IN THE 1780s, keelboats started to be made in Pittsburgh. They were 50 to 80 feet long and narrow, pointed at both ends. Built on a heavy piece of lumber called a "keel," the frame of the keelboat was ribbed like a ship. Keelboats had runways on each side for pole-men to walk along and push the boat by using long metal tipped poles. They used from 6 to 18 boatmen on a keelboat, depending on its size. The boats were covered to protect cargo and passengers. A steer-man controlled the steering oar and gave orders to the pole men. Equal numbers of men worked on each side of the boat. The pole men pushed their pole down onto the river bottom when they heard the command "set." They would then walk along their runway pushing the boat forward against the river stream until they heard the command "lift."

The keelboats also had masts and sails, but sails could only be used when the wind blew from behind the boat. They had galley seats with oars to row with when needed.

How hard would you have to push to make a boat
go upstream against the river current?

Sometimes the pole men used ropes to lasso tree branches along the shore and pulled the boat upstream by pulling on the ropes. These boats were used to transport cargo down the Ohio River and then back up to Pittsburgh. Travel down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh was much easier, helped by the river current flowing that way. To travel against the current to go up the Ohio River the pole-men had to push the boats and it took four times longer to travel in that direction.

How would you like to be a keelboat man?

By 1805, there were about 50 keelboats, each weighing 30 tons, transporting goods between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

Some boats traveling down from the Forks of the Ohio (Pittsburgh) were supplied to act as floating stores. They stopped at river towns along the Ohio River and sold goods to the settlers living there. They would sound a tinhorn when they came near a town. Then all the people who had money to spend or goods to barter came rushing to the riverbank to purchase things they couldn't make.

How would you feel if you heard the tin horn
of a keelboat store coming to your river town?

The settlers often paid for their goods with what they had
grown or made. This included corn, hams, dried pork, and animal hides.

 

 

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