Echoes on the river: Rufus Ward's 'Tombigbee River Steamboats' holds 'stories worth remembering'

September 4, 2010 8:27:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


With a shiver of imagination, someone standing on the bank of the Tombigbee River channel at Columbus'' Riverwalk could fancy the scenes and sounds of yesteryear. Sunlight skips on wind-rippled water, and the mind wanders. The distant whine of a weedeater recedes, gradually replaced by the din surrounding a docked 19th century steamboat in its heyday. 


Rufus Ward of West Point can envision the burly rollodores, men sending heavy cotton bales down a slide to the boat deck. The stevedores receive them, straining to keep their balance and outwit injury. The chants and songs, the mud, the bray of mules and neigh of horses, the greetings and good-byes, the essence of a forgotten era on that regional artery of commerce -- the Tombigbee. 


Ward''s love of history is evident in his just-released book, "The Tombigbee River Steamboats: Rollodores, Dead Heads and Side-Wheelers." The 224-page journey "to the lively, bygone world of the river trade" is published by The History Press of Charleston, S.C.  


"I started out a little over nine years ago," Ward said. "I was working on an article for a history journal on the Tombigbee River. It just kept growing, and I realized I had the makings of a book."  


The self-described "recovering lawyer" says fate seemed to intervene not long ago, when he stumbled across a quote attributed to the ancient Roman poet and philosopher Horace: "Let your literary compositions be kept from the public eye for nine years."  


"I thought, well, it''s been nine years," he grinned, "it''s time to do something. ... In the history of the Tombigbee, I''ve tried to make the story of steamboats come alive." 




Weaned on it 


That this former Clay County prosecutor would dedicate himself to a project like this is no surprise to those who know him.  


"I was surrounded by history growing up," Ward stated. "My grandmother, Lenore Hardy Billups, co-founded the Columbus Pilgrimage. My great-great-grandfather, Thomas Bailey, wrote a history of Mississippi in 1853." Those stories of real people, handed down, fueled his curious mind.  


In "Steamboats," he plumbed 19th century documents, newspapers and magazines to recreate the dynasty and decline of the storied boats on the Upper Tombigbee River from the 1820s to the 1920s. Augmented by firsthand accounts wherever possible, and about 165 illustrations (some by Frank Swords of West Point), the book sheds light on what life was like in our own backyard. Like this excerpt from the autobiography of George Brown, who came to Columbus in 1821. It describes the arrival of the first steamboat in Columbus, in 1822: 


"This created great excitement among the people. Not many of them had seen a steamboat before ... expectation was on tiptoe. The whole population of the town was assembled on the bank of the river to witness its arrival and such cheering, swinging of hats and waving of handkerchiefs you never saw."  




Oysters and bustles 


"Many people don''t realize it, but Columbus was really more cosmopolitan than they may think; they enjoyed some of the finer things of Europe," Ward pointed out. "Because of the cotton boom, people had money. They were buying things on the cutting edge of fashion and merchandise."  


Steamboats that left Columbus heavy with cotton made their way to Mobile, Ala., where the cargo would often go on to destinations in England or France. Ships coming back brought the latest European styles and foods not native to the area. 


The historian offered one example. "Oysters were brought up in big croker sacks. They were so popular in Columbus, so many were sold here, the city started using crushed oyster shells to fill potholes." 


In 1843, the writer''s own great-great-great grandfather, James Walton Harris, built Whitehall on Third Street South, now the home of Dr. and Mrs. Joe Boggess.  


"He had a lot of woodwork and millwork shipped in," explained Ward. "He''d sit on the corner and wait for the shipments and inspect every piece of molding." Goods off those boats are found today in historic homes throughout the city. 




Haunting disaster 


Some of the river''s history is sadly poignant. The loss of the Eliza Battle, a 315-ton sidewheeler, made a strong impact on Ward. 


The "elegant steamboat, a floating palace" carrying cotton and about 55 passengers from Columbus and other points burned March 1, 1858, on a freezing, flooded Tombigbee River while on its way to Mobile. 


Twenty-one-year-old Augustus Jones had been unable to board the Battle in Columbus and took a train to Gainesville, Ala., to catch it. He would unfortunately make the connection. The young man became one of a reported 15 passengers and 14 crew members to lose their lives after temperatures dropped 40 degrees in just two hours and storms, hail and sleet pushed the Tombigbee out of its banks. 


Accounts document that at about 1 a.m., the Warrior, another steamer, passed the Battle "sparking" -- sparks poured out of its smokestacks. Some fell on the Battle''s cotton bales, setting them on fire. Wind-whipped flames tore through the boat. Many who died had escaped the fire, but froze to death. 


Stories of heroics, death and survival spread nationwide by telegraph. Several area families retain oral traditions handed down about the disaster. Mrs. C. R. Friday of West Point, Ward writes, recalled that a "Mr. Dexter of near West Point used his belt to strap a friend to a limb." They both survived. 


"My interest began to focus on the Tombigbee and its steamboats after first reading and then hearing Katherine Tucker Windom tell the story of the Eliza Battle about 35 years ago," Ward credited. 




Gender wars 


Getting his original longhand manuscript transformed into the finalized book had its share of amusing moments. 


"One day the publisher e-mailed to say I''d made a horrible grammatical error -- I had referred to a steamboat as ''her,'' and the Chicago Style manual says you can''t use a gender specific term in referring to an inanimate object." With mirth, he shared his response. "I told them I was born in the South, I grew up in the South, and to me, boats, cars and hurricanes will always be ''she.'' However, if they felt compelled to change it, that it wasn''t anything a good stiff drink of bourbon couldn''t cure." 




All good things 


The outbreak of the Civil War, spread of railroads, all-weather roads and popularity of motor cars combined to kill the steamboat trade. By the 1920s, they were all but gone. But, it was a fascinating time in Mississippi and local history, filled with "stories worth remembering."  


"I hope the book will give readers a better understanding of life in the 19th century, and to let them know that people then really were mobile, they traveled, they did things," said the author, who, in the book, thanks several Columbians for their help. 


"History that is just presented as a factual statement, without the underlying sense of place, may be accurate, but it doesn''t tell the story ... and it''s the stories that make history interesting." 


Editor''s note: "The Tombigbee River Steamboats" is currently available at Bits N Pieces and Culin-Arts in West Point and at Rufus Ward will speak at Sunday at the Bluff at Plymouth Bluff Center, 2200 Old West Point Rd., at 2 p.m. Sept. 12.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.