Embrace America's Rivers

There are many more men and women deserving of the title River Royalty than we have space for. Selected are a few that author Jerry Hay has chosen due to extensive studies and personal preference.

William Clark was co-commander with Meriwether Lewis on the Lewis & Clark Expedition (1803-1806), the greatest river adventure in American history.  Lewis was a great man, but it was Clark who is credited with the success of the mission, due to his abilities and leadership.


Most of us know about the expedition, so the focus of this article is about William Clark's part in it. From recruiting men in Louisville to selecting needed equipment to training men during the winter before they departed, Clark demanded excellence. His men respected his leadership, that was not at all tyrannical, but with a calm and compassion demeanor. William was the younger brother of the famous George Rogers Clark. 

The keelboat was large and heavy, making upstream travel difficult. Capt. Clark always stood watch, reading the river and motivating the men. He had an uncanny ability to read the river for hazards and choose correct forks to take.

Clark's geographic knowledge and mapping skills proved essential on the journey, particularly while crossing the Rocky Mountains after getting horses and supplies from the Shoshone tribe. His maps were incredibly accurate.

The Native American village people were very important in trading for provisions and information about what to expect ahead. Through an interpreter, Clark was usually able to communicate and form a friendly relationship with them.

After reaching the Pacific Ocean they built Fort Clatsop (present day Astoria, OR). The entire company got to vote on what to do next. After a long wet winter, the expedition headed back east the way they came, with side trips along the way.

After getting local information, Clark led his men on a grueling portage around the Great Falls (actually 4 falls). The 18 miles took weeks and several trips, as they were not traveling light. They made wheels from trees to pull the heavy loads.

After 2 years, 4 months, and 9 days, the expedition returned to a great celebration in St. Louis. Their dog Seaman looks happy to be back. This was a journey that changed America forever that was in no small part, thanks to Capt. William Clark 

In 1833, 13 year old James Buchanon Eads and his mother arrived at St. Louis in a steamboat. On approaching the landing the boat caught fire and Eads swam for his life. Where is climbed up the riverbank, he would build a great bridge one day.

Young Eads was fascinated by the Mississippi River and began to read all that he could find about it. This knowledge would be helpful as he also studied engineering with no formal schooling on the subject. This led to his designing and building many projects crucial to river transportation.

He had a knack for recognizing a need and acting upon it with his genius. He became a river captain and well recognized engineer.

At age 17, while working as a clerk on a steamboat that hit a snag and sank, Eads saw opportunity in salvaging materials from sunken vessels. He designed and built the first diving bell. Eads walked the bottom of the river with his invention and was very successful at bringing up valuables. He later designed boats that could bring up an entire sunken steamboat intact. Often they could be repaired and put back into service.  

In 1849 a steamboat caught fire in the busy harbor at St. Louis. The fire jumped from boat to boat, leaving a disaster on the riverfront. 23 burned and sunken steamboats clogged up the harbor rendering it useless. James Eads was the only person with the knowledge, equipment, and manpower to take on the task. He was paid by the city and insurance companies with full salvage rights. This propelled Eads to great wealth.

In 1861 the Civil War was being fought. The Union needed boats that would have firepower and stand up to shelling and the natural hazards of the river. Eads proposed to General Grant that he could build such a boat In fact he built seven of the ironclads in several plants. While in design Eads invented the first gun turrets. These vessels were very successful. Grant and Eads became life-long friends.  

The growing city of St. Louis needed a bridge across the Mississippi River. Eads, who had never built a bridge before, designed one from a material that had never be used to build any large structure; steel. After partnering with Andrew Carnegie, Eads began building. There was controversy from several fronts but the bridge continued with the blessing of President Grant. Completed in 1874 this double-decker bridge is still standing and in use. 

Eads was successful in many other projects, like designing and building a jetty system below New Orleans to stop the Mississippi River from silting in. He knew the river like no one else. After all how better can you get to know a river than to have walked on the bottom countless time. James Eads died in 1887 at the age of 66. On his death bed he said "I cannot die yet. I have more work to do". To be certain, this riverman/engineer would have accomplished more great things, given more time.

Capt. Henry Shreve contributed much to river navigation and the more modern steamboat design. His steamboat Washington was a prototype for steamboats, even today.

Shreve also designed, built, and operated the first snagboats on the rivers. Snags (sunken trees) were a big hazard to navigation that Shreve began removing with his unique vessel that could wedge into them, lift them, breaking them free or cut them off. Many lives and much property was saved by this invention.

Shreve and his company set out to open up the log jammed Red River. Under government contract it took 3 years to complete. A new port was then formed on the Red River, named for Henry. The Port of Shreveport, Louisiana. (shown in photo)    

Model of the Washington


Clearing the Red River in Louisiana

Captain Sellers of St. Louis was known as a fast captain. He knew the river so well that he could run fast day or night. Other pilots would follow in his wake, knowing that they were safe. Sellers started the first pilots association with the main purpose of sharing information about the rivers. Newspapers in river towns would public the journals that he freely shared so that others would know about any new hazards or other river conditions. He would sign his journels with "Capt. Isaiah Sellers - Mark Twain". Mark twain was a term meaning "safe water" using a leadline. Sam Clemens admired Capt. Sellers and waited until the good captain died before he took it as a pen name.

Mark Twain was a river pilot but his contribution is putting the Mississippi River on the world map. During his travels all over the world his wit, wisdom, and humor captured the imagination of those who previous knew nothing of this great river. His lectures and books, even today, are the reason many foreigners list the Mississippi River as something that they want to see when coming to the United States. 

Mary Becker Greene was a debutante, who's family was disappointed when she married a river man Gordon Greene. She loved the steamboats and the river, spending a great deal of time in the pilothouse with her husband, the Captain. Together the began buying steamboats, operating out of Cincinnati. The Greene Line Steamers was very successful and Mary became on of the first women to obtain her captain's license in 1897. The company acquired the Delta Queen Steamboat in 1946 and that vessel became "her" boat. She could be seen in all departments doing everything from cleaning to piloting. She died on the Delta Queen in 1949, and some claim that her spirit is still onboard. There have been many stories over the years about the ghost of Mary Greene. To be sure, she would be a benevolent spirit and nothing to fear.