Sunday, January 12, 2020

Breakfast on the Mississippi

Steamer James Montgomery
ca. 1858 

Steamboats played a major role in transporting passengers and freight on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. By the 1830s, it was common to see more than 150 steamboats at the St. Louis levee at one time. The James Montgomery was one such paddle steamer. Built in 1856 at New Albany, Indiana (on the Ohio River opposite Louisville), this wood-hull, side-wheel steamboat was 270 feet long and powered by six boilers. A menu from about 1858 shows that large breakfasts were among the joys of being a cabin passenger on this antebellum riverboat.

The captain and part owner of the vessel was Samuel Montgomery who named it after his brother, James E. Montgomery, a well-known riverboat captain and friend of Mark Twain. Samuel Montgomery is shown as the boat’s “commander” in large font on the breakfast menu below. “Your true pilot cares nothing about anything on earth but the river, and his pride in his occupation surpasses the pride of kings,” wrote Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi

The bill of fare was printed in advance by Lathrop & Co. in New Orleans and later revised by hand based on the available ingredients. On this day, seven dishes were added—broiled pork steak, chicken, and spareribs, fried hominy and pig’s feet, Graham rolls, and buckwheat cakes. And eight items were crossed out—broiled kidneys, stewed chicken, fricasseed tripe, eggs, Sallie Lound [sic.], muffins, corn cakes, and flannel cakes. The nature of these changes suggests that all of the dishes on this updated copy were actually available, unlike the table d’hôte menus at some middling hotels of the period where the array of meat dishes may have been partly for show. (See Symbols of Abundance.) 

The James Montgomery got snagged and sank at Devil Island above Cape Girardeau, Missouri in December 1861 while transporting a light load of pork, lard, and tobacco, and 250 head of sheep. The accident was not unusual. Riverboats only lasted about five years on average due to snags, collisions, fires, and boiler explosions. The submerged wreck, which barely left enough room for boats to pass, later sank the Continental in 1864 and the Paragon in 1868. 

1.Cabin passengers had private rooms on the upper decks where they could dine, gamble, and enjoy the passing scenery. Deck passengers were boarded after the cargo and livestock were loaded and lived in the elements on the outdoor lower deck that was crowded, dirty, and smelly. A stove was often provided for deck passengers who either cooked their own food or bought inexpensive meals from the kitchen. 
2. James E. Montgomery was captain of the City of Memphis in 1860 when Mark Twain piloted that boat. During the Civil War, James Montgomery became commodore of the Confederate River Fleet. 
3. Samuel Montgomery remained loyal to the Union. During the fall campaign of 1861 in Missouri, the steamer James Montgomery was hired to transport the 27th Illinois and 7th Iowa Infantries in the Battle of Belmont, the first combat test in the Civil War for Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. 
4. Samuel Langhorne Clemens became a pilot's apprentice in 1857 and received his license in April 1859. His career on the Mississippi River ended when the Civil War halted steamboat traffic. Clemens adopted the pen name Mark Twain, which was the boatman’s call when the river was two fathoms deep, the minimum depth for safe navigation.

3 comments: said...

Typically fascinating, Henry. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of mid-19c travel and food.

Cheers, Mike Peich

Jan Whiataker said...

Henry, Glad you made that point about items crossed out. I don't think everyone realizes that the giant menus of those days often contained many things that were not actually available.

Unknown said...

Samuel Montogmery was my Great-great grandfather. I love coming across information on him and his steamboats. Thanks so much for sharing.