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January 23, 2013

NEW ALBANY BICENTENNIAL Week 4: Rise of the steamboats

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. 

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