Pirates of the Ohio River


Pirates of the Ohio River
by Ben Morrill, Visitor Center Site Manager

Flatboats traveled around 3 to 4 miles an hour and could carry up to $3,000 worth of goods making them easy targets for river pirates to plunder.

Often when you picture pirates, swashbucklers like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd, sailing the ocean plundering ships are usually what come to mind. But oceans aren’t the only place pirates can be found. As the American frontier opened up river pirates posed a serious threat to settlers moving westward down the Ohio River, lying in wait ready to relieve them of their valuable cargo.

Following the Revolutionary War, many pirates lived near sparsely populated frontier settlements, preying on settlers heading downriver in slow moving keel boats, flat boats, and rafts. Often heavily laden with goods and possessions, pirates often would conceal themselves along the river bank, ready to ambush travelers or use clever deception to get close enough to strike.

Cave-in-Rock provided river pirates with a natural hiding place where they could pounce on unsuspecting travelers on the Ohio River.


As traffic increased along the Ohio River, river pirates found a natural safe-haven in Cave-in Rock. Situated near the meeting point of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in southern Illinois, Cave-in-Rock provided pirates with shelter and natural concealment from unsuspecting settlers and law enforcement, as they pillaged and plundered unwary travelers. From 1790 to 1834, many well-known river pirates including Samuel Mason, the murderous Harpe Brothers, and the infamous Colonel Plug operated in the area.

Notorious Pirates

One of the first river pirates on the Ohio, Samuel Mason served as a captain in the Revolutionary War before moving to Henderson, Kentucky in 1790 and turning to a life of crime. Moving down river in 1797 from his previous hideout on Diamond Island, Mason became the first pirate to operate out of Cave-in-Rock. Mason and his gang regularly used deception, including posing as river guides to run flatboats aground, to prey on travelers. Mason even briefly worked with the deadly Harpe brothers before he was killed in 1803.

Spreading fear across the newly opened western frontier, Micajah “Big” Harpe and his brother Wiley “Little” Harpe terrorized settlers, killing thirty nine people while some reports put the number as high as fifty. Beginning their criminal career as part of a Loyalist group specializing in harassing Patriot families, the Harpe brothers moved west following the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781. Continuing their crime spree, the brothers spent the next several years making their way west while robbing and murdering anyone who crossed their path. In 1797 the Harpes spent a brief period with Samuel Mason, but even he and his gang were disgusted by their ruthlessness. Their misdeeds eventually caught up with them and both Harpe brothers were tracked down by posses who delivered “frontier justice.”

Putting an End to the Pirate Menace

Walter Brennan’s character Colonel Jeb Hawkins in the 1962 film How the West Was Won is based on Ohio River pirates like Samuel Mason.

To combat the pirate menace, flat boats began traveling in small flotillas, often with an armed keelboat as an escort to fend off potential attackers. Meanwhile, newly invented steamboats proved too fast for slow moving pirates to target. With the army and law enforcement stepping up operations against criminals, river piracy on the Ohio began declining in the early 1820s. Although some pirates like James Ford continued operating into the 1830s, piracy on the Ohio was largely eliminated by the 1840s.

River Pirates in Popular Culture

While you won’t see any pirates looking to plunder their boats on the Ohio anymore you can still find them in film and television. Walt Disney’s 1955 Davy Crockett and the River Pirates centers on the “King of the Wild Frontier” facing river pirates loosely based on Colonel Plug and Samuel Mason.  Similarly, Walter Brennan character Colonel Jeb Hawkins in the 1962 film How the West Was Won is portrayed as a Samuel Mason like gang leader, a reminder of the ruthless pirates that once raided the Ohio River.

A Brief History of Steamboats – The End of an Era


A 1927 replica of the first steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb.

