Steamers and tugs

Published 11:25 pm Thursday, October 2, 2008

This is my second attempt at gathering and preserving the local history of our rivers. It is a collection of information I have read, interviews, personal experience and hearsay. It is my hope that this amalgamation of material will make it infinitely more appealing for people to learn the important history of the relationship between the Blackwater and Nottoway rivers and here in Franklin and the surrounding counties.

River Folklore

In the early days, there was a port on the Nottoway near Monroe Bridge. A river captain, whose boat plied up and down the river, grew lonely as his craft churned through the still waters of the Nottoway. There were fish to be caught, true; or he could practice on his violin, which would help to dispel the gloom.

The stillness was indeed more than he could bear, so he decided to take his wife with him on his next trip. She would enjoy the ride as they moved slowly upstream, the sunlight filtering through the fragrant pines that lined the bank. She had not been on board many days when she became desperately ill. The captain moored the boat near a spot surrounded by six sycamore trees so that his wife might be more comfortable. Each night during her illness, he played his violin to comfort her. In spite of his solicitude, she died and he buried her beneath the sycamores. On still summer nights it is said that the soft haunting strain of the river captain’s violin can be heard floating through the trees along the shores of the Nottoway.

Steam Is King

Before steam came to be the new power on the Blackwater and Nottoway rivers, there was already a bustling river trade. It is well-known that Old South Quay on the Blackwater and Monroe on the Nottoway were important ports of entry for goods coming out of the county.

However, with the incorporation of steam power onto commercial craft, trade increased dramatically. One of the earliest accounts of steam making contact with the river was in 1836. The little steamer Fox was tied up to the east bank of the Blackwater, where the railroad crossed the river and the train station was located until it was moved to the west side in 1857. It was very popular to come from Norfolk on the train to board the Fox for an adventurous ride down to Edenton, N.C.

The Fox, it was said by her captain, knew the treacherous river so well she could make her way to Franklin without a helmsman. The captain insisted he had seen her frequently bend while turning some of the sharp curves on the river. The Fox could cover 40 miles in four hours on a cord of wood and was in service for about 15 years. The much larger Stag, which also shared the river with the A. R. Shultz, replaced the Fox in 1851.

While the Nottoway was not the hub of activity that the Blackwater was, there certainly was commercial success there. In 1856, artist and writer David H. Strother took the steamer Stag downriver to Edenton, describing his trip in the April 1857 issue of Harper’s Magazine. His creepy account of the trip only made it more appealing to the curious and drew a lot of attention to the Blackwater Depot in Franklin. It is interesting to note that in his description of the trip he tells of the steamer hitting cypress knees along the shore because the river was so narrow and tree limbs were hitting the wheelhouse. He also mentions that the steamer had to crab along until it got to a curve in the river and could wheel around and travel forward. This is how he described part of the experience: “The tortuous stream lay motionless, like a dead serpent, under the dismal shadow of the never-ending forest. When the prow of the advancing boat disturbed its glassy surface, the waves heaved up as if they might have been uncouth, lazy reptiles, hastening to get out of her way, and flinging themselves over the skeleton-like cypress roots, disappeared, tumbling and wallowing among the reeds.” I love that description and, obviously, the river was not as wide and cleared back then as it is today.

In 1859, a commotion was heard coming up the Nottoway River. It was the little steamer Hope en route to Freeman’s Bridge in Sussex County to pick up a load of timber. That’s how the story goes, but I have to tell you that Freeman’s Bridge is 34 miles upriver from Courtland. The river supposedly was maintained back then, but I still find it hard to believe a steamer pulling two barges made it through some of the places I have fought to get through in a jon boat.

According to the story, it was four days before the steamer made it back to Courtland to continue on its way back to Norfolk. This event did happen in January, so there were good water levels in the river for sure. Other steamers in that day were the Curlew and stern-wheeler Lenora. Into the 1860s steam vessels known on the two rivers included the Arrow and Philadelphia. It was during the Civil War that some of these craft that had been the subject of such intense admiration were sunk to protect the city of Franklin or to keep them from falling into enemy hands. These included the Arrow, Stag and Emma.

After the war, the steamship business again picked up and Franklin begin to dig itself out of the ruins of a war-depressed economy. The Albemarle Steam and Navigation Company re-established itself with new and larger steamers with names such as Chowan, Lota, Silver Wave and Harbinger. Some of these steamers were not small boats, but ships. The Chowan, later renamed the Nanticoke in 1889, was a side-wheeler grossing 459 tons, was 150 feet long, 28 feet wide and 8 feet deep. It was an iron-hulled vessel with a 100 horsepower steam engine and an advertised 28 staterooms. The typical schedule was three round trips a week from Franklin to Edenton and Plymouth. Tons of merchandise such as cotton, corn, lumber tobacco, bacon and fish began moving up and down the river again.

