I. Steamboat Boom (1816 – 1860)

The history of The Fulton Railroad Company, Ltd. and Cincinnati Barge & Rail Terminal, LLC offers a fascinating look at Cincinnati’s backstory as the country’s first Western boom town. This is the 1st chapter of a 4 installment story of the site’s many uses to the community and in domestic and international trade. This series premiered in The East End Newsletter in early 2013.

Steamboat Boom (1816 – 1860)

by Ric Stewart

Fulton as it appears in The F&P Daguerreotypes of September 24, 1848, Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter. Courtesy of Cincinnati Public Library (Inland Rivers Collection).

Fulton in panel 8 of Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter’s daguerreotypes taken on September 24, 1848. Courtesy of The Cincinnati Public Library (Inland Rivers Collection).

Cincinnati evolved from a frontier settlement to the top manufacturing and commercial center in the West in the first half of the 19th Century. Its population soared from 750 in 1800, to 46,000 in 1840. By 1850, Cincinnati was home to 115,000 residents, almost as many as The Republic of Texas which grew from 70,000 to 210,000 inhabitants during the 1840’s. The area just east of Liberty Street (now Bains Place) was then known as Fulton. It was named for steamboat inventor Robert Fulton (1765-1815). The town occupied 2.5 miles of waterfront and was 0.5 mile wide (the environs of today’s Cincinnati Barge and Rail Terminal, LLC and Fulton Railroad Co.). This shipbuilding port at the exact midpoint of the Ohio River produced 900 new steamboats between 1816 and 1880.

The rough and tumble Fulton was previously called “The Eastern Liberties” due to its location and freedom from municipal rules. Cincinnati had many regulations. For example, until 1848, steam locomotives were not allowed due to their novelty and potential danger to residents and horses. Railcars would be pulled up to the Little Miami Railroad’s ­Pendleton Station just east of Fulton and then transported by horse-drawn vehicles into the city.

As early as 1819, 25% of all steam boats on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers were made in Cincinnati. By the early 1830’s, Fulton had 4 boat yards that were supplied by 2 lumberyards and 4 sawmills. The Gordon and Weeks families moved their shipyards to Fulton Township in 1830. Weeks subdivided his lot and continued to ship build. Other noteworthy shops included Knowles and Jones Steamboat Builders, the Hazen Shipyard and James Keslar’s Fulton Saw Mill.

A closeup map of Fulton's Shipyards in the 1800's.

A closeup map of Fulton’s Shipyards in the 1800’s.

Fulton incorporated with 2,000 residents in 1832. 400 of those inhabitants labored as skilled workers including mechanics, carpenters, sawyers, caulkers and ship joiners. Fulton generated 80% of Cincinnati’s boat production. John Swasey and Company yards built three ocean going vessels before 1860 in the 200 to 350 ton range. They towed down to New Orleans for launch via the Gulf of Mexico. The craftsmanship of area shops created a word of mouth appreciation generating orders on multiple continents.

Of the 233 steamboats traveling the Ohio and Mississippi in 1836, 48 had been built at Fulton. Fulton’s council eventually passed ordinances to regulate taverns, prohibit horse racing, disorderly conduct, vice and immorality.  Its legitimacy as place for business led to formal annexation to Cincinnati in 1855.

Fulton Shipyards

Fulton’s Shipyards in their mid-1800’s heyday.

As Frank Grayson wrote in Thrills Of The Historic Ohio River:

“That narrow strip [Fulton and Pendleton] was probably the noisiest spot in the entire United States when all the shipbuilding plants were in full operation. The impact of the countless mauls against heavy timbers, the chig-chag of the fletch saws (from 4-6 in number and set parallel) which operated up and down as they tore their way through the immense logs of oak, poplar, black locust, and Allegheny pine, the “he-ho-heave!” of the foremen as the men bent their backs under the toil of lifting heavy beams and planks into position, the chop-chop of the broadax and mournful bellowing of the oxen which snaked the lumber to the mills through the yards over piles of debris, the whining of band saws, the rat-a-tat-tat of hammers driving home the spikes, the clatter of steel against steel, the whistles of passing boats so numerous they were almost in review, and the peculiarly penetrating sound of the caulking tool as the oakum and cotton were buried in the seams of the docks…”

Both the construction of the 20-mile Wooster Turnpike in 1841 and The Erie Canal’s transition to rail in the 1860’s upgraded transportation and fueled commercial development. Most workers remained in transportation related lines of work as cargo began to move more effectively by roads and rail. By 1860 the value and diversity of industrial production in Cincinnati was said to be surpassed only by Philadelphia and New York City.

1849 Cincinnati plan. Note the Little Miami Railroad runs west to the Canal.

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