A Brief History of Steamboats: The End of an Era
by Ben Morrill, Visitor Center Site Manager

While steamboats revolutionized transportation in the early 1800s, another transportation revolution ultimately spelled the end of the steamboat. By the 1890s, trains and railroads were the most popular method of travel in America, while the emergence of automobiles in the early 1900s provided travelers with greater options to reach their destinations. As a result, steamboats soon became a symbol of a bygone era.

The Emergence of Railroads

The development of practical, functioning steam engines in the 1700s had an important impact on the creation of not just steamboats, but railroads as well. As early as 1764 railways called “gravity roads” were developed to help move heavy items and goods. Throughout the late 1700s inventors like John Fitch began demonstrating the power of steam engines as propulsion systems, and following Robert Fulton’s successful steamboat demonstrations, engineers and inventors began looking for new ways to use the power of steam.

Around the same time steamboats began appearing on the nation’s waterways, early trains were being developed and tested on land. Between 1810 and 1826 early systems like the Leiper Railroad and the Granite Railroad demonstrated the practical applications of railroads, leading to the

An 1890 map showing the westward expansion of railways after the Civil War.

expansion of rail lines in the eastern United States and the eventual development of the Tom Thumb, the first steam powered locomotive.

While steamboats could take advantage of natural transportation routes giving them an advantage over early railroads, miles of track still needed to be built. But thanks to land grants from the United States government, by the 1860s more than 30,000 miles of operational track existed in the US, more than triple the amount that existed in 1850.  Following the end of the Civil War, westward expansion only fueled the growth of rail lines, marking the beginning of the end of the “golden age” of steamboats.

How Railroads Rose in Popularity

The completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 now meant that the United States was connected coast to coast by railways. Rail lines continued to expand across the country throughout the late 1800s, allowing them to reach inland cities and towns steamboats couldn’t. By 1916, more than 254,037 miles of track stretched across the United States.

Trains were also a lot safer and less expensive than steamboat travel. In the late 1800s most workers made around $20 a month, and with long trips costing as much as $8.50 for a first class cabin, many travelers were only able to afford

The Belle of Louisville faces off against the Delta Queen during the 2007 Great Steamboat Race.

deck tickets, often sleeping outside with the cargo. Additionally, river hazards like sandbars, snags, and the threat of unexpected boiler explosions made steamboat travel dangerous, making trains a safer alternative for many travelers.

By the 20th century, trains and automobiles made steamboats all but obsolete, and in the 1950s many shipping companies switched to more efficient and powerful diesel engines. In the later half of the 20th century few steamboats remained on the nation’s waterways, often providing river trips to allow travelers to experience the glamor of the steamboat era. Ships like the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen earned their legendary reputations this way, becoming some of the most famous boats on the river. While few steamboats travel the rivers today, they have become an important part of the history and culture of the Ohio River.

A Brief History of Steamboats – The Steamboat Era


The steamboat Enterprise. Built by David French and launched in 1814, the Enterprise was one of the first commercial steamboats on the Ohio River.

A Brief History of Steamboats: The Steamboat Era
by Ben Morrill, Visitor Center Site Manager

Following his success with the Clermont, Fulton and Livingston ambitiously set about to find a way to demonstrate their invention to a national audience with a journey from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Enlisting the help of inventor Nicholas Roosevelt, great grand uncle to future president Theodore Roosevelt, they set about surveying and exploring the waters of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. After a yearlong expedition in 1809 down the Ohio and Mississippi, construction began on their new vessel in 1810.

Dubbed the New Orleans after the city that would become her home port, construction began in Pittsburgh in 1810. Finishing the following year, estimates put the New Orleans at just over 148 feet long, 32 and a half feet wide, and 12 feet deep, although whether or not the boat was a stern wheeler or side wheeler is still up for debate by historians. Launching in October 1811, the New Orleans began her historic journey down river on October 20th, passing through Cincinnati on October 27th, finally reaching New Orleans January 10, 1812. Although the New Orleans sank two years later, once again Fulton successfully demonstrated the power of steam engines.

A packet boat laded with cargo, ready to set sail.

