at www.keelboat.com/kb1.htm . William Clark left behind a rough sketch, now held by the Beinecke Library , Yale University, on which basis it is known (3).

Although designed specifically for upstream movement, keelboats were difficult at best to maneuver upriver, especially with heavy cargo. Depending on conditions, they were pushed by hands, or driven by oar, and only sailed with favorable conditions. Nevertheless, keelboats were known as "tankers" for the inland fur trade west of the Mississippi River, and they were dominant on the Missouri River until at least 1830 (4,5).

Thereafter, the steamboat gradually replaced the keelboat. It is a maxim of life that change is ever present, in nature and by man's technology initiatives. Already in August of 1807, Robert Fulton was making his initial steamboat run on the Hudson River. This was with the vessel known to us as the Clermont. By 1811 he was launching the New Orleans from a shipbuilding yard on the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, to serve the Mississippi River and the developing lands of the Louisiana Purchase. A non-technical version of his story is related for high school-aged students (6).

The principle of a steam engine for converting heat energy to mechanical energy, first made practical by John Watt's patented claims of 1769, has been given (7): "When water is converted into steam it expands, its volume increasing about 1,600 times. The force produced by the conversion is the basis of all steam engines. Steam engines operate by having superheated steam force a piston to reciprocate, or move back and forth, in a cylinder. The piston is attached by a connecting rod to a crankshaft that converts the back and forth motion of the piston to rotary motion for driving machinery." Inlet and exhaust valves are used to manage the flow of the steam into and out of the cylinder, and a flywheel smoothens the rotary motion.

Change in the "west" was very visible, even within a lifetime, just as is so today for all of America. By 1874 Mark Twain had published a story with tales of Mississippi River steamboat travel in Life on the Mississippi (8). The real west had already been overrun by settlers in the 1840's traveling overland to Oregon and California in "prairie schooners" (9). Schooners were lightened versions of the Conestoga wagons used in Lewis's time to ship cargo over the Allegheny Mountains (www.dvhi.net/wagonworks/history.html). By 1850, the end had come for the schooners, while the steam engine enabled the railroad to come to Pittsburgh (7). In the next decade the pony express and stagecoach of the west each had its very short run in time, while awaiting the westward extension of rails (10).

By this later period in the 19th century, the keelboat had had its time too and was already a distant memory. The message of Lewis's keelboat is that it was what to use for a "moment" in time, a brief moment in the technology flow of transportation. It might be fun, as a story-based Inquiry project to think deeply now about what will come after the gasoline and jet engines of today. See if you can develop an after-oil plan! Will travel be virtual?


Keelboat References

1. Coues, Elliott, ed., The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Vol. I - III, New York: Dover     Publications (1987 reprint of Francis P. Harper's unabridged 1893 edition).

2. Cutright, Paul Russell, Lewis & Clark: Pioneering Naturalists, Lincoln, NB: University of
    Nebraska Press (1989), pp. 27, 32, 119-124.

3. Ambrose, Stephen E., Undaunted Courage, New York: Simon & Schuster (1996), pp. 37-50,
    59-62, 86, 92, 103-107; pp. 59-62 based on Jackson, Donald, Proceedings of the American
    Physical Society, 124 (2), pp. 91-95 (April 1980).

4. DeVoto, Bernard, Across the Wide Missouri, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1947), pp. 2-3.

5. Boorstin, Daniel J., The Americans: The National Experience, New York: Vintage Books (1965),
     pp. 59-60.

6. Flammang, James M., Robert Fulton, Inventor and Steamboat Builder, Berkeley Heights, NJ:
    Enslow Publishers (1999).

7. Harris, William H. and Levey, Judith S., eds., The New Columbia Encyclopedia, New York:
    Columbia University Press (1975).

8. Twain, Mark, Life on the Mississippi, New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers (1917).

9. Parkman, Francis, The Oregon Trail, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company (1910).

10. Frederick, J.V., Ben Holladay: The Stagecoach King, Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press       (1989).

 


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