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Invention & Technology MagazineWinter 1988    Volume 3, Issue 3
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A two-hundred-mile tangle of wood, silt, live trees, and vines made the Red River virtually unnavigable—and north Texas unreachable—until Henry Shreve’s steam-powered snag boat blasted and ripped it away
by Edith McCall

The gray mists of predawn shrouded the waters and banks of the Natchez riverfront on the morning of April 3, 1833, as the steamboat Java cautiously moved past the ghostly forms of rafts, keelboats, and two other steamboats. On board the small, unadorned working boat, Capt. Henry M. Shreve took note of them all and then nosed the Java to a docking close to her sister steamboats, Souvenir and Pearl. Ahead of the flotilla loomed the shadowy bulk of the snag boat Archimedes, her two huge eighteen-foot windlass wheels rising above the mists.

Captain Shreve wasted no time that day as he made a final check on the equipment and the crew members awaiting embarkation. This was the last port of call before their voyage into almost uninhabited northwestern Louisiana. There they would begin a job most people believed doomed to failure: the removal of the centuries-old Great Raft of the Red River. In midafternoon Shreve was ready to write a report to mail to his superior, Brig. Gen. Charles Gratiot, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Shreve had been serving the corps since January 1827 as superintendent of Western river improvements, assigned responsibility for making the Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas rivers safe for steam navigation by clearing them of treacherous snags.

After his invention and construction of the first practical steam-powered snag boat in 1828, Shreve had made rapid progress clearing miles of river waters of the dangerous ancient tree trunks that could tear open the hull of a wooden steamboat, incurring disastrous losses of cargoes and vessels and sometimes of lives. Now he faced a new challenge, tearing apart one of nature’s unique phenomena—the Great Raft, a mass of driftwood nearly 200 miles long that blocked steamboat navigation of most of the Red River’s 1,300 miles. The Great Raft’s foot—its downriver end—was near Natchitoches, Louisiana, about 220 miles above the Red’s confluence with the Mississippi. The remainder of the river to its source in the Texas Panhandle was inaccessible because of this massive obstruction.

As late as 1832, removal of the Raft was still judged to be impossible.

As he paused to begin his report to Gratiot, Captain Shreve must have recalled his one previous glimpse of the Great Raft. In January 1815 he had headed for Natchitoches at the helm of the Enterprise, the first steamboat to ascend the Red River’s navigable waters. What he had seen at the upriver end of that voyage was unforgettable. The Great Raft could have been a lengthy island from its appearance. Its foot was so ancient that the driftwood had rotted, and cottonwoods and willows were growing in the topsoil. Vines entwined the logs that had piled up over the centuries. Year after year limbs and even whole uprooted trees had been carried down the Red until they met with and joined this impassable tangle. Many trees put down roots in the riverbed, further anchoring the growing mass and obstructing more driftwood year after year.

The people of Natchitoches told Shreve in 1815 that the Raft was at least 150 miles long, probably even longer, and that travel farther up the Red was possible only for small, shallow-draft boats. Even with a very small boat, the villagers said, the crew would often find itself in a bayou without an outlet and be forced to turn back and try again. Progress was very slow, and cargo limited to light loads. Shreve realized the Enterprise could not possibly get past the Raft.

In that time before highways and railroads, the Red was the only potential practical route to an enormous area of Indian territories and northern Texas, then a part of Mexico. Its unexploited importance increased as the years passed. In 1833, when Shreve prepared to return to the Raft, steamboat transportation on the Red River was becoming an absolute necessity, but the river remained basically unchanged. Revolution was brewing in Texas, and Indian problems were growing as westward expansion developed. Western military posts had to be more easily reached. The land itself was still practically inaccessible to farmers and developers.