Around 1875, in Fanny Webb’s recollections of the area, she remembered going to South Quay to meet the mail steamer. She also spoke of the renewed interest in passenger steamship travel stating, “the excitement of getting under way and studying the problem of navigating the narrow-winding stream with a craft that occasionally rammed its prow into the forested bank, the chugging and backing that was necessary to straighten up and get into deep water again, the selecting of a favorable position on the deck to study the landscape, all afforded happy diversion and entertainment.” It’s like the river back then was the Busch Gardens of today, a real thrill ride.

Happy diversion and entertainment came to a ghastly halt one chilling night in February of 1903. The steamer Olive, on its way to Edenton, was hit by what must have been a waterspout. The steamer left Franklin that morning making its regular stops and ended up with 31 people aboard.

The following quote is from an interview with veteran Captain George H. Withy of Franklin: “We left Franklin on Monday morning and had been making good headway all day, not withstanding a strong breeze from the southwest which was blowing, our regular landings were made and everything was coming along when though I noticed that the wind was increasing. After darkness set in it began to blow a regular gale and when I passed Holly’s Wharf at 9:45 the wind had begun to blow so violently that I decided not to venture into, Edenton, but to turn where there was shelter from the wind. The boat was put about without much consideration and the little trip had been started when suddenly a horrible roar began to come towards us from the northwest. Everything became misty below and it was impossible to see a short length ahead. All at once, I met with a mountain high layer of white foam beaming directly on my port side, and in another second the cyclone had us. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was like heaven and earth had come together, only 1,000 times more. The Olive stood up on her beam and water poured into her shattered windows and portholes in great volumes. Then she began to light and settle at the same time.” The Olive sank like a rock in the freezing Chowan.

Various survivors told of the pitiful cries of those trapped and facing certain death. Among these were a 12-year-old girl and her grandmother. “Oh, I could never forget the frightening cries of that poor little girl if my life was spared 1,000 years,” said Martha Barrett, the stewardess. “‘Grandmother, we are going to die,’” shrieked the girl as the water swept into their narrow apartment. For two or three minutes her terrified cries could be distinctly heard. Then the water filled the berth below and her cries ceased.” The young girl was one of the 17 souls to perish that dreadful night in the worst steamship accident the area had ever recorded. The steamship business had been dealt a serious blow, and though the company ran until about 1929, the popularity of steamship travel would slowly ebb and give way to the wheel.

Mighty Tugs

Timber has certainly been good to this area, and if it were not for that enterprise, it is likely Franklin would not have materialized. With small sawmills cropping up locally, it was only natural that some would be built along the Blackwater and Nottoway. With seemingly endless swamps and forest and a vehicle for moving the wood, the rivers were a very attractive location and just made good sense. Edward Hedley built a sawmill on the Nottoway — near where Hercules is now — around 1853, and on the Blackwater, R.J. & William Neely built one in 1856 about where the sawmill is today across the river from Franklin.

There were others, including one at Cherry Grove on the Blackwater, but Hedley and Neely were the mills the Camp brothers eventually bought that really eventually made the commercial lumber business. Transportation of logs to the mill by river was the most economical means in the late 1800s, and steam-powered tugs were the way to get it done.

One of the most interesting tugs of the day was the Tadpole. The strange craft was built by Duke and Tom Story at the Dowry near Gatlington in 1878. The 40-foot long boat had been dug out of three pine logs and fitted with a five-horsepower engine. Two logs provided the two sides of the steamer and a third served as the hull. The three parts were secured together by mortising and pegging. Strong gunneling and bracing timbers gave the hull its strength. There is an account with her crew of two towing a barge with 2500 railroad ties from the Gatlington stave mill to Franklin. After only modest success with her, the Story brothers were convinced to sell Tadpole to the Camp Manufacturing Company, which was created in 1887. The little homemade tug served a total of 20 years on the rivers and, after being sold to the Camps, served out the rest of her years pulling log rafts to the mill at Franklin.

The tug Emma also is a tug listed as an asset of the Camp Manufacturing Company in 1887 and most likely replaced the Tadpole. The Emma was a much more powerful tug that could better handle the log rafts being towed to the mill. This was before barges and the logs were bound together making a log raft. The main problem with that was that not all the logs in the raft made it to the mill. Logs would slip out of the raft eventually, making it so bad for navigation that this method of bringing timber upriver was outlawed and barges were used instead. The tug named Ida Camp was next and operated until her boiler went bad in 1937 or 1939. The Camp sawmill was — and is — located between the Seaboard and Roanoke railroad (downriver) and the traffic bridge (upriver). This caused a bit of a dilemma in the early days for the tugs.

