Ask Rufus: With December rains came steamboats

December 7, 2013 8:29:49 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Late November and early December was once the time when Columbus, Aberdeen and other towns along the upper Tombigbee River would get to celebrate the arrival of the first steamboat of the season. By then, like today, the winter rains had brought higher water to the river. A fully loaded steamboat traveling on the Upper Tombigbee needed 6 feet of water showing on the old Columbus river gauge to safely make Columbus and 12 feet on the Columbus gauge to make Aberdeen. 


Steamboats provided the principal means of commercial shipping along the river from the early 1820s until the late 1850s. Then they shared with railroads the handling of large quantities of goods being shipped to and from the local area. As river traffic was limited to the months of higher water, railroads slowly assumed a larger role. The building of all-weather roads and the mushrooming use of motor vehicles after 1912 signaled the end of the era of Tombigbee Steamboats. 


After the construction of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad in the late 1850s, northeast Mississippi had a direct railroad link to the port of Mobile. Competition between steamboats and the railroad became cutthroat. A good example was the fall of 1877. In October the water level of the Tombigbee at Columbus was too low to allow large steamboats to reach the city and the Mobile and Ohio Railroad was charging $4 a bale to carry cotton from Columbus to Mobile. Rains came in early November and the river rose sufficiently to allow fully loaded steamboats to travel between Columbus and Mobile. The steamboat William S. Holt arrived at Columbus around Nov. 8 and the M & O Railroad immediately reduced rates to $1.50 per cotton bale to undercut what the boat was charging. The Holt itself presented a new wrinkle to river commerce.  


During the mid 1870s, in an interesting turn, the Central Railroad & Banking Company of Georgia built a branch line from Georgia across Alabama to the Tombigbee River at Demopolis. It thus connected the Tombigbee River Valley with the sea port of Savannah, Ga. The railroad even bought half interest in the steamboat William S. Holt that was to run between Columbus and its railhead at Demopolis. Not just the Mobile & Ohio Railroad but also the Port of Mobile had a new competitor for Tombigbee cotton. 


In 1879 Safford Berney published a "Handbook of Alabama" which included a list of the boat landings on the "Little Tombigbee River." There were 48 landings listed in Mississippi ranging from Blewett's Shed, near the state line, to Cotton Gin Port, near present day Amory. In 1913 the Corps of Engineers published a listing and description of the Tombigbee landings then in use which were described as being between Demopolis, Ala., and Columbus. They were Miller's, Gainesville, Warsaw, Vienna, Stone's Ferry, Memphis, and Pickensville in Alabama and Columbus. 


The listings included the name of the landing, its river mile, a description of the landing, the distance to the nearest railroad and the highway conditions to the landing. The Pickensville Landing was described as being at river mile 348.2 and located on a "bluff on west bank (probably east); warehouse; charges ten cents per cotton bale at landing. Alabama, Tennessee, & Northern RR, 8 miles. sandy road." 


The landing at Columbus in 1913 was just below the railroad trestle and was still being shown on the 1928 city map as "Boat Landing." Earlier Columbus landings had been at Turner's Cut (a cotton slide) just above the railroad trestle and at the foot of Main Street. The Corps of Engineers described the 1913 landing as "river mile 379. (on the) bluff on east bank; town warehouse; three oil mills; cotton compress; large commerce; no important water terminal or wharves; no charge for landing. Mobile & Ohio and Southern RR terminals. poor road to water terminal." The decline of steamboat traffic was apparent. 


The last Columbus -- Mobile packet boat, a steamboat running on a regular schedule and carrying both freight and passengers, was the Charles May in 1914. In 1918 the Corps of Engineers reported that Pickensville, Ala., was considered the usual "...upper limit of navigation for boats of any considerable size." Small boats in the lumber trade continued to be used for many more years along the upper river but the day of the large steamboat had ended.  


However the Tombigbee continued to be considered a navigable river and so when construction began in 1925 on a new highway bridge at Columbus it was required to be a drawbridge though it had been six or seven years since a large steamboat had traveled to, let alone above, Columbus.

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