Blackwater-Chowan tugboat history

Published 9:29 am Friday, October 7, 2016

by Clyde Parker

In the mid-1930s, the directors and officers of Camp Manufacturing Co., which had been in the lumber  business since its formation in 1887, were having serious discussions about going into the paper-making business. By 1936, under the leadership of President James L. Camp Jr., they were ready to make the move. During a meeting on Dec. 15, 1936, an agreement was reached between Camp Manufacturing Co., Chesapeake Corporation of Virginia at West Point, Virginia, and Albemarle Paper Co. of Richmond, Virginia, to form Chesapeake-Camp Corp. for the purpose of establishing a paper-making operation at Franklin, Virginia. Soon after, Albemarle amicably withdrew.

Camp Manufacturing Co. continued as a separate lumber-producing facility and was operated concurrently with Chesapeake-Camp.

The tugboat Corinthia in the late 1930s or early 1940s. — Submitted | Clyde Parker

The tugboat Corinthia in the late 1930s or early 1940s. — Submitted | Clyde Parker

On Nov. 1, 1937, when Chesapeake-Camp Corp. started producing paper, in Franklin, a newly formed “River Operations” department was organized to help supply the mill with pulpwood, which was to be accumulated at Winton, North Carolina from that area’s pine woodlands, by pulling barges loaded with pulpwood up the Chowan and Blackwater rivers to Franklin. Barges were acquired. A tugboat was needed.

In response to that need, in early 1938, a steam-powered tugboat named “Corinthia,” built in 1890 in Philadelphia, was purchased and put into action with Harry B. Ward Sr. as its captain.

“It was a ragged-looking thing,” Harry Ward Jr. recalled for an article in the Spring 1999 edition of Union-Camp’s magazine, “The Log.” The tugboat had been in disuse for several years prior to being purchased and refurbished by Chesapeake-Camp.

(In 1944, Chesapeake Corp. of Virginia at West Point withdrew its interest in Chesapeake-Camp Corp. Then, Chesapeake-Camp, the paper company, was merged with Camp Manufacturing Co., the lumber company. The combined companies were then chartered as Camp Manufacturing Co. Inc. In 1956, Camp Manufacturing Co. Inc. merged with Union Bag and Paper Co. and formed Union Bag-Camp Paper Corp. In 1966, the name of the company was changed to Union Camp Corp.)

The “Corinthia,” over the years, suffered through two sinkings but the final devastating blow came when she burned on July 6, 1973; it was beyond repair and, so, at the age of 83, her days were done.

(For many years, Winton, on the Chowan River, was the primary log-loading site and destination for the tugboats. However, over the years, other sites were added. On the Chowan River, Edenton was added. And, by way of Batchelor Bay, stops at Windsor and Plymouth as well as some destinations across and around the Albemarle Sound, all in North Carolina, were established.)

In 1970, just a few years prior to the “Corinthia” fire, a tugboat by the name of “Convoy,” originally built for the United States Army Corps of Engineers, joined the Union Camp tugboat fleet. Soon after its purchase, it was re-named the “Cotton J” in honor of J.B. “Cotton” Johnson who was, at that time, manager of Union Camp’s Woodlands Division, operating out of Franklin.

(Southampton County Sheriff Jack Stutts, grandson of “Cotton” Johnson, son of the late Joe Stutts of Union Camp, and son of the late Carolyn Johnson Stutts, remembers the “Cotton J” well.

“I used to take rides up and down the Blackwater and Chowan rivers on the ‘Cotton J’ with my grandfather,” he said recently. “And I rode on some of the other tugs; they were all exciting experiences, but, of course, I liked ‘Cotton J’ the best.”)

Though smaller than its predecessor, the “Cotton J” kept river operations going until 1972 when a newer tugboat, the “Tuscarora,” was put into service. It was named after an Indian tribe that lived along the Chowan River.

An excerpt of a story in the above-referenced edition of “The Log” reads: “The ‘Tuscarora’ marked a new era for Union Camp tugboats. Unlike its predecessors, it was larger, could tow more, and had twin screws. ‘You could turn her around on a dime and get back nine cents,’ Captain Harry Ward Jr. was heard to say on at least one occasion.”

In early 1973, soon after the “Tuscarora” was put in service, the “American Eagle” was added to the “River Operations” fleet. The “Cotton J” was sold later that year.

In 1987, the tugboat “Century II,” which was given its name through a contest among Union Camp employees, was put into service as a “pusher” tug to help move barges. It was sold in 1995.

After 62 years of moving pulpwood up and down the Blackwater and Chowan rivers, and the Albemarle Sound, the last trip of any tugboat for Union Camp’s “River Operations” took place on Feb. 2, 1999. On that date, the “Tuscarora,” with Captains Herbert Davenport and David Doyle aboard, left Winton and returned to Franklin.

Another excerpt from the “The Log” dealt with the final days of “River Operations” and how captains Ward, Davenport and Doyle felt about their various experiences. They all agreed that the pros outweigh the cons.

“Everyone talks about going to the mountains in the fall,” Davenport said. “You ought to come ride this boat in the fall, you see wildlife, it’s pretty. It’s just enjoyable work.”

David Doyle, who joined the fleet in 1997, said the last trip was a sentimental one.

In commenting on his 30 years in “River Operations,” Davenport recalls several events that, to him, were “truly remarkable and memorable.”

“When you’re on a boat that sinks or burns, that is memorable,” he was quoted as saying in the previously referenced issue of “The Log.”

He was aboard the “Corinthia” one of the times when she sank and when she caught fire, and he was on the “Tuscarora” when she sank in 1981.

(Actually, in the 1920s, a wooden-hulled tugboat named “Ella Camp,” with Harry B. Ward Sr. as her captain, was put in service on the Blackwater River. According to the captain’s son, Harry Ward Jr., the “EIla Camp” pulled wooden rafts loaded with logs, acquired from woodlands to the south of Franklin, in support of the Camp Manufacturing Co. lumber mill in Franklin.

However, at some point in the late 1920s, its boiler started going bad. That fact combined with the effects of the looming Depression and the extension of more rail service to regional timber resources, the “Ella Camp” was abandoned. Not too much later, she sank to the bottom of the Blackwater River.)

(Please note:  Some of the material contained in this article was taken from the Spring 1999 edition of Union Camp Corporation’s magazine, “The Log.”)

CLYDE PARKER is a retired human resources manager for the former Franklin Equipment Co. and a member of the Southampton County Historical Society. His email address is