Malachite’s Big Hole
Even in the laissez faire environment of the early 1800’s the transportation of gunpowder was considered to be extremely hazardous. Because gunpowder was an item of everyday use for a significant portion of the population, large quantities of powder were being shipped from the powder mills. It was not unusual at the time to ship 1,000 pound orders, or greater, in 50-pound kegs. The American Fur Company during this period was purchasing 25,000 pounds of gun powder annually. Without proper care and handling, catastrophic accidents would and did result. For a description of one such accident see Ashley’s Ammunition-1824. Powder might also be shipped and handled in 20 and 6 ¼ pound kegs.
Because of the heightened risks attendant in shipping gunpowder, freight costs were accordingly high. Ramsey Crooks wrote Pratte, Chouteau and Company on February 4, 1835, “Messrs. Dupont have advised us that the enormous price of $3.25 [per 100 pounds] is asked by the waggoners for freight to Pittsburgh.” At about this time Dupont was having specially designed freight wagons built to reduce risks of an accidental explosion, and freight charges would eventually be reduced accordingly. As of this writing I have not been able to ascertain what these design changes might have entailed.
Shipping powder by water was also problematic at the time. Again from Ramsey Crooks in a letter to Joseph Rolette on January 12, 1835, “I am disappointed in not receiving your domestic order, particularly for gunpowder which is got to St. Louis with the greatest difficulty. We cannot send it from this port [New York] by New Orleans with any certainty for our ships dislike it and the St. Louis steamboats [at New Orleans] refuse to take it. You cannot get it carried from Pittsburgh in a steamboat as the fact of its being aboard deters passengers from embarking. There is then no resource left but that of a keel boat which is now almost unknown [on the Ohio]….” There is little wonder that passengers were deterred from boarding a steamboat known to be hauling powder with its cargo. Transportation by steamboat was risky even under normal circumstances, (the average life of a steamboat on the Missouri River was considerably less than five years mostly due to snags, fires and boiler explosions. See Steamboats on Western Waters) and the presence of powder on board greatly magnified the risk presented by even small mishaps.