Burr's Boats, Part I

Most of Cincinnati’s thousand citizens lined the banks of the Ohio River on April 27, 1801, to watch one of the wonders of the age.  A great new sailing ship, St. Clair, was passing downriver from Marietta for its maiden voyage in the Gulf of Mexico.  Its journey would fire the imaginations of many men, including the new vice president, Aaron Burr.

St. Clair, a square-rigged brig named for the territory’s first governor, was the first sea-going vessel built on the Ohio River, 600 miles from the closest salt-water port.  Built in Marietta with a burden of 104 tons, St. Clair required three dozen sailors to manage her at sea.

The large ship floated downstream backwards, leading with its stern.  To slow its progress enough to maneuver past the river’s many obstacles, it dragged an anchor all the way.

St. Clair’s launch marked an industrial burst in the Ohio Valley.  As early as 1770, Benjamin Franklin predicted that Americans would build “schooners, sloops &c., on the Ohio, suitable for the West-India or European markets.”  The valley combined all the elements needed for a ship:  Great stands of oak, black walnut, cherry, locust, and yellow pine, along with nearby iron ore and sources for hemp, flax, and tar.  When skilled workers arrived from New England, the lone remaining challenge was how to transport the finished products down the Ohio and Mississippi to the sea.  That challenge, however, was tremendous.

St. Clair’s descent tested the dream of building tall ships on the Ohio.  At more than 70 feet in length, St. Clair was three times longer than riverboats of the era.  Its 60-foot masts towered over the riverbanks.  To ease the craft past around the Ohio’s sandbars and submerged trees and rocks, it was moving in late April, when the river swelled with runoff from melting snows and spring rains.

The ship cleared Cincinnati without incident, and reached New Orleans after six weeks on the rivers.  Its 70-year-old skipper declared the trip the greatest he had ever completed.  Then St. Clair sailed for Havana with a cargo of flour, traveling on to Philadelphia with Cuban sugar.

St. Clair’s success unleashed a flurry of activity.  Between 1802 and 1807, the shipyards of the Ohio Valley turned out at least thirty tall, seagoing ships.  Shipbuilders in Marietta and Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Wheeling, Frankfort and Eddyville, raced to build larger and larger vessels.  Building the more than two dozen schooners and brigs proved to be the easy part.  The real challenge would be steering them through the treacherous Falls of the Ohio at Louisville.

Jefferson’s Gunboats

After the success of St. Clair, the Ohio shipyards swifly drew the strategic attention of powerful men.  When President Thomas Jefferson persuaded Congress to build fifty gunboats, almost half of the contracts went to Pittsburgh, Ohio and Kentucky.

Jefferson’s gunboats were simple open craft 60 feet long by 16 feet across.  They carried only four small cannon and one 24-pounder.  With room for 26 rowing stations, musclepower drove them, though some also carried sails.

Navy men derided the gunboats as too small and weakly armed.  Jefferson favored them for precisely those reasons.  He exulted in their low cost.  Because they were unequal to the open sea, they could never attack foreign shores, but could only defend America.

The Cincinnati shipyard of Senator John Smith built five navy gunboats.  Smith, a Baptist minister who prospered as a supplier to America’s frontier army, was one of Ohio’s first two senators when it achieved statehood in 1803.  He clustered his businesses near his Terrace Park home, hard by the Little Miami River.

Smith’s impressive success would founder, however, on his deep involvement with the schemes of Aaron Burr, the former Vice President of the United States.  For a season, Burr was one of the heaviest purchasers of Ohio Valley boats, and by far the most notorious one.  (More to come . . . .)


  1. David Boatman on April 1, 2022 at 11:45 am

    I had no idea! Thanks for sharing.

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