July 20, 2011

Swenson documenting region's steamboat era

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Research by an associate professor in Southern Illinois University Carbondale's School of Architecture will help reinforce the region's impact on commerce, industry and westward expansion 150 years ago.

Instructor and architect Robert Swenson is gathering information on more than 64 steamboats built in his hometown of Metropolis. People can share memories, documents and mementos involving river and steamboat history during a “scan/interview day,” from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, July 23, at the Fort Massac Visitors Center in Metropolis. Any documents relating to the Ohio River area steamboats and industries will be scanned and immediately returned to the owner.

Media Advisory

Reporters, photographers and camera crews are welcome to cover the event. For more information, contact Robert Swenson at 618/453-3734 or by email at rswenson@siu.edu.

The project is a community effort in conjunction with the Metropolis Steamboat Bicentennial Committee, Swenson, and David Koch, emeritus director of SIUC’s Morris Library Special Collections. Swenson’s research is for a book, “Steamboats Built at Metropolis on the Lower Ohio River,” which he hopes to complete next year.

Another “scan/interview” day will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 27, at the Metropolis Public Library. It is also possible to collect interviews and photographs at other times, Swenson said.

Swenson became interested in steamboats along the Ohio River when he found 300 to 400 photographs of steamboats from the 1800s in a cardboard box in the special collections room at the Cairo Public Library a few years ago. In sifting through the photographs, Swenson found some of the vessels built in Metropolis.

“This is related to how our region developed -- Paducah, Metropolis, Cairo, Mound City, and the importance of our region relating to the Civil War, transportation, economic development and technology,” he said.

This year is the 200th anniversary of the first steamboat on western waters. The “New Orleans” left Pittsburgh in October 1811 and came through the region during the time of the New Madrid Earthquake and the Great Comet of 1811 while en route to New Orleans, Swenson said.

Metropolis-built steamboats played an important, yet largely unknown role in America’s history and expansion, Swenson said. The William J. Lewis, built in 1867, made two trips along the treacherous 2,000-mile Missouri River from St. Louis to Fort Benton, Mont., carrying military items and household goods.

“That was an enormous feat at the time,” he said. “There are hundreds of steamboats that are wrecked and sunk in the Missouri River because it was so dangerous.”

Research indicates the largest of more than 64 steamboats built in Metropolis was the Mary Belle, which was 330 feet long. Built in 1874-75, the ship carried passengers and cotton along the Mississippi River to New Orleans, and sank a year later after burning in Vicksburg, Miss., Swenson said.

Swenson is fascinated with steamboats’ design, handcrafted build, and ability to stay afloat while transporting cargo and passengers. And the steamboat development and history is another important story for the region, he said.

“There is something about our region’s connections to the rivers that is extremely important,” Swenson said. “We think we are Southern Illinois, but we are not -- we are the heartland of the confluence of the rivers. We are separate from southeast Missouri and western Kentucky, but really, we are not.”

Swenson hopes that documents, including ancestral photographs and letters from area residents, are part of Saturday’s event. A similar “scan/interview” day in Brookport a few weeks ago brought a “beautiful little story” from a woman in her 90s who talked of taking a steamboat from Brookport to Paducah to take piano lessons when she was 11 years old. The woman told of her mother teaching her the direct route to the steamboat and where to go, and also of being with her friends at the landings and the events there, Swenson said.

In addition to the book there are also plans for a DVD. Those who submit materials or participate in interviews will receive a free DVD containing stories and photos everyone provided during the Metropolis Steamboat Bicentennial Celebration, Nov. 5-6, at Fort Massac State Park. Swenson will share some of the stories at an informal free presentation at 1 p.m., Nov. 6.

Swenson said he plans to donate all of his research to the Metropolis Public Library Special Collections and the Massac County Historical Society.

For more information, contact Swenson at 618/453-3734 or by email at rswenson@siu.edu.

The Metropolis steamboat committee is part of the Hanover College River Institute, which is celebrating the 200th anniversary of New Orleans’ journey, Swenson said. More information on the events is available at http://rivers.hanover.edu/steamboat2011/.

More information on steamboat-related events in Metropolis in November is available at metropolistourism.com/content/view/90/110/. For more information, contact Angie Shelton, director, Metropolis Tourism, at 618/524-5025 or by email at angie@metropolistourism.com.