The name Henry Miller Shreve does not carry the historical association that Fulton's does. However, more than any single person Shreve was responsible for the true opening of the inland waterways of America.
Shreve's father moved his family to a tract of land in western Pennsylvania, bought from George Washington. The land was situated near the headwaters of the great inland river system; the Ohio river, formed by the joining of the Allegheny and the Monogahela, began less than fifty miles from the homestead. Shreve's affection for river life began in earnest after his father's death in 1802; to help support his family he hired on a flatboat crew and began learning the ways of river trade and business. By 1807, before his twenty-second birthday, Shreve had saved enough money to purchase his own keelboat and start into business as a merchant-navigator. He quickly learned that the greatest profit came from the beaver pelt trade, and fashioned himself into a sucessful businessman.
At twenty-six, Shreve witnessed Fulton's steamboat, the New Orleans, as it floundered in the shallow waters of the Mississippi. With a businessman's eye, Shreve realized the urgency of building a steamboat that could navigate the Mississippi. He set to work hiring designers for such a boat, called the Enterprise. Meanwhile, Shreve became aware that the Fulton- Livingston monopoly over the steamboat trade on the Mississippi would inhibit his plans. Feeling that such a monopoly was not in the public interest, Shreve hired New Orleans lawyer Abner Duncan to fight the group. Shreve's boat went ahead nevertheless and was a crucial factor in the victory of the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. However, it was not until 1817 that Shreve and others could legally sail the Mississippi in a steamboat. The Enterprise went into use and suffered major problems. Rather than staying with original designs, Shreve decided to apply his own knowledge to the design process. The result was the Washington, the first grand steamboat of the era and prototype for the "floating palaces" of later years.
"Three steamboats have been lost in five months, in the Mississippi, in consequence of running foul of great trunks of trees called 'sawyers,'" reported the Niles Register in June of 1818. "Will not the increased navigation of this mighty stream soon justify an attempt to clear it of such serious incumbrances--or is it impracticable to do so?" Shreve began drawing up plans for a 'snag boat' by 1821. The end result was a steamboat with a jaw-like bow that pulled up snags, or tree trunks, and put them through a sawmill on the deck. These boats were quickly employed to clear the rivers, making navigation vastly safer and more economical. Shreeveport, Louisiana, was named after Shreeve and his efforts at clearing a hundred mile stretch of snags that blocked the Red River, a major artery to the far west.
Shreve's contributions to inland navigation reflect a greater sense of patriotism and nationalism that swept the nation. As America moved towards the year of the Great Jubilee, those of the generations following the Revolution saw a chance to create their country as a leader in the world. Henry Shreve's work holds a prominent place in this group.