LOOKING BACK: The ‘Olive’ and the A.S.N.

Published 11:00 am Saturday, May 18, 2024

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A major part of Franklin’s early development was due to the existence of the Albemarle Steam Navigation Company (A.S.N.). Its headquarters was in Franklin, and it was in business from 1837 to 1929. During that period, Franklin became a major regional shipping/transfer point. The Company was immensely successful, operating a fleet of steamships up and down the Blackwater, Meherrin, and Chowan rivers.  

For most of its existence, A.S.N. was owned and controlled by Franklin’s Pretlow family. Previously, Captain J. H. Bogart owned and operated the line.  John A. Pretlow Jr., Robert A. Pretlow, and M. H. Moore acquired ownership at his death.  They were majority stockholders. However, there were other investors in both Virginia and North Carolina.

John A. Pretlow Jr. served as president and general manager for most of his tenure with the Company. He was also officially connected with two short-line railways in eastern North Carolina and had other extensive business interests, including peanut acquisition and distribution.

John A. Pretlow Jr. and Robert A. Pretlow were the sons of John Alexander Pretlow Sr. and Mrs. Evelyn Bolling Pretlow and were born at “Riverview,” the old Pretlow plantation on the Blackwater River just south of Franklin.  

In 1835, the new Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad crossed the Blackwater River at a point that later became known as Franklin, which, at that time, was the northernmost navigational point of the Blackwater River. Franklin Depot turned out to be a vital link between the towns of the Chowan River / Albemarle Sound in North Carolina and the Norfolk-Portsmouth area, and other points in Virginia.  

During its existence, A.S.N. operated a great number of steamships up and down the Blackwater and Chowan rivers, mostly to and from Edenton.  Freight and passengers arriving at Franklin by railroad from the Norfolk area, Virginia inland areas, and steamships from points in eastern North Carolina, and beyond were transferred at Franklin Wharf.  During the late 1800s and early 1900s, a rail spur track ran from the main line to an area adjacent to the Blackwater River.  

Occasionally, there were trips to and from more distant points, including Wilmington, North Carolina, and other Mid-Atlantic ports, including Norfolk and Portsmouth, by way of the Albemarle Sound.    

Other steamships, owned by A.S.N., made roundtrips from Murfreesboro, North Carolina, by way of the Meherrin and Chowan rivers to and from Edenton.  

Prior to the Civil War, business was good for A.S.N. – operating five steamships.  However, much of the commerce up and down the rivers was interrupted during the Civil War. The Franklin area became extremely desolate.  After the war, though, there was a significant resurgence of river transportation, causing a “boom” for the Village of Franklin.  Between 1866 and 1929, a total of seventeen steamships were in operation by A.S.N.     

One of the more notable steamships, operating between Franklin and Edenton, was the steamship “Olive” which sank on the evening of Feb. 16, 1903, during a violent storm, on the Chowan River, fifteen miles south of Tunis, North Carolina, and a mile and a half from Holly’s Wharf.  

The “Olive” was on its way to Edenton, North Carolina.  Seventeen of the thirty people on board perished in the sinking.  Some of the unidentified victims were buried in a mass grave in Franklin’s Poplar Spring Cemetery.    

The captain of the “Olive” was George H. Withy of Franklin.  He was not in any way considered to be at fault in the tragedy.  In fact, he took heroic steps and actions to minimize the loss of life and property.  

On March 2, 1903, the “Olive” was refloated, pumped dry, and towed back to Franklin.  Later, the “Olive” was rebuilt from the waterline up, with a lower profile, rechristened the “Hertford,” and put back in service – mainly along the Meherrin and Chowan rivers between Murfreesboro and Edenton. 

Captain Withy continued with A.S.N. until his death on Sept. 4, 1920, completing 52 years of service.  He was born in Leeds, England on January 15, 1848.  He came to the United States with his father, Charles Withy, when George was still a small child.  

Charles Withy was an engineer for A.S.N. for twenty years, starting with his service on the steamer “Stag.”  The younger Withy started out with A.S.N. in 1868, serving as a fireman on the “Stag” under his father’s direction.  He soon secured his master’s license, allowing him to serve as captain of the Company’s several steamers.

A.S.N. President John Pretlow, commenting on Withy’s passing, said, “I have always held Captain Withy in the highest esteem.  I am in sorrow — as I would be for one of my own family.”   

At the time of his death, Withy’s survivors were his wife, the former Emma Gardner; his daughter, Lizzie (Mrs. W. R. Hayes) — with whom George and Mrs. Withy had made their home since moving from the old home in Isle of Wight County; his daughter, Mary (Mrs. Adolphus Ashburn Cutchin); and four grandchildren: Dr. George Withy Hayes, Miss Emma Cutchin, Miss Lizzie Mae Cutchin, and Adolphus Ashburn Cutchin, Jr.

Pretlow lived long enough to experience the demise of A.S.N. In 1929, the Company went out of business due primarily to the evolution of transportation from waterways to highways and trucks. Steamships were rapidly disappearing from the waterways of northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. Pretlow died in February 1933. 

Southampton County resident Adolphus Ashburn “Ash” Cutchin III, Withy’s great-grandson, has extensively researched the “Olive” story and provided much of the information used to tell the overall story of A.S.N.

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 magnolia101@charter.net.