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Ask Rufus: Alice Vivian liked to race


A drawing of the Mobile steamboat St. Nicholas from the December 1858 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The St. Nicholas defeated the Alice Vivian in a famous steamboat race on the Tombigbee River.

A drawing of the Mobile steamboat St. Nicholas from the December 1858 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The St. Nicholas defeated the Alice Vivian in a famous steamboat race on the Tombigbee River. Photo by: Courtesy photo


Rufus Ward



One hundred and fifty years ago the Alice Vivian, a Tombigbee River steamboat turned Confederate blockade runner, was captured by the USS DeSoto while attempting to sail from Mobile to Havana, Cuba. Few steamboats anywhere experienced history as did the Alice Vivian. Her story exemplifies the mid-19th Century story of the Tombigbee River Valley. 


She had been built in 1856 in New Albany, Indiana, to replace the Ambassador, a fast-running Mobile steamboat that had burned. She was specially designed for the Tombigbee-Warrior River trade and was a 376-ton side-wheeler. It was reported that she could carry in excess of 2,400 bales of cotton at a time. She was described by South Alabama Judge Fleetwood Foster who recalled her,as "being possessed of a model with sharp beginnings and endings, yet with graceful curves." He added that she was the "queen of the river."  


The 1850s were a time when a steamboat's reputation was often built on speed. The Alice Vivian was no exception, and she became famous for races on the Tombigbee. There was one section of the river that became almost a set race course. It commenced at the Mobile Wharf and ended about 50 miles up stream at the junction of the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers. The record was said to have been held by the steamer Montgomery in a time of 3 hours and 10 minutes. 


A typical race was described by Mell Frazier in a 1907 historical study of steamboats in Alabama. "Some signal, such as the firing of a gun, was given and the two monsters, almost neck and neck, would go puffing and blowing down the river, furnaces ablaze and the smoke stacks rolling up great masses of pitchy smoke, and the steamers creaking and vibrating in their struggle...If neither boat blew up, the race continued until one or the other was victorious." 


Although the Alice Vivian was noted as a fast boat and a famous racer, she, ironically, lost her most famous race. The race was with the noted Alabama river steamer the St. Nicholas. As was usually the case, the race was to begin at the Mobile Wharf and run to the Alabama Junction. Judge Foster was a passenger on the Vivian and recalled the event; "The start was made amid the greatest excitement- the Alice Vivian and in her wake the St Nicholas. The former so confident of her powers, sounded challenge from her whistle, which was responded to by her admirers on the levee and returned by the passengers and crew." 


Foster said that the St. Nicholas always carried a full set of colors - "a large streamer from her jack staff. Old Glory from her rear and two smaller ones amidships." He went on to describe how, "The river was now clouded with smoke, the shades of evening were fast gathering, sparks were flying in every direction, striking the water but to disappear as they mingled with water." 


The race ended with the St Nicholas arriving at the Junction holding about a 5 mile lead. In other races the Vivian defeated the St Charles, the St Nicholas's twin sister, and the Henry J King. The Vivian was one of the first Mobile boats to have a calliope and was noted for playing "Jordan Am A Hard Road" during a race. 


When the Civil War broke out many of the Tombigbee steamboats were used by the Confederate government to haul troops and supplies. The Alice Vivian was no exception. During the 1862-1863 high-water season the Vivian made at least two round trips between Columbus and Mobile. In June of 1862 the Confederate government had established the large Briarfield Armory and Arsenal at Columbus. However, because of threats from Union troops, it was ordered in January 1863 to be relocated to Selma, Alabama. The Vivian was used to transport a large quantity of the ordinance from the arsenal to Mobile and then to Selma. 


Because the Vivian was noted for speed she was converted into a blockade runner in the spring of 1863. It was on her second trip to Havana that she was captured. After her capture the U.S. military turned her back into a riverboat and she served as a troop transport during the Red River Campaign. After the war ended she was sold and renamed the "South" but was in such poor condition that she was abandoned in 1867. 


For those interested in more information on the steamboats that once traveled the Tombigbee, my book, "The Tombigbee River Steamboats," is available at many bookstores and all major online book-sellers.


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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