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Henry Miller Shreve

Henry Miller Shreve, the master of the Mississippi and Superintendent of Western River Improvement from 1827-1841, was responsible for a long list of notable accomplishments including the first steamboat to travel down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans and back. He successfully broke the hold of the Fulton-Livingston claim to exclusive navigation on the Western rivers, and he brought the first keelboat from the Ohio to St. Louis and north up the Mississippi all the way to the Fever River. He pioneered a number of technical innovations on early steamboats, including horizontal cylinders, multiple separate boilers, machinery to allow the steamboat's paddlewheels to work independently, multiple decks and the prototype for showboats.

Henry M. Shreve was born October 21, 1785 in New Jersey, the son of Mary Cokely Shreve and Israel Shreve, a farmer and colonel in the Revolutionary War. In 1807, when Shreve was twenty-two, he took his first keelboat from Pennsylvania to St. Louis to trade with Auguste Chouteau. In 1814 he used his profits to build his first steamboat, the Enterprise, which he used to make the first trip to New Orleans and back to Louisville, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of steam power in navigating against the strong current of the Mississippi.

In New Orleans, Shreve had to deal with Fulton-Livingston steamboat interests who held monopolies on steamboat travel given them by the state of New York and the Territory of Louisiana. Shreve used a combination of legal maneuvers and bail money to keep his boat free from the sheriff and was able to return back upstream to the accolades of many rivermen.

Shreve's next steamboat, built in 1816, contained several highly creative innovations. He installed the first successful high pressure engine and positioned the cylinder horizontally, greatly increasing the efficiency of the engine and reducing the weight of the machinery by almost ninety percent. He then put the machinery on the first deck of a flat hollow hull, built a second deck for passengers, and used separate engines for each side of the boat, each with its own set of boilers and smokestack to make the first practical sidewheeler.

Having steamed once more to New Orleans, Shreve again had to deal with the Livingston monopoly. However, due to Shreve's persistence, Livingston's case was dismissed in 1817 opening the way to free trade on the Mississippi. This case was instrumental in establishing a precedent for unfettered interstate commerce which was finally confirmed in 1823 by the famous U. S. Supreme Court case, Gibbons v. Ogdens.

In 1826 Shreve accepted the post of Superintendent of Western River Improvements. He began by designing a double hulled boat with steam power operating a windlass to yank snags from the river. The first snag boat, the Heliopolis, was an immediate success, and in 1832, Shreve was ordered by the Secretary of War to clear the "Great Raft" of rotten logs, trees, and debris estimated to be 150 miles long, out of the Red River. Shreve had to battle short funds but by 1839 the Red was clear and Shreve's fame was insured.

Henry M. Shreve remains a giant among America's rivermen. More than any other individual, he changed inland river travel in the first half of the nineteenth century. Shreve installed a number of major technological innovations while developing the first steamboat to successfully ascend the Mississippi River, all the way to the Ohio, and thus proving the feasibility of reliable steamboat navigation on the western rivers. He then broke the Fulton-Livingston monopoly thus removing the legal barriers to commerce. In the 1820's Shreve developed the first successful snagboat which cleared the rivers of natural barriers to navigation. These achievements place Shreve in the front ranks of American's rivermen.



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