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.