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Date Posted:01/22/2009 10:10 PMCopy HTML

Early Steamboat Days in the Twin Cities
On April 21, 1823, many people were gathered on the St. Louis levee.  They were watching a small steamer make ready for a long journey up the great Mississippi River. It was the Steamer Virginia, and it was bound for Fort Snelling,
Minnesota, the head of navigation on the river, the first attempt to conquer the upper Mississippi with a steamboat.  None of the brave crew of this little vessel or its very few passengers knew just what would be encountered on this memorable trip.  The Mississippi was uncharted, and no doubt there were snags, sandbars, and maybe hostile Indians, but the little steamer Virginia finally got away and the great adventure was on.
On May 10th, just 20 days later the soldiers at Fort Snelling, Minnesota were startled by a long deep whistle.  The Indians at the Fort looked down the river from the high cliff and
ran when they saw black smoke coming from a monster like they had never seen before.  The Virginia had made it and it was the first steamboat to reach the head of navigation on the great river where the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are now located. 
The Virginia was a small boat compared to the present day excursion steamers of the Streckfus Line.  It was built at Wheeling, Virginia, now the State of West Virginia, and was only 118 feet long, 18 feet wide, with a gross tonnage of 109.  It had a small cabin but no pilot-house, and it was steered by a tiller at the stern.
According to Beltrami, the Italian refugee, one of the few passengers on the trip, and the man we have to thank for the record kept of the trip, the boat had two captains, James Pemberton and John Crawford.  Travel was only in the day time as the pilots had no knowledge of the river's channel.  Wood was used for fuel and both passengers and crew had to go ashore at frequent intervals to collect the wood.  Everyday the boat got stuck on sandbars and progress was very slow.  When the boat reached Winona, Minnesota, the Sioux Indian
Chief Wabasha came aboard with some of his warriors.  They were very much interested in the engines.  In Lake Pepin the boat encountered a severe storm and only a miracle kept it from capsizing.  At Red Wing, more Indians came aboard and a peace-pipe was smoked.. Finally after 20 long days and 729 long miles, the Virginia tied up at Fort Snelling,
Minnesota, thus completing the first voyage by steamboat from St. Louis to the head of navigation.
The career of the Virginia was exciting, but it came to an early end and a watery grave. The little steamer got back to St. Louis, but on September 19, 1823, the same year, it hit a snag near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and sank.  The wreck is still probably in the river as there is no record of it ever being salvaged.
At the time the Virginia reached Fort Snelling there were no cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.  About 1830 a Canadian
show up at Mendota, Minnesota, directly opposite the Fort.  His name was Pierre Parrant, but due to his one bad eye, he
quickly acquired the name of Pig's Eye.  He was a bootlegger and established himself in a saloon at the Fort selling moon-shine to soldiers and Indians.  Pig's Eye did not last long at
the Fort as the commander soon ordered his removal and he went down the river a few miles to the location of what is now the foot of Robert Street in St. Paul.  A settlement sprang up
around his saloon and boats landing there in later years called it Pig's Eye Landing.  Fortunately in 1841 Lucian Galtier came
along and built the chapel of St. Paul, and so led to the naming of the infant city.
St. Paul grew rapidly and so did the steamboat business.  Hundreds of immigrants came in by steamboat and paid great prices for land.  Minnesota experienced a boom and fortunes were made over night.  Money just seemed to grow on trees. At this time, the land-buying craze swept the entire West, but it reached its wildest stage in Minnesota by 1857, and in the fall of that year the great panic came to the whole nation.  The population of St. Paul decreased to about one-half in that year, but it was only a temporary setback.  St. Paul continued to grow and soon its twin sister, Minneapolis, sprang up and eventually became even larger than its older sister. Today the Twin Cities boast of a population in the metropolitan area of close to a million people.
Both St. Paul and Minneapolis owe their founding and growth to the steamboats. Civic leaders know this and today afterlong years of idleness the river is coming back.  Dams are being built, harbors are being dredged, andonce more freight is moving by river between the Twin Cities and Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans.
  Since the completion of the lock and dam at Hastings, Minnesota, in 1931, residents of the Twin Cities and surrounding country are enjoying daily trips on the magnificent excursion Steamer Capitol of the Streckfus Line.  No longer is it a hazard to travel on the great Father of Waters as it was when the little Steamer Virginia first came up. Today with modern large steamers such as the Capitol and with the channel charted and marked by the U. S. Engineers, one can really rest, relax, and enjoy themselves on the great white steamers of the Streckfus fleet, on our own Mississippi River.
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The above story was taken from the Streckfus
Steamers magazine-dated 1935-1936


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