As early as 1806 removal of the Raft had been thought of and judged impossible. President Jefferson had sent the Freeman-Custis Expedition to try to map the course of the Red River, and Thomas Freeman had concluded, “No hope can be entertained of the great raft ever being removed.” Because of the Raft, the population of Louisiana upriver from Natchitoches had remained sparse. Repeated pleas were sent to Congress to open the Red River, but they were ignored until 1832, when problems looming with Mexico and with Indians forced the attention of the Jackson administration. Then the Secretary of War was urged to check into the possibilities of Raft removal once more, and he gave the assignment to General Gratiot, his chief engineer.

Gratiot sent a young lieutenant named Seawell to Louisiana to see what might be done. After some investigation Seawell concurred with Freeman that removal of the Raft was impossible. He suggested digging short canals, deepening some of the bayous, and assigning a permanent crew to keep the canals and bayous open, since the Red would continuously carry fresh silt into them. Gratiot’s response was to write to Shreve and ask him if he didn’t think it might be possible to clear away the Great Raft.

Brigadier General Gratiot had developed great confidence in Shreve, whose achievements in six years since becoming superintendent of Western river improvements had confounded widespread skepticism along the rivers. Shreve grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania on land that his father, Col. Israel Shreve, had purchased from George Washington. Soon after his father’s death, in 1799, he began work as a riverboatman, serving a long apprenticeship on rafts and keelboats. By 1811, when he was twenty-five, he was captaining a barge he had built between Pittsburgh and New Orleans. When the first steamboat left Pittsburgh late that year—the Fulton-designed New Orleans—Shreve turned his sights to steamboat ownership. By 1814 he was a stockholder in the Enterprise, an eighty-foot stern-wheeler, and he took the ship on its maiden voyage to New Orleans, bearing munitions to aid in the defense of that city in the War of 1812. The Enterprise stayed in martial service after the victory at New Orleans in January 1815, and Shreve’s first assignment was the ferrying of troops, which took him up the Red River to Natchitoches and his first view of the Great Raft. Later that year he made the first successful upriver steam voyage on the Mississippi and Ohio, returning north from New Orleans to Pittsburgh.

When he needed a larger, more powerful steamboat, Shreve designed the Washington, an innovative, high-pressure, shallow-draft boat that was the first double-decker and the first with double smokestacks. Although a deadly boiler explosion marred the Washington’s maiden voyage, the ship was subsequently so successful that its 1816-17 voyages are considered to mark the opening of the commercial steamboat era. In this same period Shreve took on and defeated the Fulton-Livingston monopoly, which had given one steamboat owner exclusive rights to Mississippi commerce. Soon he had a fleet on the river, incorporating many of his own innovations (he had no formal engineering education). His crowning achievement in steamboat design, several years later, was the George Washington, with three decks, staterooms for passengers, and touches of luxury— the prototype of the “floating palace.”

Shreve’s steamboats were highly successful in the 1820s but were unable to move in safety because of the innumerable snags that had accumulated in the rivers over the centuries. After Shreve left his steamboat business to become superintendent of Western river improvements, he invented the snag boat. One earlier one had been tried, a double-hulled steamboat with a single paddle wheel at the rear to propel it and a manually controlled windlass and capstan for roping and pulling at snag material. Its inventor, John Bruce, had soon abandoned it in favor of ordinary rafts and chains, levers, and handsaws. Shreve’s first snag boat was similar and also didn’t work.

Shreve then designed the Heliopolis. It had two parallel hulls, like a catamaran, and it worked as follows: First, the boat would simply ram into a snag, hitting it with a massive iron-sheathed beam structure that extended between the two bows underwater. If that failed to complete the job, the boat would ride over the snag, loosening it enough so that a chain attached to a windlass above the middle of the ship could be used to pull the snag up and onto the boat, where it could be cut apart and discarded. The windlass was also the axle of the two eighteen-foot wheels suspended above the hulls, and they each were driven by a cable connected to one of the two engines. Their size gave the windlass, in Shreve’s words, “a perpetual and prodigious lever-power.”

