Monthly Archives: December 2022

U.S. Inland Boatbuilding Centers, 1820

From Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure, by Rinker Buck (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2022), Kindle pp. 34-35:

By 1820, the Mon Valley was a smoke pot of industry, with the haze from the foundries and sawmills mixing with the river fog to create a dark overcast on still days. Along the river, where major tributaries like the Youghiogheny and the Cheat enhanced the flow and made boat launching possible almost year-round, boatyards specializing in flats, keelboats, steam-powered hulls, and tall mast ships flourished. Wheeling, McKeesport, New Geneva, and of course Pittsburgh all developed as boatbuilding towns to support the new commerce and migration. The Mon Valley shipbuilding towns played the same role in developing western traffic as Bath, Maine, or Marblehead, Massachusetts, played in the whaling and spice trades. Provisioning the thousands of settlers’ arks and cargo flatboats now departing along the Mon and the Ohio every year became another engine of growth, and Pittsburgh alone would double in population, from 2,400 people in 1800 to almost 5,000 in 1810. Building flatboats and steamboats and supplying the new export economy from the strategic three-rivers junction helped turn Pittsburgh into a small metropolis of 50,000 by the Civil War.

We should be grateful today that Zadok Cramer was a dogged compiler of fact. In The Navigator, Cramer’s list of Pittsburgh’s business establishments took up four pages in agate type, indicating how quickly the town grew as a manufacturing center to supply the booming Ohio-Mississippi trade route. He reported that an 1810 inventory of local establishments in Pittsburgh included “8 boat, barge, and ship builders, 1 pump maker, 1 looking glass maker, 1 lock maker, 7 tanyards, 2 rope walks, 1 spinning wheel maker, [and] 17 blacksmiths.” An “English artist,” James Patterson, was forging a line of metalware that was sure to be popular with the departing flatboaters: “Fire shovels, tongs, drawing knives, hatchets, two feet squares, augers, chisels, adzes, claw hammers, door hinges, chains, hackels,… [and] plough irons.” No, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick did not “invent” the steel business in Pittsburgh. As early as 1812, iron and steel foundries around Pittsburgh were already producing four hundred tons of ingots, wire, and beam per year. The annual production of construction lumber and “scantling,” or boat timbers, reached over seven million board feet. “The stranger is stunned,” Cramer wrote, “by an incessant din of clattering hammers, and blowing of bellowses from morning till night.”

And still more wagons were coming. In 1814, the Pittsburgh Gazette carried an item about a farmer who lived four miles outside town along the main wagon road. Impressed by the volume of traffic heading west for the boatyards, he decided to record every passing wagon between January 1, 1813, and January 1, 1814. His count over that one-year span came to 4,055. At least another five thousand wagons crossed every year on the National and Wilderness Roads. By then the business of building flatboats was so scattered up and down the tributaries of the Ohio, the Mon, the Cumberland, and the Tennessee—and from farm to farm anywhere west of the Appalachians—that no one could possibly count the number of vessels built every year. A few of these hulls would enjoy brief second careers as store boats or floating docks near town landings. But most of them were quickly recycled into frontier log cabins, the sidewalks of Natchez, or the rafters for Creole cottages in New Orleans, one reason why so little evidence of flatboat construction was either preserved or documented for posterity. History, in this case, was literally destroying a record of itself every time a flatboat landed and was taken apart to build something else.

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America’s Flatboat Era

From Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure, by Rinker Buck (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2022), Kindle pp. 28-29:

Historic periods rarely begin at a single, defined moment, and the flatboat era’s antecedents dated back more than forty years. The reason, mostly, was war, and the American passion for cleansing desirable new lands of their indigenous peoples. During the French and Indian War and the Revolution, and then again during Mad Anthony Wayne’s Ohio campaign against the Shawnee and the Miami during the Northwest Indian War in the 1790s, agents dispatched by British and then American army quartermasters had sailed southwest on the Ohio and the Mississippi in flotillas of flat-bottomed barges or keelboats, to trade Monongahela flour and whiskey for imported gunpowder, muskets, and bayonets in New Orleans. The bustling munitions trade between the Americans and the Spanish authorities in Natchez and New Orleans during the Revolution set the tone for the next one hundred years, when wartime needs accelerated transportation improvements on the rivers. During the Revolution, Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana and Cuba, was openly pro-American and even led successful expeditions against British forts at Baton Rouge, Mobile, and Pensacola. His sponsorship of arms smuggling along the Mississippi is still regarded as a decisive contribution to the American cause, and after independence Gálvez was awarded honorary American citizenship.

