PAL Journal 1998






Caleb Curren

Steamboat History of South Alabama

Reprinted by permission of the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission

bridge.gif (70233 bytes) In 1779 Jon Fitch demonstrated the first workable steamboat in the United States. It wasn't until 1807 that a steamboat was built which was a financial success. The Clermont, built by Robert Fulton, made many of its trips on the Hudson River in New York. After this initial success, steamboat commerce spread rapidly through the eastern United States.

The first steamboat built in Alabama was constructed at the Tombigbee River town of St. Stephens in 1818. She was appropriately named the Alabama and plied the rivers until her demise in 1824. In that year she collided with the Natchez near New Orleans and went down. Also built at St. Stephens was the Tombeckbe built in 1821. She snagged and sank near Erie on the Tombigbee River in 1824.

Another early steamboat building town was Blakeley on the Tensaw River. The first Steamboat built for work on the Alabama River was built here in 1819. She was a small boat of. 58 tons and was named the Tensaw for the river into which she was launched. In the early period steamboat construction was profitable at Blakeley with groups such as the Brown and Bell Company and the Steamboat Company of Alabama. Some of their boats were the Mississippi, Narcissus, Marengo, and Tensas.

After 1850 other areas became active in steamboat construction. Mobile was particularly important based on shear numbers of boats built after 1850.

The steamboats were known often as packets or packet boats. Websters dictionary defines packet as "... a small bundle or package ... or ... a passenger boat carrying mail and cargo on a regular schedule". These boats carried the mail and other packages or "packets" and thus were known by that name.

Sidewheel steamboats were used primarily in the 1820's and 1830's but during the 1840's and 1850's sternwheelers began to be used. From 1870 to the early 1900's sternwheelers were the norm.

The sternwheelers were easier to load, could hold more cargo in general and could navigate narrower rivers. They were more protective of the paddles (known as buckets) with the hull positioned in front of them. Before these sternwheelers became commonplace hull design had to catch up with the wheel position. With the wheel at the stern of the boat the boilers were placed there too. This meant that tremendous weight was on this end of the boat. The middle of the vessel became the weak point. It put a bow or spread there until installment of the necessary structural support of the heavy sternwheel implemented by a series of trusses and chains from bow to stern (Day 1976:17). By the 1850's the hull design was capable of supporting the sternwheeler.

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A Sternwheelercotton.gif (79415 bytes)
Loading"King Cotton" bound for Mobile

The basic design of the American steamboat was remarkably well suited to its task of navigation of the narrow and shallow inland waterways. The hulls of both the sidewheelers and sternwheelers were extremely shallow drafted for their size.

By the 1850's steamboats of the 190-ton class were being constructed with an unloaded draft of only 14 inches and a loaded draft of approximately twice that (Hunter 1949:84).

This shallow draft made it possible for the large boats to move through the snags and debris of the shallow rivers. The advantages of the tall paddlewheels included the fact that they were easy to repair as most of the structure was above the water at any given time (Gibson et. al 1980:217).

Also the paddles required shallower water than the completely submerged propellers of other boats.

Steamboats played a key role in the economy of the Tombigbee and Alabama River regions. King Cotton came of age and the plantation owners needed dependable transportation of their cotton to the port of Mobile, where it was then shipped abroad. The land transportation, comprised basically of draught animals, small wagons, and terrible roads, could not meet the need of moving the tremendous loads of cotton bales over long distances. The steamboat could.They formed the bulwark of a trading system that shipped inland agricultural products all over the world in exchange for a myriad of goods, both luxuries and necessities. These goods brought back up the rivers by steamboats included, hardware, furniture, pharmaceuticals, clothing, books, and food to name a few.No longer was it necessary to pole or warp boats such as the keelboats or flatboats up the rivers against swift currents. The steamboats under their own power could return up the rivers in a relative short period of time (Jenkins, Curren, DeLeon 1975:29).

The average cost to build a river steamboat was from $80.00 to $100.00, per ton. Upkeep of the vessel over each five-year period was approximately half of the original building cost (Day 1975:19).