When he proposed the boat, other steamboat captains predicted that it would upend itself or explode its boilers, but Gratiot approved the building of the Heliopolis as a test vessel. It was put to work on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in 1829, and in a short time, to quote a contemporary news report, it had “succeeded in rendering about 300 miles of river as harmless as a mill pond.” Shreve himself later wrote that with the boat he could break off and raise “trees sixty feet long and three and a half in diameter, implanted twenty feet in the bed of the river, with the greatest ease.” Steamboat operation on the Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas rivers soon became markedly safer. The Archimedes, the boat now awaiting the start of the attack on the Great Raft, had been built in 1831 to speed up the tremendous task of river clearance.

When Gratiot first wrote to Shreve about the Great Raft, Shreve replied that he was sure he could defeat the Raft. He would need a working crew, boats, and tools and would use the Archimedes to lead the attack. Gratiot agreed, almost by return mail. Preparations began immediately.

Natchez was the final stop before the fleet entered the Red River. Last-minute purchases were made, for beyond lay only small settlements. Embarkation was set for late afternoon that April day. As Shreve completed his report to Gratiot, he wrote that he expected to arrive at the Great Raft on April 9. With the letter posted, he boarded the Archimedes and took over the wheel. The small steamboats puffed along behind, and with the man-powered craft following more slowly, the fleet eased out into the Mississippi. Through the night the boats moved downstream toward the mouth of the Red, about sixty miles south.

At the Red the steamboats waited for the keelboats and flatboats, taking them in tow for the upstream voyage. As the flotilla moved up the Red, Shreve noted the river’s many jutting trees and shallow sandbars where driftwood might catch and became concerned about his plan for disposing of the Raft. On other rivers, snags were pulled on board the snag boat, sawed into shorter lengths, and set free to float to the Gulf of Mexico. The current of the Red was sluggish, however, and the great quantity of wood Shreve was about to release was likely to form new blockades.

When the flotilla reached the village of Alexandria, Shreve noted an obstacle of another kind. A reef and other rock formations caused the turbulence that had given the settlement its original name, Les Rapides. Water flowing over the reef was quite shallow, and in times of low water all but the smallest of craft would find passage difficult or impossible. Shreve decided to recommend breaking up the reef in his next report to Gratiot. Fortunately the Red was in its highwater stage, and with care the big Archimedes was guided over the natural dam.

Farther upriver Shreve observed many bayous along the sluggishly flowing river, and the answer to the disposal problem occurred to him. He would push the logs into the bayous. The driftwood would be safely stowed, and it would force back water into the proper river channel. This should improve the current and help drain flooded land.

On April 10, a day behind schedule, Shreve passed the place where he expected to find Natchitoches. In the floods of 1832 the Red had shifted its channel five miles to the east, leaving the old settlement without the chance to become a major river port. Moving on, the fleet approached the foot of the Raft early the next morning. Eager to get to work, Shreve positioned his snag boat, assigned the jobs to crewmen, and at ten o’clock began the attack on the Great Raft.

The captain himself was aboard the Archimedes, directing the preparations for her first bite out of the awesome tangle of driftwood. The great wedge-shaped, ironclad wooden beam set into the two steamboat hulls would strike the underwater snags with all the impetus the high-pressure engines could produce as the twin boats heaved forward. Man-made steam power was attacking nature by force.

When all was ready, Shreve called out the command to proceed, and the Archimedes moved against the Raft with a great crash. Then came weird sounds like human shrieks of agony as a section of the Raft split away from the main body. The windlasses creaked and chains clanked. The workmen, armed with prods and stripped to their waists, leaped to places where the logs were parting. Machinery groaned, steam hissed, and men shouted above the din. To his great satisfaction, Shreve watched an immense chunk of the ancient mass part from the main body. Now the small steamboats went into action, pushing that piece toward the bayou Shreve had chosen as the first to be filled. They rammed in that segment, and then another and another as the day went on.

