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Ask Rufus: The Vienna and the story its photo tells

 

On Tuesday, June 9, 1903, the Columbus First Baptist Church Sunday school chartered the Steamboat Vienna for its annual picnic. This photograph found by Don DePriest shows the Vienna (between 1899-1905) at the old Columbus steamboat landing, which is now the Riverwalk parking lot. The boat is about to set out on a summer excursion which may be that Sunday school picnic in 1903.

On Tuesday, June 9, 1903, the Columbus First Baptist Church Sunday school chartered the Steamboat Vienna for its annual picnic. This photograph found by Don DePriest shows the Vienna (between 1899-1905) at the old Columbus steamboat landing, which is now the Riverwalk parking lot. The boat is about to set out on a summer excursion which may be that Sunday school picnic in 1903. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

The Vienna was a 176 ton, 155-by-26-by-4.5 feet stern-wheeler built 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, Vienna, Pickensville and Columbus but also ran between Columbus and Mobile.  

 

The first news account of the new Vienna arriving in Columbus was on Nov. 23, 1898. It was then reported the Vienna had arrived "from river points below bringing 180 bales of cotton and a few passengers." The account further said that she "left yesterday for Ringold below Pickensville, to get a cargo of cotton and will return tonight, after which she will make a long trip to Demopolis." 

 

The Vienna's major trade was in hauling cotton, cotton seed and fertilizer. During the summer months not only could the steamer not be fully loaded due to low water, but there was a pause in the shipment of cotton until the fall crop. Summer was the time for Tombigbee boats to be repaired and painted. Some boats also were available for charter and excursions. Capt. Cosper lived on the Vienna, and when she was docked for repairs or because of low water, he was noted for allowing children to come on board the Vienna to play and explore the steamer. 

 

It was usually in November that the water level of the Tombigbee at Columbus was sufficient for fully loaded steamboats to travel the river between Columbus and Mobile. The rule of thumb was that for large steamboats the Columbus gage needed to be at six feet (about the present Aliceville pool level at Columbus) and at two feet for smaller shallow draft steamboats. To make it to Aberdeen, steamboats except for small steamers in the lumber trade required 12 feet on the Columbus gage. 

 

On June 9, 1903, the Columbus First Baptist Church Sunday school chartered the Vienna for its annual picnic. The picnic was held "at Chowder Springs down the river." A "merry party" of some 250 people enjoyed the day-long outing, which was described as "frolicking and feasting" in "shaded dells and green fields." A photograph found by Don DePriest shows the Vienna at the old Columbus steamboat landing, which is now the Riverwalk parking lot. In the background is the old 1877 bridge located about where the new bridge to the Island crosses the river next to the 1928 bridge. The boat is about to set out on a summer excursion, which if not that Sunday school picnic in 1903 a was a similar event.  

 

On Jan. 19, 1906, while headed up river to Columbus, the Vienna struck timber that had fallen into the river during repair work on the Columbus M&O Railroad trestle. The timber had floated downstream and became a snag, called a "dead head." The Vienna, carrying 250 bales of cotton and 2,200 sacks of cotton seed, struck it and sank in four minutes at Moore's Bluff near present day Camp Pratt. All of the passengers and crew were saved but the boat could not be salvaged.  

 

Another steamer was needed for the Columbus trade and quickly its merchants "made arrangements" with Capt. John Quill of Mobile and Capt. T.B. Moore of Montgomery to secure the Ouachita, a large steamer for the Columbus. She had been built in 1899, had been employed in the Alabama River and lower Tombigbee trade. The Ouachita's route was quickly redrawn so that instead of terminating her up river voyage at Demopolis, Alabama, she would continue to Columbus. 

 

As a steamer was needed to permanently replace the Vienna as the Columbus interest steamer in the upper Bigbee trade. A new company was formed to build or purchase another boat. At the formational company meeting John Stinson was made chairman and I.H. Sykes secretary. J.E. Stewart of Columbus and Pickensville with Capt. Cosper, the Vienna's former master, were sent to purchase a replacement boat.  

 

They purchased the Steamer America (158-by-27.5-by-4.5 feet) which had been built in Decatur, Alabama, in 1902. Beginning in early 1907, the American ran on the Upper Tombigbee between Columbus and the rail head at Demopolis. During the summer's low water, the American was leased to the Alabama River trade. 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, the boat was sold to the Mobile-Alabama River trade.  

 

Unlike the Vienna, which apparently drew less water and could even be chartered for short picnic excursions when water was too low for heavy commercial loads, the American was not as well-suited for year round service in the Columbus-Demopolis trade. The smaller, but still 500 cotton bale capacity steamer New Haven was purchased to replace the American in 1908. Except for small steamers used in the lumber trade commercial steamboat traffic at Columbus ended around 1920.

 

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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