The Rise of the Steamboat Era

Once again successfully demonstrating of the power of steam engines, Fulton’s work inspired others, sparking a boom for steamboats that lasted well into the 19th century. Production of steamboats continued to grow and in 1826, just fourteen years after the New Orleans successfully completed its journey, there were 143 steamboats on the river. By 1830, there were more than 1200. Demand for steamboats continued to increase and Cincinnati and the surrounding area soon became a hub for steamboats and steamboat production.

Traveling at an average speed of 5 miles an hour and able to travel up river, steamboats proved to be a popular alternative to slower flatboats that often had to be disassembled and sold for scrap at their final destination. More steamboats began appearing on the nation’s waterways and while every steamboat had side or a stern mounted paddlewheel and shallow hull, steamboats featured different designs for specialized tasks and roles. With flat decks and luxurious first class state rooms packet boats transported people and goods up and down river while glamorous showboats provided entertainment and snagboats, with cranes mounted on their bows, helped clear dangerous debris from the river.

An image from Harper’s Weekly depicting the Sultana on fire after her boiler’s exploded.

Despite the popularity of steamboat travel, it was not without its risks. In 1860 alone more than 474 people died travelling on steamboats due to collisions, fires, and boiler explosions. Boiler explosions were the deadliest and the most common disaster on steamboats as the poor construction of many engines along with the high pressure steam engines the boats used could lead to temperature spikes resulting in explosions. Between 1812 and 1865 almost 4,000 passengers perished due to boiler explosions, the deadliest being the Sultana, which resulted in the deaths of 1192 people and is considered to be the worst maritime disaster in United States history.

Following the Civil War, railroads emerged as a cheaper, faster alternative to river travel marking the beginning of the end of the steamboat era in America. Find out more about the decline and end of the steamboat era next week.

A Brief History of Steamboats – Early History


A Brief History of Steamboats: Early History
by Ben Morrill, Visitor Center Site Manager

Steamboats have a long and storied history along the Ohio River, and many sites around the region pay homage to their rich history. With flat hulls and propulsion systems mounted above the water line, the unique construction of steamboats made them ideal for travelling the shallow Ohio River, helping revolutionize transportation and turn southwest Ohio from an unsettled frontier into a bustling commercial center. Throughout the 1800s and even up until the early 20th century, steamboats dominated the waterways of the Ohio River.

A replica of Fulton’s steamboat constructed in 1909 to celebrate the centennial of the Clermont’s historic journey.

Robert Fulton and the Clermont

In August of 1807, inventor Robert Fulton made history as his steam powered boat, the Clermont, travelled from New York City to Albany, New York, successfully making the 150 mile journey in 32 hours. Born in Pennsylvania in 1765, Fulton originally established himself as a painter in Philadelphia before poor health led him to travelling abroad on the advice of his doctor. Departing the United States in 1786, Fulton poured himself into science and engineering while overseas, developing several new inventions for European powers including the Nautilus, an early submarine prototype.

Returning to New York in 1806, Fulton and his business partner Robert Livingston, an American lawyer he met in France in 1803, set about constructing a new steam powered boat that would revolutionize transportation. Officially named the North River Steamboat of Clermont, the boat is popularly known simply as the Clermont. Measuring 142 feet long and 12 feet wide with paddlewheels measuring 15 feet in diameter mounted on either side, the Clermont had a shallow draft of 2 feet, averaging around 5 miles an hour. The Clermont’s successful 32 hour journey to Albany in the summer of 1807 marked the beginning of an era that redefined the culture and landscape of early America.


An engraving depicting Fitch’s revolutionary invention, unlike later steamboats who used paddlewheels to propel them, Fitch’s first steamboat used a steam engine to drive side mounted oars to move the boat.

