NEW ALBANY — For people living in mid-century New Albany, rolling on the river was more than a catchy song. It became a way of life.
Due to its plentiful lumber supply, accessible streams and ideal placement downstream from the Falls of the Ohio, the city became a steamboat-building mecca. It housed more than six different ship builders and dozens upon dozens of ancillary businesses that helped outfit the boats.
Jeffersonville’s Howard Steamboat Museum Director and Curator Keith Norrington said it wasn’t unusual for ships built in Jeffersonville to be moved and finished in New Albany due to the plethora of shops and craftsmen that were available, including cabinet makers, porcelain manufactures, silversmiths and boiler and engine manufacturers.
“During the heyday of steamboat building, with a lot of the boats, the hulls were built here and then they were taken on down river to New Albany for finishing. The reason for that was there were a lot of businesses in New Albany,” he said. “Anything they needed to outfit a steamboat, New Albany had it.”
According to the 2012 book “By the Rivers Edge,” 75 percent of the city’s population was dependent on the industry during its peak. In fact, New Albany was “second only to Pittsburgh as the nation’s most prolific boat-producing city.”
After New Albany fashioned its first boat, the Ohio, back in 1818, the ship-building business steadily grew and peaked between the years 1845 to 1850. During this time, several well-known steamboats were manufactured in the city, including the Eclipse, also nicknamed “the Calendar Boat” because of its 365-foot measurement, and the Eliza Battle, a steamboat, and some now say ghost ship, that caught fire on the Tombigbee River and killed roughly 32 people onboard.
But no ship is as remembered and beloved as New Albany’s very own Robert E. Lee.
“That just seems to be a name that has survived through the generations that if people don’t know the name of any other steamboat, they know the Robert E. Lee,” Norrington said.
Built in 1866, the Robert E. Lee was a sight to behold. The name on the other hand left some Hoosier residents less than thrilled. Due to the anti-Southern sentiment after the end of the Civil War, the makes of the boat deemed it best to travel across the river to the less Yankee Louisville to have the name of the Confederate general painted.
But the name of the 6,000-bale boat wasn’t what made her infamous. It was an 1870 race from New Orleans to St. Louis against a fast New Orleans ship named the Natchez. The Robert E. Lee won the 1,154 mile race with a long-standing record of 3 days, 18 hours and 14 minutes. Still to this day, people question the Lee’s win.
“There’s such controversy about it and there always will be. Who really won the race?” Norrington said. “It’s just one of those things that no one will really know for sure.”
By the late 1800s, steamboat building began to decline. Railways, and later paved roads, became the cheaper method of transporting goods. The Civil War and the Panic of 1857 with its subsequent credit tightening also contributed to the industry’s demise. According to “By the Rivers Edge” by 1880 only one shipyard remained in New Albany. The firm of Murray and Hammer launched its final boat a year later.
“It’s just really ironic to think now how New Albany had all these things at one time and they all disappeared,” Norrington said.
Few snapshots and mementos remain from the steamboat era. The 1937 flood claimed many of the old relics.
“So many photographs and memorabilia from New Albany’s steamboat days were lost in the flood,” Norrington said. “It’s sad that there’s so little in existence showing New Albany’s waterfront. It’s a shame because New Albany had such a glorious past in the Steamboat era.”
The Howard Steamboat Museum in Jeffersonville does house some collectibles and models of the Robert E. Lee, keeping its memory alive for future generations so they might know the great steamboat days of New Albany. For more information or to plan a visit, visit steamboatmuseum.org