Pioneer Transportation

How did pioneers travel?

The St. Joseph River served as a travel route for centuries before the first white Europeans came to the St. Joseph River Valley Region. Before cars, trains, and airplanes were invented, moving things from one place to another was a slow and tedious process. One way in which goods were moved was by water. Native Americans used the rivers and were the first to use the portage between the St. Joseph and Kankakee Rivers.

Place your cursor over the map to see with the magnifying glass

What was a portage?

A portage was a place where the Native American, explorers (like Robert LaSalle), and traders passed over land, carrying their canoes and goods, on their way from waterway to the next.

Question!

Have you heard of Portage Avenue or Portage Township in St. Joseph County?              

This township was named for the famous St. Joseph-Kankakee Portage. This portage was special for two reasons. One is that it went through present-day South Bend. The other is that, unlike other portages, the St. Joseph-Kankakee Portage was passable all seasons of the year. Travelers could move from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River using this dry portage. The French explorer, Robert LaSalle crossed the portage in December 1679.

With the growth of towns in the 1830s, a more effective way to move goods was needed. In 1831 Peter Johnson, a South Bend carpenter, built the first keel-boat in the St. Joseph River Valley. He named the keel-boat the Fairplay. The next year, he launched the Antelope, the first large-capacity keel-boat. Running a keel-boat was difficult and exhausting. Only the strongest men could work the poles.

Keelboats were similar to river flatboats, but like other barges were unpowered and were typically controlled with oars or poles—usually poles.

South Bend’s James Oliver [who?], founder of the Oliver Chilled Plow Works, as a young man was a pike-poleman on a keelboat that traveled the St. Joseph River. Read his account of how a keelboat moved on the river without a sail or motor.

Question!

In James Oliver’s account of his days as a pike poleman, he mentions the boat’s bow and the boat’s stern. Where is a boat’s bow located? Where is a boat’s stern located? Use Google to find out!  

The Newbury, the first steamboat on the St. Joseph River in 1832 ran from Lake Michigan to Berrien Springs, Michigan [where?]. The first steamboat to appear in South Bend was the Matilda Barney in the summer of 1833. When her whistle first sounded, everyone gathered on the shore with excitement to see the very rare sight. Originally designed for transporting freight, steamboats also became popular for carrying passengers. The May Graham was the last of these river boats to operate on the St. Joseph River between St. Joseph and Berrien Springs, Michigan. The St. Joseph River, once the main route of transportation, was replaced by the railroad in the mid-1800s.

The Nettie June

(click for larger image)

The May Graham

(click for larger image)

The May Graham

(click for larger image)

Go Back