Commodore Whipple vs. the Ohio River

One of my relatives recently recommended a new book by David McCullough entitled The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal. (See the book at

On page 136 of the book, the author describes the difficulties of navigating the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi River. The “Falls” or “Rapids” at Louisville, Kentucky, were a dangerous two-mile stretch of whitewater rapids where the water level cascaded downward, ending up 26 feet lower. Experienced pilots were able to routinely guide smaller craft safely through the Falls.

In 1801, a 110-ton oceangoing square-rigger sailing ship named St. Clair (built the previous year in the Marietta shipyards) needed to make a commercial voyage from Pittsburgh to New Orleans and beyond. There was much speculation about whether a vessel that large could pass through the Falls safely.
Fortunately, Commodore Abraham Whipple had recently moved to Marietta, Ohio, on the Ohio River between Pittsburgh and Louisville. He was selected to guide the ship from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, then to Havana and Philadelphia.
According to McCullough:

Commodore Whipple, with his abilities as a seaman, negotiated the challenge himself in his own way and with perfect success. He went over the Falls backwards—stern first—dragging two anchors from his bow to keep to the center of the channel and control the descent.

After passing through the Falls at Louisville, the St. Clair continued to the Mississippi River, down to New Orleans, then out to sea.
Visit The Commodore’s Page in the Whipple One-Name Study. Visit his page in the Whipple Database.

Leave a Reply