Over the Falls

Figure 9

Plan of the Rapids or Falls of the OHIO1

To see labels, point to the map.

interactive map of the Falls of the Ohio in 1796

Victor Collot, A Journey in North America (1796), Plate 17


The French explorer General George Henri Victor Collot (1750-1825) came to America in 1796 on a secret mission to investigate the possibilities of inciting settlers on the western frontier to rebel against the U.S. government and join the French empire. On orders of Arthur St. Clair, the American governor of the Northwest Territory, Collot was arrested for espionage when he reached Cahokia, and was deported.

As recounted in his book, Voyage dans Amerique Septentrionale (Voyage in North America), Collot's description of the "Rapids or Falls" of the Ohio at Louisville suggests the difficulties and dangers Lewis and Clark may have encountered in October of 1803. They, like Collot, were obliged to hire a pilot to avoid the hazards:

Near the fall the islands and rocks by which it is formed take up nearly three quarters of the bed of the river, and fill up and obstruct all the side on the southeast; the waters have no other passage in dry seasons than on the side of the north-west, but as they are much confined, and the plane over which they roll is very shelving, and they have to make their way across every obstacle, they rush along with the greatest impetuosity and violence.

On the side which is obstructed there are only five or six inches of water, and often the bank of stones is dry. In the channel where the boats pass, the depth of water varies, but is never less than from four to five feet: this depth would become more than sufficient to pass at all times with security, if the windings of the channel were not so abrupt and numerous, and the current so strong; but in the present state of the passage, the pilot has scarcely time to steer, or the boat to change its direction.2

Despite the pilot's skill and attention, Collot's boat struck a rock and scraped off three feet of the keel. "In the season of floods," Collot remarked, "these inconveniences disappear, and during eight months in the year there is water enough to pass the double channel with all kinds of boats."3

The so-called Falls of the Ohio consisted of a series of rapids and cascades that dropped the river a total of twenty-four feet in two miles.

1. Victor Collot, A Journey in North America, Containing a survey of the countries watered by the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and other affluing rivers; with exact observations on the course and soundings of these rivers; and on the towns, villages, hamlets and farms of that part of the new-world; followed by philosophical, political, military and commercial remarks and by a projected line of frontiers and genera limits. (2 vols., Paris, 1826), Plate 17.

2. Ibid., 1:151-152.

3. Ibid., 152.