Steamboats could travel at speeds from 20-30 miles per hour (Macfarlane 1851:129). This speed certainly was an advantage to successful business. Goods were shipped on the fastest boats. Captains, pilots, and crews often considered the speed of their boat a matter of self-respect and many a race, was run to demonstrate it. A favorite racing length was between Mobile and' the junction of the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers, some 45 miles distance (Liddell 1979:8). Smaller craft would accompany the steamboats to the junction to act as witnesses and would return to Mobile to announce the winners. Bets were paid and history was made. The steamboats could make the run from Mobile to Coffeeville on the Tombigbee approximately 116 miles, in about 12 hours (Brown 1980:4).

Even though the steamboats were finely adapted to shallow water in the trips inland had to be made during the months of high water, basically winter and spring. Depending on the state of the river newspaper advertisements announced departures. The editors of the papers had to watch the conditions of the rivers as well as be in contact with the steamboat companies. The following are excerpts taken from the Montgomery Advertiser during 1854-55 (Boyd 1931.92-93):

November 21 -- Frost, then rain, then high rivers, lot of cotton and active business.

December 2 -- River mail between Mobile and Montgomery delayed due to low water. Promise that next season will be prepared with light drought boats capable of making good time at any stage of the river.

February 15 -- [At] Wetumpka [the] Coosa up five feet. Alabama will show a rise of 21/2 to 3 feet.

June 5 -- Our river going down again. During the rise, however, a large number of boats coming up delivered our merchants many a grocery! Giving them large additions to their stock.

July 6 -- Light draugh steamers "Wood Duck" and Fairfield" brought up quite a cargo of freight as well as a goodly number of passengers. Steamers of large grade might readily reach the wharf, but we suppose they grew tired of waiting for a rise and went into a state of retirement.

July 11 - At last the "Wm. Jones, Jr." broke the spell which has so long locked our river from anything more imposing than stern wheels. On Monday she brought a good freight. We believe there is no cotton, or but little left here now to go down.

November 10 -- River glorious rise of about 20 feet -- and won't we soon have oysters!

Some of the more exotic foods transported were oysters and bananas. On the surface of the 19th century archaeological sites such as homes and stores the remains of the oyster shells brought by the steamboats can be seen strewn about. The bananas, which had arrived in Mobile by ships from Central and South America, were hung in bunches about the steamboats for transport up the rivers.

Warehouses, whiskey stores, and general merchandising stores were established at these landings to serve the steamboat crew, landowners, and the potpourri of people drawn to the area by the flourishing river trade. Woodyards were also built to accommodate the fuel needs of the vessels by providing timber from the surrounding woodlands for their boilers Abernathy 1965).

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A Picnic Outing on the Alabama River

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A large riverboat cabin for entertainment

The steamboats were also a source of recreation for the people of the river communities. After the cargoes were unloaded and the decks cleaned the steamboats took charter parties for short rides on the river. Local bands provided music for dancing, courting, and riding on the river. The additional income helped support the steamboat crews during the low water season Gibson et. al 1980:218).

Steamboat Wrecks

Life expectancy for the river steamboats was not very long. Three to five years was the average. Economically this might not seem like a lucrative business at first glance. The opposite was the case however. Boats often brought in $75,000.00 in a season. An owner could build a boat, run it for three to five years before it was lost and still make a considerable profit. Many times the superstructure of the sunken boats would be salvaged and used in another boat that would help defer some of the loss (Liddell 1979:8) (Harmon 1979:10-1 1). Many of these owners fit the term merchant ventures with their risking of large investments for even larger profits.

The mortality rate of the steamboats was due to many factors such as fires, boiler explosions, snags, or collisions. It was a dangerous occupation to run these inland rivers which at the time were undredged and virtually uncharted. The shoal banks, and snags were never exactly the same on successive trips. Narrow portions of the rivers, known as chutes, where the water was very swift were also dangerous propositions.

Recovery of these boats completely intact was rarely if ever attempted but salvaging engines, portions of the superstructures, valuables and recovery of bodies of victims was accomplished shortly after the vessels sank. At times professional salvagers were hired by the owner but more often impromptu crews were gathered together to accomplish the task. The crews may have been comprised of some of the deckhands off the boat and someone who had done salvage work before. In once case a very valuable slave of one of the plantation owners was used in salvage operations because of his prowess as a diver (personal communication, Daniel Brooks).

