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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

River Navigation: Steamboats and Those Who Challenged the Risks of the Chattahoochee

SOURCES: Heritage Park: A Celebration of the Industrial Heritage of Columbus, Georgia by Dr. John S. Lupold, 1999. “Steamboats Were Area’s Workhorses and Toys” by Ralph Willingham. Columbus Enquirer, Sesquicentennial Collection Edition III, April 30, 1978. Work, Slavery, and Freedom on the Steamboat by Sasha Coles for The Enchanted Archives. Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World by Thomas C. Buchanan, 2004.


Had it not been for the Chattahoochee River and the steamboats it carried; Columbus might never have become a commercial way station. Even in its infancy, Columbus was trying to get the railroads to make tracks for the Valley area, and the efforts kept failing. All this time, river craft kept the local commerce flowing. The advantages of locating the community on the Chattahoochee were obvious from the beginning. The river was fine for boating, and there was good reason to foresee rapid growth and extensive trade. Until 1828, the area’s trade by wagon and by the river was extensive, reaching from Apalachicola to Heard, Carroll, and Fulton counties. Then the steamboats came. In March 1828, before the town was organized, a captain docked his craft for a week or 10 days, and after making some repairs he arranged a pleasure cruise. Though only a 10-mile trip, going upstream against the strong current was considered quite a feat. In fact, it was too much of a feat. After a while, the captain said he couldn’t make headway against the current, and many passengers wound up walking home.

Regular navigation of the river was uncertain at first, but trade began quickly. On May 25, 1829, the steamer Virginia arrived after a 38-hour run from Apalachicola. She came again on December 28th and took on 400 bales of cotton earmarked for New Orleans. The real excitement came in January 1831, when the Georgian, a steamboat owned by a Columbus company, steamed to the wharf. She carried more than 1,000 barrels of freight and was towing the barge Mary Jones, which carried 700 barrels. Cannon fire saluted her on arrival, because the occasion signaled that the community had joined the “competition in boating.” The boats would carry cotton, iron, and cotton products, plus produce from 40 miles each side of the Chattahoochee. They would come back with naval stores, cypress lumber and shingles, oranges, fish, oysters, and honey. It also wasn’t all work. Some boats could carry 30 or 40 passengers, besides the freight. The cabins were comfortable, and the dining and lounging salons were lavishly decorated. African American cooks also prepared food on the 5 ½ day trips from Columbus to Apalachicola.

Henry T. Hall's boat, the Lowell, is shown moored at the Mary Freeman Landing adjacent to the South Commons. "The Pest House," the city's first hospital, is visible in the background.

It also needs to be stated that riverboating was dangerous work. The perils of navigating through shallow water, shifting sandbars, foggy nights, and sharp turns were multiplied by the dangers posed by possible explosions of high-pressure boilers and steam engines. Of the 43 boats operating on the river before 1853, 20 were either wrecked or burned. Therefore, insurance rates for Chattahoochee boats were higher than those for any comparable river in Georgia or Alabama. In spite of the hazards during some years of the antebellum period, more than twenty boats operated on the river at a time. With such a volume of competition, the business was volatile in more ways than one.

Henry T. Hall challenged the risks associated with riverboats. Born in Boston in 1817, he spent several years at sea before settling briefly on the Florida gulf coast and then moving to Columbus in the late 1830s to become a cotton factor. Hall commissioned the construction of the very first vessel built specifically to operate on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. The Lowell, built in Jeffersonville, Indiana in 1839, steamed down the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers and across the Gulf of Mexico to Apalachicola, Florida, the mouth of the Chattahoochee River. The side-wheeler had a keel 165 feet long. The deck was 175’ x 26’. It had two cylinders, 19 inches in diameter, with a six-foot stroke, and three boilers. The Lowell could carry 1,800 bales and 50 passengers. There were 43 employees, and the payroll was $472 a week. The Lowell sank in 1845 just south of Fort Gaines after striking a snag. Hall continued to promote local shipbuilding. Hall’s daughter, Sarah, married W.C. Bradley, and Bradley continued the tradition of steamboating into the next century.

The Confederate Naval Works built and furnished two gunboats for the Confederacy in 1864, one sank and the other, the Muscogee (later renamed the Jackson), was burned by Federal troops in 1865. That same year, the new steamer Shamrock, built entirely at Columbus, left the city on her first Chattahoochee voyage. Eight other steamers were running almost daily early in 1865, despite the Federal blockade. One of the government service boats which brought goods to Columbus was commanded by Captain A.O. Blackmar, founder of the Merchants & Mechanics Bank. He also brought provisions for the Northern soldiers at Andersonville.

African American men and women held various jobs in the river trade. Women typically served as chambermaids, and they did laundry, cleaned the cabins, and waited on passengers. Black men’s positions depended on their status. Those enslaved typically held the most dangerous and labor-intensive jobs as firemen, who fed the boat with wood fuel; roustabouts, who carried freight on and off the boats; and deckhands, who stowed the goods, cleaned the deck, and measured river depths. Free Black men occupied the more skilled positions as barbers, waiters, porters, and cooks. The most prestigious and well-paying job that a free Black man could get was as a steward, who supervised the rest of the workers, kept the peace on the boat, purchased food for the voyage, and established vast business and social networks in river towns.