The success of the arms supply routes along the Mississippi midwifed the new commercial era, opening the Ohio and Mississippi corridor to a fresh, ambitious cast of players. By the late 1790s, French trading firms, mostly backed by investors from Philadelphia, had taken over the old military routes and established a reliable network of shipping agents along the Monongahela, the Great Falls at Louisville, and at Natchez and New Orleans. During the same period, according to one historian’s estimate, more than nine hundred “settler” flatboats bearing pioneers for the Kentucky frontier cast off every year from western Pennsylvania. These rakish boats, measuring fifty or sixty feet long, were particularly colorful, loaded bow to stern with everything a family, or several families, needed to carve a homestead out of the Kentucky forests. A fenced area in the stern carried horses, cattle, pigs, and goats, and the settlers’ boats were often called “arks,” after the fabled vessel of Noah in the Book of Genesis. A log cabin for the family to sleep in was built mid-vessel, and planting seed and flintlock powder were stowed in watertight barrels on the deck. Pioneers with less money to spend simply threw up a crude canvas tent on the deck and roped their milk cow and horses to the sides. Children romped in play spaces between the tents. After 1788, when the federal government issued the first land warrants in the West for Revolutionary War veterans, more than five thousand veterans from Virginia alone, including Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, headed over the mountains with their families on these floating farms, plying the Indiana and Kentucky banks of the Ohio and its tributaries in search of likely homesites to clear.

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Filed under economics, France, labor, migration, military, nationalism, North America, Spain, U.S.

America’s First Westward Mass Migration

From Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure, by Rinker Buck (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2022), Kindle pp. 4-5:

During the early decades of the 19th century, the massive flatboat traffic drifting down the Ohio and the Mississippi established the westward drive and political outlook that eventually allowed America to straddle the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This riverine movement began a half century before the more celebrated era of the “pioneers” crossing the western plains in covered wagons in the 1850s. The inland rivers—not the wagon ruts crossing from Missouri to Oregon—were America’s first western frontier. The rivers also carried a much larger migration. During the first five decades of the 19th century, more than three million migrants ventured down the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys to the swelling southwestern frontier. In the 1840s and 1850s, a comparative trickle—fewer than 500,000 travelers—crossed the plains west of the Missouri River by overland routes, primarily the Oregon and California trails. Still, the dusty journey via covered wagon remains the dominant image of America’s westward spread, a classic instance of popular myth prevailing over fact.

Compared to its trading rivals in Europe and the West Indies, America in the early 19th century was what we would call today a developing country, and the economic impact of the internal river trade was staggering. Economic historian Isaac Lippincott compiled statistics that showed that the commercial receipts for river cargo in New Orleans totaled $22 million in 1830, or about $660 million in today’s dollars. By 1840, the New Orleans river trade—swelled by the enormous growth in cotton exports—had increased to almost $50 million. By the Civil War, the cargo moving south through New Orleans was valued at $200 million, or $6 billion today. Lippincott estimates that, meanwhile, “inland river commerce” hubs like St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Natchez, Mississippi, were also trading cargo valued at $200 million or more by the Civil War. Like the Nile, the Thames, or the Seine before them, the western rivers in America became a floating supply chain that fueled national growth.

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A Hermit Old Believer in the Taiga

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 4274ff:

When I think back on Agafya today, I hear her voice before I see her face. She speaks, but I do not hear any words, only an unmistakable melody. She seems to be singing. It sounds like a faint, unfinished song not intended for an audience.

For five days and four nights I heard her singing voice almost constantly. Each of its melodic variations impressed itself on me, even if I did not always understand the text. Sometimes I was not sure whether Agafya herself knew the text exactly. When she spoke, it often sounded as if her song drifted aimlessly and at random through fragments of memory and verses of scripture, through family tales and the life stories of people she had known.

