River History

Falls of the Ohio State Park
to celebrate steamboat history

Historian Parrish to speak at Dec. 8 event

By Tess Worrell
Contributing Writer

CLARKSVILLE, Ind. (December 2012) – In 1811, the New Orleans became the first steamboat to navigate the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, traveling from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Up to that time, steamboats had been used only on the placid East Coast rivers. No one knew whether steamboats could make the more perilous journey through the unpredictable and often tumultuous waters of the Ohio and Mississippi.

Chuck Parrish


On her maiden voyage, the New Orleans demonstrated for all the power and effectiveness of steam travel via the rivers and changed the course of history for the United States.
At 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Falls of the Ohio State Park, Chuck Parrish, retired district historian for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will offer insights into this history. To commemorate the bicentennial of the sailing of the New Orleans, the Rivers Institute at Hanover College created, in conjunction with Parrish, a documentary celebrating the history of steamboats. At the park, Parrish will lead a program celebrating the impact and significance of steamboats on both local and national history and then show the documentary. Admission is $5 for those 19 and over, and $2 for those under 19.
Parrish followed a lifelong interest in history to a job with Army Corp by recording and preserving the activities of the Corps as it created dams, reservoirs, locks and other river improvement projects. He maintained the records of the projects as well as the preservation of various historical buildings and homes, which were impacted by the Corps activities. As a result of his long tenure with the Corps and focus on the local rivers, Parrish has become a much-sought-after speaker and expert on the history of the river; also co-authoring books and numerous articles.
When the Rivers Institute wanted to document the history of steamboat travel, Parrish was the obvious choice for expert direction of the project. Parrish notes the significant of the maiden voyage of the New Orleans.
“Prior to that trip, only flat boats navigated the Ohio and Mississippi – and they could only run downstream. No one knew if the steamboats could navigate the daunting waters of the Ohio and Mississippi due to the changing water depths, the turbulent water, and, of course, the falls of the Ohio,” he said. “When the New Orleans arrived at the falls, the water level was too low to navigate. The New Orleans went back upriver to Cincinnati until the water levels rose to a point the ship could move. That was the first time a boat went upriver against the current, proving the value of steam travel.
“After that voyage, rivers filled with steamboats, opening the way for commerce and travel. That changed the course of history,” says Parrish.
He notes that cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville and others owe their growth to the economic impact of steamboats.
Parrish notes the impact continues today. “The modern tow boats that push millions of tons of cargo along rivers today are the evolution of these steamboats.”
Parrish further explores the impact of steamboats on culture. “Songs such as ‘Big River’ and ‘Here Comes the Steamboat’ as well as the writings of Mark Twain all grew out of steamboats and their huge impact on life in our country.”
The documentary details this history and offers viewers a deep insight on all the ways steamboats have changed life, both in the past and today.
Alan Goldstein, interpretive naturalist for the Falls of the Ohio State Park, said he hopes many will turn out for the program. “Chuck is a great speaker and a wealth of knowledge. Anyone who enjoys history or the river will enjoy this program.” Goldstein notes that many of the attendees will be park volunteers. “We have very active training program for our volunteer naturalists. They field a wide range of questions, and we want to prepare them well.”
In order to prepare volunteers, the park plans monthly programs such as this one to train and educate volunteers on the history of the area. All the programs are open to the public and offer in-depth insights for history lover.

• For more information, call the Falls of the Ohio State Park at (812) 283-4999.

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