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Ask Rufus: The story behind an iconic photograph


This 1907 or 1908 postcard of the Steamer American has become the iconic image of a Tombigbee River steamer at Columbus and has frequently been published in books and newspapers.

This 1907 or 1908 postcard of the Steamer American has become the iconic image of a Tombigbee River steamer at Columbus and has frequently been published in books and newspapers. Photo by: Courtesy photo


Rufus Ward



There is a 1908 postcard view of the Steamer American at the Columbus landing which has become the iconic image of a Tombigbee steamboat at Columbus. I have twice used the image in articles and it appears in my book "The Tombigbee River Steamboats: Rollodores, Dead Heads, and Side-Wheelers." The postcard has also been used in the Commercial Dispatch at least six times and has appeared in other publications. I first found the image being used in the Dispatch's 1940 Columbus Pilgrimage edition. However, the usual two or three sentence captions that have appeared with the image never fully told the fascinating story of the boat.  


The story of the American actually started with the Steamer Vienna. The Vienna was a 176 ton, 155 feet by 26 feet by 4.5 feet stern-wheeler built at either Vienna, Alabama, or Columbus (depending on the account you read) in 1898. She was built specifically for the Columbus river trade by a stock company principally owned by Joseph Donoghue, W. B. Peebles and W. B. Hopkins. Capt. Sam A. Cosper was her master. She was built to run between Demopolis and Columbus but also ran between Columbus and Mobile. 


On Jan. 19, 1906, while headed up river to Columbus, the Vienna struck a timber that had fallen into the river during repair work on the Columbus railroad trestle. The timber had floated downstream and became a snag, which was called a "dead head." It pierced the Vienna's hull and she sank at Moore's Bluff near present day Camp Pratt. 


After the Vienna sank in 1906, J. E. Stewart of Pickensville needed a steamer to replace her for the Columbus Tombigbee trade. He sent Capt. Cosper, the Vienna's former master, to purchase a replacement boat. He purchased the Steamer American and brought her to the Tombigbee. Captain Henry Lindsay agreed to be clerk and general manager of the steamer. 


The American was built in Decatur, Ala., by the American Oak Leather Company in 1902 and was 158 feet by 27.5 feet by 4.5 feet. She had been constructed for trade on the Tennessee River in the Decatur area and could carry passengers and up to 500 tons of freight. On her first trip on the Tennessee River she attempted to go up a large creek to a small landing. Though said to be large, the creek was not large enough and the American's ornamental woodwork along her deck and the pilot house were damaged by over hanging limbs.  


The company had needed a steamer that could travel to small landings, some of which were off the main channel of the Tennessee. The American's captain decided she was too large a boat for their needs and in 1903 she was sold. She was purchased by C.J. Searles of Vicksburg and placed in the Vicksburg - Yazoo River trade. 


After the steamer's purchase in late 1906, Capt. Cosper brought her to Columbus. Beginning in early 1907 the American ran on the Upper Tombigbee between Columbus and the rail head at Demopolis, Ala. Low water ended the Columbus trade season in May 1907, and the American was leased to Capt. Lindsey. Lindsey put her in the Alabama River trade about May 21, 1907. The steamboat then ran from Mobile to Guilett's Bluff on the Alabama. On Jan. 1, 1908, the American returned to the Upper Tombigbee and the Columbus trade. She again ran mostly between Columbus and Demopolis. The season ended with low water about March 1, 1908. At that time Capt. Lindsey purchased the boat and permanently removed her to Mobile and the Alabama River trade. 


On the Alabama River the American ran as an independent Mobile-Selma packet boat competing against the boats of Quill, Jones and Co., and the Birmingham and Gulf Railway Navigation Co. A packet boat carried both cargo and passengers on a set schedule. She remained in the Alabama River trade and according to her 1913 schedule she left Mobile every Saturday for Selma at 5 p.m. She then would return to Mobile arriving back on Wednesdays at noon. In 1915 the American caught fire and burned at the Mobile wharf. Following the departure of the American from the Upper Tombigbee in May 1908, J.E. Stewart in December 1908, purchased and placed the New Haven, a smaller 92 ton, 500 cotton bale capacity steamboat, in the Columbus Tombigbee trade. The New Haven hit a snag near Demopolis and sank in 1910.  


Several photographs of the American were taken during her 13-year life. Two photos taken of her at the Columbus Landing in 1907 or 1908 were used on postcards. She is one of only five steamboats I have seen photographed while docked at Columbus. Several postcards showing steamboats at Columbus were actually photographs from the Tombigbee River landings at Gainesville or Demopolis, Ala. It is the American whose photo has become the iconic image of a Tombigbee steamboat at Columbus.


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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