John Fitch: Father of the Modern Steamboat

While Robert Fulton is perhaps most well-known for his work with steamboats, the Clermont wasn’t actually the first steamboat in the country. Steam engines first appeared in the mid-1700s, often modeled after James Watt’s successful 1769 patent. American inventor John Fitch looked to use this new invention as a propulsion device for a new method of transportation. Beginning in 1785, Fitch set about building a steam powered boat, completing his 45 foot long prototype two years later and successfully demonstrating it before members of Congress in 1787.

Building off of his original prototype Fitch constructed another, larger steamboat, designed to carry passengers and freight that made regularly scheduled trips between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey.  After a lengthy patent battle with rival inventor James Rumsey, Fitch secured the first American steamboat patent in 1791. But Fitch’s success proved to be short lived.


Fitch’s second steamboat incorporated a water level rear propulsion system that would be later found on many steamboats.

Fitch’s poor business sense, along with the sinking of one of his boats in a storm, led to the loss of financial investors who funded his business. Travelling to France in 1793 in an attempt to secure more funding for his new invention, the chaos of the French Revolution forced Fitch to flee to London, although his search for funding proved unsuccessful and he returned to the United States in 1794 empty handed. Fitch died four years later in 1798 at the age of 55, still trying to find new ways to fund his invention.

His revolutionary invention fell into obscurity until Robert Fulton successfully demonstrated the potential of steam powered transport in 1807, leading to Fulton receiving credit as the father of modern steamboats.

Stay tuned next week to learn about the steamboat boom of the 1800s.

Life at Lock 34


Life at Lock 34
by Ben Morrill, Visitor Center Site Manager

A lock worker poses with a dog with homes visible in the background.

Today Lock 34 Park is known as a serene riverfront park in the Clermont Park District, but from 1925 to 1964, Lock 34 was home to a vibrant community, living and working along the Ohio River. On site housing for workers and their families helped create a tight knit community while the nearby town of Chilo offered opportunities to socialize and relax. Today, only one of the original homes remain, but the legacy of the Lock 34 community can still be seen.

In 1885, the United States Army Corp of Engineers began an ambitious project, damming the Ohio River. Prior to the construction of the Ohio River dams the river became impassable during warmer months as the water level dropped to two to three feet between July and October. Damming the river allowed for greater control over water levels, with the opportunity to maintain a steady depth of nine feet allowing for year round navigation and transportation. Starting in Pittsburgh, it took the Army Corp of Engineers forty five years to complete this project and when they were done fifty two dams stretching from Pittsburgh to southern Illinois dotted the Ohio River.

A group of children pose for a picture at Lock 34 circa 1930, the manager’s homes and the power house are visible behind them.

Construction on Lock 34 began after the First World War, finishing in 1925. In addition to the lock and powerhouse, the Army Corp built onsite housing for workers and their families. Four homes along the river bank in close proximity to the powerhouse were built for managers and their families, with the lockmaster’s home closest to the powerhouse and dam. Today only the assistant lock master’s home remains, while the steps of the former homes serve as reminders of what once stood there.

Today the site is occupied by a parking lot leading to the park’s boat ramp, but when Lock 34 was in operation four additional homes for employees stood there. Additionally, a small garage with several gas pumps once occupied the space where the Frisbee steamboat engine now stands. These vehicles would frequently be used to drive into nearby Chilo, then a bustling town of around 500 people.

The main store at Chilo where residents of Lock 34 did their shopping, circa 1940.

The workers and residents of Lock 34 weathered the flood of 1937, which brought the Ohio River up to a record high of 73’ at Chilo, with water reaching the second floor of the powerhouse. But the community held together and when the flood waters receded they returned to their daily routines. The community at Lock 34 remained active until the modernization of dams along the Ohio forced the Army Corp of Engineers to decommission and close the outdated wicket dams, like Lock 34, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

While the community that once thrived at Lock 34 is gone, you can still see the lasting impression they had on the area. From remnants of the former homes to household items and other artifacts in the museum, the legacy of the people who worked and lived at Lock 34 can still be seen. To learn more about Chilo Lock 34 and our other parks, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.