While each job had its unique characteristics, they all shared one thing in common. A steamboat was a dangerous and challenging place to work. Hundreds of workers died each year from exposure to freezing temperatures, disease, and gruesome boiler explosions. In addition, steamboat captains and officers constantly tried to restrict the mobility of their workers. They felt anxious about uprisings and frequently used violence to ensure a consistent, efficient, and reliable workforce. The steamboat also nurtured a sense of possibility among African American workers who lived in a racially restrictive society. The work offered opportunities for building community, earning money, and even escaping to freedom. In the nineteenth century, the Black community viewed river work as cosmopolitan and respectable, especially when compared to the conditions of plantation labor. While the boats were the site of pain and hardship, they also provided great mobility and freedom for Black men and women.

One of the two worst tragedies in steamboat history struck the Rebecca Everingham on April 4, 1884. About 4:00 AM, a fire swept the steamer, killing eight people. Col. W.S. Shepherd, who boarded the Columbus-built boat at Shepherd’s Landing, saved an untold number of lives. The boat had been the pride of the river for Columbus, built in 1880, 142 feet long with a beam of 28 feet. That same year, the George W. Wylly steamer hit a pier of the Fort Gaines bridge and sank, taking the lives of 18 passengers. For many years, there were as many as four competing steamboat lines. In 1894, they were the Central Line, with three boats leaving on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; Columbus & Gulf Navigation Company, launching the steamer Fannie Fearn each Thursday; People’s Line, with Saturday excursions; and Merchants’ and Planters’ Line, leaving on Thursdays.

L.A. Chitwood used to advertise “delightful boat excursions” in the Columbus Enquirer around 1908. Tuesday and Thursday night, the steamers would leave the wharf at 7:30 PM and return at 11:00 PM. Sunday afternoon trips lasted from 3:00 PM to 7:00 PM. Chitwood charged adults 50 cents and children 25 cents.

The W.C. Bradley Co. whose Front Avenue business is still located by the river, got started in 1885 and used steamboats for shipping cotton and other goods. This was also the case for another Columbus family, the Josephs.

Isaac Joseph arrived in Columbus from Germany in 1856. He served as a director, general manager, and president of the Columbus & Gulf Navigation Company that operated a steamboat line and other river-related activities. This company established a large steam-powered cotton compress on the southwest corner of 7th Street and Front Avenue. It repacked loose or broken bales of cotton so they could be more easily loaded and carried on riverboats or railroad cars. In October of 1887, that facility compressed 4,082 bales in ten days. Isaac Joseph also lived a couple of blocks from the river in what is now called The Joseph House on the east side of Broadway between 8th and 9th Streets. The Italianate house was planted with exotic palms and ferns brought from Apalachicola on the deck of the Fannie Fern, a vessel of the Josephs.

Following the sinking of the Fannie Fearn (one of the hardest-working boats on the river) in 1901, the W.C. Bradley became one of the most active boats. Its owner was determined to keep riverboats running even as railroads reduced the available cargoes. Bradley’s son-in-law, D. Abbott Turner, recalled the story told about Bradley. When Turner asked for the hand of Elizabeth Bradley, her father’s reply, according to this story, was that he could marry her if he could run the steamboats. While obviously not Turner’s only qualification, he did run the three boats of Bradley’s Merchants and Planters Line for five years after his marriage from about 1918 until 1923. “In those days, the roads were not developed, and they had to depend on the river for shipping most products,” recalls D. Abbott Turner. “Then they got highways and automobiles, and the business left the river because of the uncertainty about it.” He said that he “hated” the job, partly because of the setbacks the Chattahoochee caused. The river was full of snags, and only a pilot who knew where they were could navigate without hitting one and sinking. Plenty of them did, and Turner was only too glad to get rid of the responsibility. In 1923, Columbus city officials announced their interest in acquiring a line of steamboats.

“I walked into the office and said, ‘Mr. Bradley, let’s give the steamboats to the Chamber of Commerce.’ He said, ‘Go ahead.’” Turner recalls. The city was grateful for the donation, but it did little good. “I told them the Bradley was a scow boat. That’s a flat front boat. And they were tied to one of those railroad piers. And I warned those fellows. I said, ‘Now the thing you’ve got to look out for is to keep the trash out from under the front of the Bradley or you’re going to have trouble.’ So, the river had some rains, and just out of curiosity I went down there to see that they’d done it and they hadn’t. Well, I got down there just in time to see the rope break and the whole three steamboats and two barges go down the river. And that put them out of business. They hit sand bars and sank…that was the end of the steamboat business.”

But that was not the end of the dream of river navigation. Diesel-powered tugs and barges replaced the old steamers, and a nine-foot channel maintained by the Corps of Engineers became the new quest, with James W. Woodruff, Sr. becoming its chief advocate. With his goatee and a playful glint in his eye, Jim Woodruff appeared harmless to an unsuspecting stranger, but woe be unto the young man who was not prepared for his bone-crunching handshake. He approached the numerous endeavors he pursued with the same intensity he invested in a handshake. But into none of his business and civic projects did he pour as much energy and passion as he did into making the Chattahoochee navigable. His dream was to create a nine-foot channel between the Gulf of Mexico and Columbus. In 1935, he organized the Chattahoochee Valley Chamber of Commerce, which rallied 20 Georgia and ten Alabama counties. After countless hours of lobbying by Woodruff and this group, Congress approved the construction of three major locks and dams on the lower river. The first was built at the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers and was appropriately named for Jim Woodruff. Two years after the dedication of his dam in 1959, he organized the Tri-Rivers Association to continue his efforts. In 1963, the year of his death, the George Andrews Lock and Dam and the Walter F. George Lock and Dam were both completed, as if to symbolize the years of work by “Mr. Chattahoochee” in promoting their creation and in keeping alive the dream of commerce moving up and down the river. Next Week: We will continue delving into a little more of our industrial history, so stay tuned! Thank you all again for your continued interest in these emails and for your support of preservation! See you next week!

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