In contemporary times archaeologists and treasure hunters have attempted to salvage remains of these 19th century river steamers. Archaeologists seek the vessels as unique time capsules of that period in history. The "treasure hunters" seek the vessels for monetary profit.

In Alabama a number of studies have been made to locate and at least protect sunken steamboats even if excavation is not practical (Day 1976; Gibson et. al. 1980; Jenkins, Curren, DeLeon 1975; Mistovich 1979; Murphy, Saltus 1981). As yet professionals in Alabama have not accomplished a thorough excavation of a sunken steamboat. However, a major salvage of a steamboat has been made in Alabama by treasure hunters.

Click here for a detailed account including photographs of the sinking and salvage of the steamboat

Orline St. John


Abernathy, T.D.

1965 The Formative Period in Alabama. University of Alabama Press. University, Alabama.


1959 "Sunken Treasure Salvage Efforts Related at Club". Selma Times Journal, Selma, September 20, 1959.

Boyd, Minnie Clare

1931 Alabama in the Fifties. Columbia University Press. New York.

Brown, Jerry E.

             1980 "Steamboats on the River". Envirosouth. Oct./Dec. 1980.

Bryant, William 0.

1959 "Two Trying to Recover Gold from Alabama River". Mobile Press Register, Mobile, August 19, 1959.

Capell, Authur

1955 "Reporter Shares Gold Hunt Fever But Rewards Few." Selma Times Journal, Selma, September 25, 1955.

Cook, Ford

1955 "Hulk of Sunken River Side-Wheeler". Mobile Press Register, Mobile, October 16, 1955.

1956 "Stern Wheeler Recalls Fabulous River Days" Mobile Press Register. December 2, 1956.

Day, Yvonne Lewis

1976 Performance of a Cultural Resources Survey, Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, Tombigbee River Channel, Alabama and Mississippi. Gulf South Research Institute. Baton Rouge. Report on file.

Gibson, Jon L., R.B. Gramling, R.J. Floyd and Steven J. Brazda

1980 Cultural Investigations in the Apalachicola and Chattahoochee River Valleys in Florida, Alabama and Georgia; History, Archaeology, and Underwater Remote Sensing. University of S. W Louisiana Center for Archaeological Studies Report No. 6.

Harmon, J. Scott

            1979 "Recovering the Steamboat Bertrand". Early Man. Auturm 1979.

Hornsby, Jerry

1959 "Hunting Treasure on the Alabama River". Alabama Journal, Montgomery, August 15, 1959.

Hunter, Louis C.

1949 Steamboats on the Western Rivers. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Jenkins, Ned J., Caleb Curren, and Mark F. DeLeon

1975 Archaeological Site Survey of the Demopolis and Gainsville Lake Navigation Channels and Additional Construction Areas. Department of Anthropology. University of Alabama. University, Alabama. Report on file.

Liddell, Viola Goode

            1979 A Place of Springs. The University of Alabama Press. University.

Macfarlane, Robert

            1851 History of Propellers. G.P. Putnam. New York.

Mistovich, Tim S.

1979 Identification and Evaluation of Submerged Magnetic Anomalies RM 37. 8-38.4: Chattahoochee River, Georgia. Cultural Resources Services, Inc. Marietta, Georgia. Report on file.

Murphy, Larry and Allen R. Saltus

1981 Phase II Identification and Evaluation of Submerged Cultural Resources in the Tombigbee River Multi-Resource District, Alabama and Mississippi. Office of Archaeological Research. University of Alabama. University, Alabama. Report on file.

Neville, Bert

1962 Directory of River Packets in the Mobile-Alobama-Tombigbee Trades 1818-1932. Coffee Press. Selma, Alabama.

Saltus, Allen R. Jr.

1979 Performance of a Cultural Resources Survey Pinto Pass Disposal Area, Mobile Bay, Mobile, Alabama. Archaeological Research and Survey. Prairieville, LA. Report on file.

Stephenson, Stuart X.

"The Passing Throng". Montgomery Advertiser, Montgomery, November 13, 1955.

Twain, Mark

1968 Life on the Mississippi. Washington Square Press. New York.

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