While we walked along the river, the evening sun sank behind the mountains. The valley turned red before it paled. I was in a strange mental state, dead tired and wide awake at the same time, exhausted from the hike, electrified by our arrival. I could hardly feel the weight of my backpack anymore, everything seemed strangely light, as if the world in which I had landed was not quite real. Agafya walked in front of me, so close that I could make out the irregular seams in her dress, the dirt under her fingernails, the notches in her hatchet. I memorised every detail with the nervousness of a dreamer who knows that he may wake up at any moment.

I was only half listening when Lyonya told me the name of a smaller tributary which flowed into the Abakan just behind the fish trap: the Yerinat. We continued walking on its shore, until the dense forest suddenly opened up. A clearing wound its way up the mountainside. Three small wooden houses stood about halfway up. Above them I could make out the furrows of a potato field.

The oldest of the three huts was half-dilapidated. Agafya had lived in it until her father had died. The two other houses, which were visibly newer, had been built by Lyonya and his forestry colleagues. Agafya lived in the one on the left. Lyonya disappeared into the right one to unload our backpacks.

I unpacked the gifts I had brought along with me [from Abaza, Republic of Khakassia] the headscarf from Doctor Nazarov, the letter from Agafya’s cousins in Kilinsk, the jar with the home-pressed sunflower oil, a woollen blanket that I had bought as a gift and finally the letter from Galina, the linguist. Smiling, Agafya turned all the objects over in her hands, as if she was pondering their religious adequacy. In the end she put the headscarf, the blanket and the sunflower oil on a woodpile in front of her hut. Only the letters remained in her hands as she went inside.

A campfire was smouldering between the houses, with a pan full of fish roasting over the embers. While I was wondering who had put them on the fire, a very small man with a very long beard suddenly stood before me. He reached out his hand. ‘Alexei.’ The high voice did not fit his beard.

Alexei was a distant relative of Agafya’s. He visited her each year around this time. Usually he would stay a few weeks to help her with the winter preparations. He came from one of the Old Believer communities in the Altai Mountains. As it turned out, it was a neighbouring village of Kilinsk, the place where I had met Agafya’s cousins.

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Siberian Learning Sonsorolese

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 3438ff:

I met San Sanych’s friend Sergey, the most exotic inhabitant of Abaza. He was an instrument maker. His house was stuffed with self-made didgeridoos and shaman drums, which he sold at Siberian folklore festivals. The business was going well; Sergey had almost enough money saved to realise his life’s dream. He wanted to emigrate. Abaza was not remote enough for him. He was drawn to a tiny island named Sonsorol, located in the middle of the Pacific. It had 23 inhabitants; Sergey wanted to be the 24th. So far he had only seen the island on pictures, but through the Internet he was in contact with two residents who supported his relocation plans. ‘They both know the Governor of the island,’ Sergey said proudly. I wanted to argue that with 23 inhabitants, every second one was presumably related to the Governor, but I bit my tongue. Sergey meant business. He had already filled out the visa form for the Pacific Republic of Palau. Now he was teaching himself the local language. Fascinated, I leafed through his rudimentary Russian-Palauan dictionary:

Mere direi – Babushka [Grandmother]

Haparu ma hatawahi – Spasibo [Thank you]

Hoda buou – Do svidaniya [Goodbye]

According to the Sonsorol.com/language page, these are genuine words in Sonsorolese, a Chuukic language related to Woleaian and Ulithian in Yap State, which lies to the north of the Republic of Palau. The Palauan language is very different. One of my graduate school classmates did her dissertation on Pulo Anna, a dialect of Sonsorolese.

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“Fundamentals of Safe Living” in Siberia

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 3404ff:

San Sanych was a teacher. At Abaza’s only school he taught a subject with the curious name ‘Fundamentals of Safe Living’. He instructed Russian students how to protect themselves against Russian threats: alcohol poisoning, terrorist attacks, sexually transmitted diseases, nuclear accidents, savage animals. To supplement his teacher’s salary, he leased the top floor of his house to tourists who came to Abaza for fishing or hunting. Occasionally he organised boat tours, mountain hikes and Taiga expeditions.

San Sanych’s actual name was Alexander Alexandrovich, but like many Alexander Alexandroviches, he used a shortened form of his first name and patronymic. San Sanych’s father had also been called San Sanych, just like his grandfather. Unfortunately, the family memory did not extend any further back, because the grandfather had died early – he had tried to save a church from being destroyed by the Bolsheviks, which the Bolsheviks had very much resented. The grandfather’s widowed wife, who had to make ends meet with an orphaned son, decided in her plight to become an agitator for atheism. Until the end of her life she taught students and collective farm workers that the god her husband had died for did not exist.

