Indiana at 200 (42): Indiana Got Into Boat Building Early
by Andrea Neal
Drive along the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, and you can’t miss the 68-acre Jeffboat plant in which workers make the ships that transport so much of the nation’s grain, coal and chemicals to market.
Due to our landlocked location, most Hoosiers don’t see Indiana as a leader in the shipbuilding economy, yet it’s a role we’ve been playing for almost two centuries at the same spot where Jeffboat now stands.
“Look out the window and you can see a barge being built,” says Lowell Smith, a docent at the Howard Steamboat Museum across the street from the nation’s largest inland boat builder. “They’ve been building boats here for a long time.”
Indeed, boat builders have occupied the site since 1820, four years after Indiana statehood. Robert C. Green came first, followed by William and Henry French, who sold their shipyard to 19-year-old James Howard in 1834. Three generations of Howards operated the yard until the U.S. Navy acquired it in 1941.
The museum preserves memorabilia from the steamboat era – roughly the 1830s through 1900 – and is housed in a 22-room Romanesque Revival mansion built by Edmonds Howard and his family in 1894.
In the days before the steamboat, there was no good way to travel or move products. Flatboats carried goods, but going upstream took forever. When a flatboat reached its destination, it was usually taken apart and sold for lumber, and its crew walked or rode horses home.
John Fitch built the first steamboat in America in the 1780s, and Robert Fulton made the invention a success. His boat, the Clermont, took the first commercial voyage up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany and back in 1807.
Steamboats were on the Ohio by 1811, and, within 30 years, there were hundreds carrying passengers and products down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, an eight-day trip. (Businessmen briefly entertained using the White River, but the idea was abandoned in 1831 after the Robert Hanna ran aground upstream of Indianapolis, suggesting the river was not commercially navigable.)
Jeffersonville, New Albany and Madison were the most prominent Indiana ports, but steamboats also traveled the Great Lakes. Michigan City became a key port for lake steamboats carrying products east on the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean.
By far the most innovative boats were built by the Howard brothers of Jeffersonville, whose vessels “had an especially fine reputation for speed, comfort and carrying capacity,” observed historian Emma Lou Thornbrough, who wrote in Indiana during the Civil War era.
Built in 1878, the J.M. White was their most famous. “Few boats could match the technological innovations on board, and none could match her speed,” according to one account. “The J.M. White had chimneys eighty-one feet tall, she had a five-tone whistle, and much of the loading machinery she used was steam powered, a significant innovation at the time.”
Although inland water transport declined with the advent of the railroad in the 1870s, boat-building continued. The Navy yard was a major builder of tank-landing boats during World War II and now, under the ownership of American Commercial Lines, it produces towboats and barges.
The three Indiana ports today — Jeffersonville, Mount Vernon and Burns Harbor — contribute $6 billion a year to the state economy. Did you know? More than half of Indiana’s border is water, which includes 400 miles of direct access to the Great Lakes and the Ohio-Mississippi river system.
Note to readers: This is one in a series of essays that lead to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016. The essays will focus on the top 100 events, ideas and historical figures of Indiana, beginning with the impact of the Ice Age and ending with the legacy of the Bicentennial itself. Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directions: The Howard Steamboat Museum is at 1101 East Market Street, Jeffersonville, IN 47130.