Seeing the Tombigbee River filled with March rains brings to mind days long past when high water meant it was time to ship cotton to Mobile by steamboat. The era of Upper Tombigbee steamboat commerce stretched from 1822 to about 1920, but its heyday encompassed only about 40 years, from the late 1830s to the late 1870s.
At the height of river commerce, steamboats called packet boats were making weekly trips carrying cargo and passengers between Aberdeen, Columbus and Mobile. The scale of this commerce is shown by the Fall 1850 to Spring 1851 shipping season, when there were 13 different steamboats which made a total of 105 trips between Columbus and Mobile.
Cotton fueled these trips. Five hundred pound bales of cotton were carried to market in Mobile, and goods and merchandise to be purchased with money from the sale of the cotton was shipped back upriver on the boat’s return. It was not uncommon for these boats on the Upper Tombigbee to carry in excess of 1,500 cotton bales at one time. Some of the larger boats would carry more than 2,000 bales and more than 60 passengers.
The loading of the cotton at each river landing was the job of the boats’ deckhands. A large Tombigbee side-wheel steamboat would have between 30 and 35 deckhands. In 1856, F.L. Olmstead described the crew of the Fashion, a steamboat in the Aberdeen to Columbus trade with Mobile. The Fashion’s bell has survived as the bell at Missionary Union Baptist Church in Columbus. Olmstead wrote: “The crew … was partly composed of Irishmen and partly of Negroes, the latter were slaves.”
If the river landing was located on a high bluff, a cotton slide was constructed to load the bales onto a boat. The slide would normally consist of a cut in the bluff in which a wooden chute would be constructed. That would provide a slide down which the cotton would speed from the top of the bluff to the boat below. The 500-pound cotton bales would be rolled to the chute by deckhands called “rollodores,” who would push the bales down the chute. Deckhands called “stevedores” would be on the boats’ decks to block the fast moving bales and prevent them from bouncing into the river.
Usually slaves were used as rollodores and Irishmen as stevedores. The reason for this was explained by Olmstead. He wrote that the labor of Irishmen was cheap, “and they were employed on work where the life of a slave would be in danger, it being cheaper for the captain to lose an Irish deckhand than one of his slaves.”
Just upstream from Carrier Lodge in Columbus survives Turner’s Cut, an old cotton chute from the mid- to late 1800s. E.R. Hopkins recalled those old times in Columbus and, in a 1936 Dispatch column, wrote his recollections of the steamboat landing at Columbus. He described the steamboats arriving and departing Columbus during the 1870s and 1880s: “Memory recalls the rough, weird songs, the hoarse commands of the mate, the deep tones of the boat’s bell, the hiss of steam and the splash of the paddles as the wheel turned responding to the pilot’s signal bell to the engineer.”
T.H. Moore, a 19th century steamboat captain, recalled the deckhands or “roustabouts” being a hard-working, “happy-go-lucky” group which would break into song while working. Hopkins recalled one of the work chants he had heard at the Columbus landing. The chorus went:
The William S. Holt and John T. Moore.
All them boats are mine.
Oh see the boat go round the bend,
Goodbye, my lover, goodbye.
Loaded with Columbus men,
Goodbye, my lover, goodbye.
The William S. Holt and the John T. Moore were steamboats running on the Upper Tombigbee between 1875 and 1879.
For those interested in steamboats and the Tombigbee River, my book, “The Tombigbee River Steamboats” is available in paperback and ebook at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com and at the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center gift shop.