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Lenin’s Siberian Exile

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2435ff:

Moscow, 23 February 1897. At the Kursk train station a young man is waiting for the Trans-Siberian railroad. Ahead of him lies a two-month journey that will end in Shushenskoye. The train compartment is cramped, but not half as cramped as cell 193 of the Petersburg detention centre, from which the young man has just been released. For the crime of disseminating revolutionary literature, Vladimir Ulyanov is to serve the remaining three years of his sentence in Siberian exile.

Compared with the subsequent nightmare of the Soviet camps, the tsarist system of exile is relatively comfortable. Members of the upper classes – Ulyanov comes from a land-owning family – can organise their lives in Siberia more or less freely. The young man takes up residence in a medium-sized country house. He receives mail by the bundle from revolutionary comrades, and he sends back equally large bundles. He buys a hunting rifle and an Irish Setter named Shenka. His neighbours regularly see the two stalking through the surrounding woods. In summer he bathes twice a day in the Shush, in winter he impresses the small town residents with the elegant momentum of his ice skating. ‘When he would skate over the ice with his hands buried in his pockets,’ recalls an admiring witness, ‘nobody could catch up with him.’

On the side, the young man finds time to complete a book that is later adopted into the canon of the holy scriptures of the Soviet Union: The Development of Capitalism in Russia, published in 1899 under the pseudonym Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

The skates hang on the wall as if Lenin had just hung them up to dry. A great man with small feet, I think involuntarily. It is a quiet day in the former home of the revolutionary. There are six of us: the tour guide, a Russian family and me. The hunting rifle hangs on the bedroom wall, above the two beds in which Lenin and his wife slept. Nadezhda Krupskaya was arrested shortly after Lenin’s departure. When they banished her to the West Siberian city of Ufa, she asked to be relocated with her betrothed. The authorities gave their consent, but, as Lenin wrote to his mother, ‘under a tragicomic condition: if we do not get married immediately, she has to return.’

The wedding ceremony took place in Shushenskoye, in a small church that was demolished after the Revolution. Apart from the church, every single stone in the city has been preserved, even if Lenin so much as walked past it. On his centennial birthday, in 1970, the entire historical town centre was freed of inhabitants and turned into a pilgrimage site. Millions of workers were then herded through their redeemer’s place of exile.

Today, with the stream of pilgrims having subsided, the museum has a discernible public relations crisis. Self-consciously they have renamed the site an ‘Open Air Museum for Siberian Village Culture at the Turn of the Century.’ It is a curious place: a pilgrimage site which hides its saint so that the absence of pilgrims is not as noticeable.

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Growth of Trans-Siberian Travel

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2435ff:

The glamorous luxury cars which Parisian society strolled through at the [World Exhibition of 1900] were never used in Trans-Siberian reality. Far simpler models commuted between Moscow and Vladivostok when the line was completed in 1904. The first symbolic cut of the spade had been performed 13 years earlier on the pacific coast by a young boy named Nicholas, who did not realise that he was digging his own grave – three decades later Tsar Nicholas II rolled to Yekaterinburg in a Trans-Siberian carriage, towards his execution.

Before the line was put into operation, Siberia was linked with the Russian west only by a rough, unpaved dirt road which was barely accessible for the major part of the year – in the winter snow hampered the journey; in the spring, mud; in the summer, dust. The relationship between the two parts of the country was loose, geographically and mentally. Even in the travel notes of Chekhov, who crossed the Eurasian landmass in a horse-drawn wagon shortly before the construction of the railway line, the inhabitants of Siberia spoke of Russia as if it were another, distant country. The endless trip over the Siberian tract must have made it feel like such.