At the end of the first day’s work, the Great Raft was five miles shorter. Shreve was jubilant. The Raft could definitely be dislodged, despite predictions to the contrary. By May 8, in his report to General Gratiot, Shreve wrote that they had progressed about forty miles. Section after section of the blockade had been torn away and forced into the bayous. The water returned to the river channel, transforming the sluggish waters below the Raft into a gently flowing river.

Then progress slowed. The Raft became more solid and resistant as the looser foot was pulled away and the compacted center approached. The work went on day after day, and the warm spring became a sizzling summer. The men fought gnats, mosquitoes, and snakes, working in oppressively hot, humid air and waist-deep water. Sometimes they came upon a family of alligators, looking much like the ancient driftwood until struck with the steel point of a prod. Heavy boots were indispensable.

By June the laborers could scarcely endure the heat and humidity and threatened to walk off the job. Shreve promised to end the season’s work at Coates Bluff, the site of a Caddo Indian settlement and government agency on the south bank. A short distance above Coates was a trading post known as Bennett and Cane’s. When they reached this point, on June 23, seventy miles of the Great Raft had been demolished.

Leaving their rafts and some of the equipment at Coates Bluff, the crew boarded the steamboats and keelboats for the return to Louisville. Shreve planned to come back in the autumn, realizing that the cooler months were the only time the men could be induced to continue their work. In reporting to Gratiot, he urged him to request funding from Congress for continuation of the project before the year’s end.

But there was no word of congressional action in the months that followed. Shreve was in charge of other river improvement work simultaneously with the Red River project and used the two snag boats continuously as he waited for permission to return to the Raft. After a year Congress finally appropriated the needed funds, and Shreve again organized a working crew to go to the Red. To get the men to sign up, he promised they would be allowed to return home before the heat of summer arrived. This time he hired three hundred men, and they started down the Ohio on November 14, 1834.

The water level was low when the fleet reached Alexandria. Steam power couldn’t be used to get the boats safely over the reef, so each was unloaded and then warped with heavy cables to deeper water. The Archimedes went last, eased carefully over the ledge after a much-needed rain had raised the water level several inches. On December 10 the convoy reached the place where the Raft work had begun and from there progressed slowly, doing cleanup.

Other captains predicted Shreve’s boat would explode or upend.

Along the way changes gratifying to Shreve were evident. Where land had been flooded, settlers were preparing to plant crops. A few small steamboats puffed their way to a landing below Coates Bluff, and new buildings had been added to the settlement. Shreve learned that the Caddo Indians had agreed to move farther west, selling their lands to the United States government, whose agents were doing a good business reselling it at a much higher price.

The Archimedes renewed her attack on the Raft on January 20, 1835. The tough, resisting heart of the mass, with heavy top growth and intertwining vines, had taken root in the riverbed here and there. Progress was slow. Shreve also saw the need to cut canals across a few of the narrow necks of land at horseshoe bends, improving the river channel. One of these was cut near Coates Bluff, leaving the settlement there on a loop of stagnant water, without a decent place for a steamboat landing. A group of developers bought the land near Bennett and Cane’s trading post with the idea of laying out a town now that the river was open that far.

The crew worked until mid-April; only a few miles of the Raft had been removed that season, but Shreve was reminded of his promise to halt the project before summer. Congress responded to the request for a return to the Red in the fall, and work recommenced then.

As soon as he was back at Bennett and Cane’s, Shreve became involved with the investors who were planning a town. It was to be named Shreve’s Town, which soon became Shreveport as steamboats from New Orleans began arriving at its riverfront. Shreve himself was invited to plat the streets. That was in the spring of 1836, during the Texas Revolution. The news of Houston’s victory in the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21 made the prospects for the new town look bright indeed, with its strategic location on the waterway to Texas.

Shreve had hoped to reach the upper end of the Great Raft before stopping work for the summer of 1836, but the density of the mass made his advance very slow. As the weather grew hot and humid, yellow fever laid low many of the men, and it became obvious that work must cease. Shreve’s report of July 6, 1836, indicated a loss of 9,006 mandays because of illness and the need to care for the sick. Only twenty-one miles of the Raft had been removed that season, and nine miles still remained.

