The Eliza Battle was considered one of the largest and finest steamers on the Tombigbee during the 1850s and had been described as a floating palace. She is famous as a “ghost ship” after her destruction by fire during an ice storm on a freezing flooded Tombigbee River in 1858. In 1855, she was the subject of a lawsuit, and her story was told through questions answered by her pilot George Claudis.
In the spring of 1855, she was the Cox Brainard & Company’s weekly Columbus-Mobile packet boat carrying goods and passengers on a regular schedule. In April of that year, she was carrying goods to Columbus from Mobile, including merchandise for James Blair of Columbus. Low water prevented the steamer from making it all the way to Columbus and she deposited the goods in a warehouse at Newport Landing 60 river miles below Columbus. The warehouse caught fire and burned with all the Columbus bound cargo inside. Blair sued for the loss of his goods and the case file has survived in the Billups-Garth Archives of the Columbus Lowndes Public Library. In the court records is the Eliza Battle’s pilot, George Claudis’ account of what happened.
Claudis’ answers to two interrogatories (sworn written answers to questions) merged into a single account:
“I am acquainted with the parties in this suit. My age is forty years – reside in Mobile, Ala. Am a pilot by profession – Have been a pilot on the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers for fifteen years and upwards. I was employed as a pilot on the Steamer ‘Eliza Battle’ in the month of April 1855. I was employed as pilot for the year at a fixed salary. Cox, Brainerd & Co. are steam boat owners engaged in the navigation of the river. I am not aware that said firm had any other steamer navigating the Tombigbee River at that time.
“(The) Steamer left Mobile on the eleventh day of April 1855 bound for Columbus, water permitting, and proceeded on her voyage as far as Newport. (The) boat proceeded no farther in consequence of there not being a sufficiency of water. (The) Steamer “Eliza Battle” drew at the time we reached Newport about five feet, four inches. If any other Boat reached Columbus at that time I am not aware of it. The Steamer “S.S. Prentiss,” which is a lighter draft boat than the “Eliza Battle,” passed Newport on the same day we landed and only went as far as Memphis. The Steamer “Eliza Battle” put out her freight at Newport because there was not a sufficiency of water to reach Columbus. It would have been for her interest to have gone to Columbus, and the captain was anxious to do so. No pilot would have attempted if he understood his business. It would have been more profitable for the “Eliza Battle” to have gone to Columbus, than to have turned back from Newport.
“(The) boat landed and discharged her Columbus freight at Newport on the Tombigbee River above Vienna and Gainesville. When we reached Gainesville, I advised the captain not to attempt to go any higher, as it was clear to my mind that we could not get to Columbus, but the captain insisted that we should go as high as we could, and we accordingly proceeded as far as Newport. When we reached Newport, we found it impossible to proceed further than Memphis, which would have been about twelve miles further by water. But as Memphis was on the opposite side of the river from Columbus, it was upon my suggestion that we should put the goods out at Newport in as much as it was more convenient for the Columbus merchants as the road from Columbus to Newport was said to be the best, and it would avoid the risk and expense of crossing the river in a flat. As to my means of knowledge of the water, I have to say that I have been for many years a pilot on said river, and it is one of the essential requisites of my profession to know the stage of water at Newport what must be the stage at Columbus, provided there had been no local rise there, and that this was not the case, was evident from the fact that the river was falling at Newport. Said boat would not have gotten up to Columbus with her freight. I do not think.”
The goods that were destroyed by the fire included paint supplies to be sold at James Blair’s drug store in Columbus. (For many years it was drug stores that sold paint and painting supplies.) The items Blair lost in the fire had been shipped to him from New York by the schooner Montrose on March 2, and arrived in Mobile where they were loaded on the Eliza Battle on April 11. The merchandise included 3 1/2 barrels of varnish, 11 tierces (a tierce is 35 imperial gallons) of lead and zinc in 25-pound and 50-pound kegs, 10 kegs of 100-pound lead in packages, one barrel of colors packaged, four cases of colors in packages and two cans of colors in packages. Blair’s Drug Store in 1855 was located on Main Street at or near its intersection with Market Street.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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