Despite all the hardships, however, the road was hopelessly congested, even during Chekhov’s time. Year after year, since serfdom had been abolished in 1861, a stream of land-seeking farmers flowed into the vast expanses of Siberia. On horse-drawn carts people transported their entire belongings eastward, for 1,000s of kilometres. It happened that at their final destination they bumped into former neighbours, who had fled from serfdom years before to seek their fortunes in Siberia. For centuries the sparsely populated areas east of the Ural Mountains had attracted people who wanted to evade the state’s reach. Runaway serfs hid in Siberia, wanted criminals, escaped convicts, deflowered girls, dishonoured men, illegitimate children. The Old Believers were the most famous, but not the only community of sectarians who awaited the apocalypse deep in the wilderness. They shared their exile with all those outlaws, exiles and madmen who the state itself transported east so they would not cause any more damage in the Russian heartland.

Just a little earlier, there had not even been a road to Siberia. When the first bands of Cossacks crossed the Urals in the 16th century, they dragged dismantled rowing boats over the mountains. Siberia was conquered by water. The Cossacks used the branched river system that traverses the entire land mass between Moscow and the Pacific. From the Volga they worked their way forward to the Kama, from the Irtysh to the Ob, from the Yenisey to the Angara, from the Lena to the Amur. Piece by piece they wrested the country from the Tatar tribes who had dominated it since the collapse of the Mongol empire. The Tatars called their realm Sibir: ‘sleeping country’. The Cossacks, who adopted the Turkish word, woke Siberia with violence. When they reached the Pacific in 1639, not even 60 years after the beginning of the campaign, they had moved Russia’s border more than 5,000 kilometres to the east. Each year they had annexed an area the size of Great Britain to the already huge tsarist empire.

Siberia’s proportions are somewhat terrifying.

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The Moscow Express in May

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2251ff:

I took the express train back to Moscow. Not because I was in a hurry, but because it is the only real express train in the entire country, the sole long-distance connection where you don’t book a bed, but a seat.

The journey felt like a trip into the future. Everything that usually makes up a Russian train ride had been eliminated: the motherly conductresses, the on-board samovar, the clothes-changing rituals, the physical proximity, the carry-on food, the feuding families, the drunken soldiers, the rumbling heartbeat of the wheels. Even the typical odour was missing, that mix of engine oil and onions and bedclothes. The air strongly smelled of nothing at all. Solitary cappuccino-drinkers and laptop-typers filled the soundproofed compartments. My seatmate discreetly moved her elbow away as I sat down. Without looking up from her computer she replied to my greeting, then grew silent, like the rest of the carriage. There was the same awkwardly maintained anonymity that I was familiar with from the commuter trains in Western Europe. Twenty more years, I thought, maybe 30, then all of Russia will look like this.

For most of the four-hour trip I just stared out of the window, glad to live in the present. The country that flew by outside looked as if it was in a hurry.

Halfway along the route someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around, but there was nobody there. When I turned back around the face of my seatmate was chalk-white. With a hysterical finger she pointed to my shoulder and shouted a word I did not understand: ‘Maiskizhuk! Maiskizhuk!’ I fumbled with my shirt. A huge insect flew off and disappeared through the open compartment door. My neighbour sighed with relief.

Back in Moscow, in Vanya’s apartment, I consulted the dictionary. I was leafing through it when a scratching sound distracted me. Irritated, I raised my head. Directly beside my face a fat May beetle was crawling over the window pane.

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Who Gets Free Train Rides in Moscow

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1585ff:

While I waited for the elektrichka back to the city centre, I read the announcements on the platform. My eyes were caught by a lit glass box with a notice inside: ‘Categories of citizens entitled to free and discounted transport on suburban trains.’ I read the list, read it again, read it a third time. What was hanging there under a flickering neon light was a compressed history of the Soviet Union.

– Heroes of the Soviet Union (free)
– Heroes of Socialist Labour (free)
– Participants of the Great Patriotic War (free)
– Family members of deceased participants of the Great Patriotic War (free)
– Former underage inmates of concentration camps, ghettos and other places of forced detention, with or without disability status (free)
– Persons awarded decorations and medals of the USSR for self-sacrificing work behind the frontlines between 22 June 1941 and 9 May 1945 (50% discount)
– Persons awarded the distinction ‘Residents of besieged Leningrad’ (free)
– Persons exposed to radiation as a consequence of the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (free)
– Rehabilitated victims of political repression (100% discount)

For a long time I thought about the riddle that seemed to link the first category with the last: Soviet heroes rode the elektrichka free of charge, Soviet victims with a 100 per cent discount. I could not make sense of this nonsensical difference.

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