Shreve described this segment of the Great Raft in one of his letters: “A deposit of mud had accumulated to such extent as to cover a large portion of the timber, on which the willow and cottonwood had sprung up and taken root on the logs of which the raft was composed. Many trees were found growing in that manner as large as eighteen inches in diameter.”

After months of battering against this mass, the Archimedes was wearing out. That summer Shreve had a new snag boat built, the Eradicator. It was well he did, for the Archimedes, working on the Ohio River in November, tried once too often to remove a large snag, and the boat’s rotted hull gave way.

The crew returned to the Red with the new snag boat late in the fall of 1836. Congress had not yet approved the breaking up of the reef at Alexandria, and with the water low the Eradicator was’ delayed there until the rains came. The men on the smaller boats occupied themselves upriver with cleanup work as they waited.

After the crew had begun work again, in the first months of 1837, Lt. A. H. Bowman arrived in Shreveport. He had been sent by Congress to see if Shreve was wasting government funds. His report, written in April, found to the contrary. Shreve was doing a spectacular job under the most difficult of circumstances. Congress should not hesitate to approve funding; the money would be returned over and over again, in land sales, productivity, and reduced transportation costs. Bowman also revised Shreve’s estimate of the total length of the Raft from 160 to 214 miles.

Although only a quarter-mile of the Raft remained as summer approached, the men could work no longer, and another return to the job had to be planned. There was a financial panic in 1837, and Congress grew reluctant to allocate any more funds to the nearly completed project, even though leaving it unfinished would obviously prove costly in the long run. When—with a year wasted—the work was resumed in the fall of 1838, the approximately one-quarter-mile remnant of the Raft had grown to nearly two miles.

The attack on the Raft became a six-year war before it brought victory.

But the last of the original Great Raft was pulled away and stowed in a bayou on February 15, 1839. Steamboat navigation was opened the full 750 miles to Fort Towson. The attack on the Great Raft had become a long war, but Captain Shreve’s persistence had brought victory.

The Red River did not surrender abjectly, however. It continued a guerrilla action for many years, attempting to rebuild the Raft. Shreve wrote in his final report in June 1839 that congressional action was vital to keep the riverbanks cleared to prevent new buildup. But Congress failed to act until 1841, when steamboats again were blocked by snags and new military action loomed.

The report of the Secretary of War for 1840 states that $85,000 was being saved annually “in the transportation of supplies for Fort Towson.” Additionally, settlement of the upper Red River valley advanced rapidly, and the resulting land sales and productivity repaid the government several times over for all the expense of opening and keeping open the Red. It is impossible to know how American history, including the conflict in the 184Os with Mexico, might have been altered had Shreve not persisted in his attack on the Great Raft.

Clearing away the Great Raft was the culmination of Shreve’s career, and with that job he finished the third of the three tasks with which he opened the rivers of the West to steam. First, he had proved steam river travel possible, making the first voyage against the current of the Mississippi from New Orleans to Cairo and on up the Ohio to Louisville. Next, he had opened the waters legally, taking on and breaking the Fulton-Livingston monopoly on Mississippi commerce. Finally, he had conquered a river itself, inventing the snag boat and using it to open a most important Western river, blocked by nature’s ancient tangle. He retired in 1841 and became a leading citizen of St. Louis. He died in 1851.

For many decades, the riverfront at Shreveport was constantly lined with steamboats that took on cotton there for sale in New Orleans. With the Raft gone, the city grew rapidly. It is now the second largest city in Louisiana and a memorial to Henry Miller Shreve, a man who did not resist a challenge.

Edith McCall is the author of Conquering the Rivers: Henry Mill Shreve and the Navigation of America’s Inland Waterways (Louisiana State University, 1984).

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