Gigantic modern cargo vessels – with their cargoes neatly stored in individual containers stacked on deck – are the backbone of the global economy. These ships handle 90% of the world’s ocean trade, and the efficiencies they bring to maritime transportation have done more to lower the prices of imported goods than the often-cited low labor costs of Asia. Their connection to our state is that if you trace the story of their development, it takes you back to 1930s Maxton, North Carolina, where a young man named Malcolm McLean had saved up $120 to buy a used truck.
Category: Boats & Ships
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In our automobile age, when the fuel gauge in our car gets toward “empty,” we look for a filling station where we can “gas up.” In the steamboat era, when his boat got low on firewood for the boiler, the captain looked for one of the many woodlots that dotted the banks. Pausing there, he could “wood up.”
The Erie Canal across New York State was a marvel. The concept was visionary. The business plan was revolutionary. The engineering was inspiring. The Erie Canal forever changed New York State and the Midwest. It also taught far-away North Carolina lessons that helped the “Rip Van Winkle State” rouse itself from crippling economic stagnation.
When rivers were our highways, the Roanoke River system was tantalizingly close to being a 400-mile-long superhighway. It had the potential to connect a bountiful Piedmont with seaports and far-flung markets. But at the fall line, where the river tumbled down to the coastal plain, roiling, bolder-strewn rapids brought heavily laden boats to a standstill. Maybe a canal could circumvent those rough waters…
With no quality seaports available to them in North Carolina, colonial plantation owners looked longingly at the bustling port of Norfolk as a jumping-off point for external markets. But how could they transport goods north? Hey, why not dig a canal? All that stood in the way was 2,200 square miles of “… a vast Body of mire and Nastiness.”
The age of steamboats began in North Carolina in 1818, when the vessels Norfolk, Henrietta, and Prometheus began huffing and puffing along our waterways. Prometheus, a little sternwheeler, was built in Swansboro by the naval hero, chartered privateer, and entrepreneur, Otway Burns.
When waterways were our superhighways, bateaux ruled the rivers. These open, shallow-draft boats did the heavy lifting that drove North Carolina’s economy. They transported the bounty of upland farms to markets on the coast, and they returned with manufactured goods, coffee and sugar.