The Steamboats of Brownsville

The Monongahela River has served as a gateway to the west in the United States since the dawn of the New World. This river is the reason many of the surrounding towns exist as they do today. Nowadays, the Monongahela continues to provide vital natural and economic resources for people and businesses in our region, but in Brownsville back in the late 1700s, use of the Monongahela played an even bigger role in the development of our Nation.

History of Brownsville

Brownsville, founded in 1785 on the banks of the Monongahela River, played an important role in the settlement of America’s frontier and in the industrial development of the Nation. The 128-mile-long river begins near Fairmont, West Virginia, and winds its way north to Pittsburgh, where it merges with the Allegheny River to form the Ohio at what is referred to as the “Point”. In the 1700s, the Monongahela was the easiest and cheapest mode of transportation to the Ohio Valley and beyond.

In 1758, Colonel James Burd erected a fort on top of an older Native American encampment overlooking the river. It became known as Redstone Old Fort.

Boat Building Begins

Over the next 20 years, this area became a leading boat-building town. In 1785, the Redstone area was renamed Brownsville. Then in the 1790s, keelboats became the best way to travel up and downstream. These narrow, wooden boats were constructed with long strips of wood along the bottom and down the middle, to prevent flipping. By rowing or using poles, men would to guide the boats upriver.

Though the Monongahela River remained a popular route for westward transportation, many of these boats eventually met both natural and manmade obstacles along the rivers. After a river improvement program was implemented in 1790, a 50-foot-wide channel was cleared in the Monongahela to boost river navigation; the government completed the project in 1805. This action set the course for the launch of the steamboat industry.

Steamboats Arrive

In the 1800s, steam power revolutionized travel in the United States and along the Monongahela. Brownsville eventually became the early center of construction for these boats.

In 1811, Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steam engine and Nicholas Roosevelt built the first steamboat.  Later that year, Captain Henry Shreve came to western Pennsylvania to begin work on keelboats. He and his partners then bought a shipyard in Brownsville, where they developed and built the “Enterprise,” the first steamboat to make the journey down to New Orleans and back under its own power. From 1811 to 1888, workers in this area along the National Road produced more than 3,000 steamboats!

Today, Brownsville remains a wonderful historic landmark and an important economic resource for western Pennsylvania.

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