For years I wondered how the tugs got the log raft to the log pond that was situated between the two bridges. Finally, after interviewing Harry Ward this year, I got my answer. Ward was a tug captain at the mill from 1940 until he retired in 1984. His dad also was a tug captain and worked on the river from 1926 to 1955 and piloted the Ida Camp. Captain Ward said the Ida Camp had a hinged funnel or smoke stack and that is how they made it under the railroad trestle. Since that interview, I found out that the tug Emma operated the same way. The railroad bridge crossing the Blackwater at the mill, as well as the traffic bridge, was a truss type bridge with steel or iron superstructure overhead. The steel truss traffic bridge was constructed in 1910 at a cost of $5,000. It is interesting to note that the current bridge that replaced that bridge in 1938 is now being replaced at a cost of $4.2 million dollars.

The Corinthia was purchased in 1937 and was steam-powered at first. In fact, Captain Ward said the tug, which was built in 1890, was so outdated that she did not even have electric lights on her and at night kerosene lamps had to be lit. In 1948 she was converted to diesel and modernized somewhat. The Corinthia had her share of mishaps. Once while tied up at the Winton docks, she sank and, according to Ward, and the boat was one heck of an oily mess to clean up. In another incident during the 1940s, the dam in Washole Creek a half-mile downriver from Franklin burst, sending a torrent of mud, water and sand down the creek and into the river forming a bar. The Corinthia was on her way back to Franklin that evening and slammed into the bar. The momentum of the barges was so great that they, in turn, crashed into the back of the tug driving hard onto the bar. It took a bulldozer and much effort to free the barges. The Corithia, using the backwash from her propeller, got herself off the bar and, using the same technique, managed to cut a big enough channel in the bar to get the barges across. Captain Ward said he had already showered and changed clothes in anticipation of seeing a movie at the theater that evening. That was just not in the cards that night.

The last big event for the Corinthia happened when she caught fire around 1974 below Old South Quay and burned to the waterline. That ended her long career hauling wood for the mill. She later was sold to another company and rebuilt.

Another interesting story the captain told was how eventually the water in the Blackwater from Franklin downriver became so polluted the mill could no longer use it in their boilers nor could the tugs because of all the foam. To get clean water they would carry three empty barges to Smith’s Bend on the Blackwater. At that point of the river the Blackwater and Nottoway are only 300 feet apart in distance. So they would run a pipe across the swamp to the Nottoway and fill up the barges with Nottoway water, then pull those back up river to the mill. Seaboard railroad and the Pretlow Peanut Company would also use that water imported from the Nottoway. He also said my grandfather, Preacher Wright, was involved with the pumping of that water. Evidently the mill had not yet developed its system of waste treatment ponds nor the deep wells it has now online to bring water to the mill. I’m sure glad all that changed.

In later years, bigger and stronger tugs saw service along the river. The Tuscarora and the American Eagle were modern tugs with radar and were quite a sight to see coming up the river. If you were out there in a boat, you had to get to the inside of the curve so the barges would not swing out and get you. I can remember fishing with Granddaddy and the tug would be coming. Way before you could hear the chug of the tug, the water in the river would start swirling around the cypress trees. This was because of the awesome displacement of water from the tug and its six barges laden with wood. The first time I saw this, I ask my Granddaddy what was causing this and he replied that it was because there was a hole in the river. Of course being that young I was too ignorant to realize the water was rising and not being sucked down into some dark abyss in the river. Yes, the tugboat was a bit of an inconvenience. There were times when I was little that I wished it were not there to muddy up the river causing Granddaddy to end our day of fishing. Little did I know that soon I would never see them again.

In 1998 it was decided that rail and truck would be the way to bring wood into the mill for the future and, with that, the mighty tugs were sold.

So it goes, the advancement of time, the sale of companies and the aging of rivers and man. Now I miss the tugs and wish I had taken more pictures and paid more attention to what my Granddaddy was telling me about the rivers years ago. I wish I had known and talked to Fanny Webb and others who were alive in my lifetime that lived this history I desire to know so much about. Fanny Webb, at the end of her book, writes some great words. These few lines were mostly in reference to the end of the Civil War, but I think they also apply to us today and the rich history that others and I so fondly remember and hold dear.

“Let us cherish the memory of those stirring days; let us inscribe them upon our records; let us teach them to those that shall come after us — not that we may engender bitterness — not that we may render less hearty allegiance to the flag that now waves over a united country; but that to our children’s children the knowledge may go down that this fair Southland of ours has always borne, and will always bear, a worthy and honorable part of the history of this glorious American nation.”