ALBANY — I don’t believe anyone would dispute the fact that in southwest Georgia, cotton was king for most of the 20th century, shaping the landscape and population of the region to this day. This being said, the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin was cotton’s queen.
Many people living here today are unaware that in the early 1800s, this area was then the western frontier of an expanding nation. In 1818, Andrew Jackson was riding high after his recent defeat of the British at New Orleans and was charged with securing this frontier region for settlement.
This was not an easy task as the Spanish had successfully allied themselves strongly with the Creek Indians living here, using them them as a buffer against English and American expansion. A number of trading companies were established to trade with the Creek & Seminoles.
The first use of the Apalachicola River by actual ships was initiated during the War of 1812 when England attempted to divert pressure on Canada with a series of diversions in Florida. In this effort, they sought to create an alliance with the Native Americans and escaped slaves living in the region. In 1813, a war party of Creeks killed more than 500 settlers at Fort Mims. In retaliation, Jackson killed more than 800 Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
For a decade, the region was in constant turmoil as the Creeks tried to retain their lands and Spain struggled to hold on as well. In 1821, Spain ceded Florida to the United States, placing the mouth of the ACF in American control and opening up 450 cumulative miles of water for navigation. St. Marks, Fla., on the banks of the Apalachicola and one of the oldest settlements in the New World, was established as the “port of entry” for these tributaries in an effort to discourage smuggling.
Within a year, 266 bales of cotton had been sent down the waterways by cotton box. A two-masted brig, William & Jane, left the port bound for New York with the cotton loaded aboard. This was the first recorded shipment of cotton from the port. It would not be the last.
The settlement of the ACF basin was spurred by the Treaty of Indian Springs in 1825 when Chief William McIntosh and five other chiefs of the Lower Creeks agreed to cede all Muscogee lands east of the Chattahoochee, including their sacred site at Ocmulgee, for an equivalent portion of land along the Arkansas River. They would also receive $200,000 in cash to move to this unimproved area. McIntosh received an additional $200,000 for his role in the negotiations, money he did not spend, as he was murdered by other Muscogee Creeks who rejected the treaty.
With the opening of the ACF to commercial traffic, towns and villages began to appear along the banks. Initially barges, cotton boxes and drift boats carried cargo downstream, using the current for propulsion. Returning trade goods were carried upstream along the riverbanks by pack animals and wagons.
This changed dramatically when, on April 24, 1827, the steamboat Fanny, under command of Capt. John Jenkins, left Pensacola, Fla., to see how far he could navigate up the ACF. He reached Ft. Gaines by the end of July after clearing a 20-foot-wide path through fallen trees and snags. Later that year, he journeyed up the flint as far as Bainbridge.
On Jan. 28, 1828, the Fanny became the first steamboat to arrive at Columbus, situated on the Fall Line of the Chattahoochee.
To give some perspective to the size of these early steamers, Fanny was built in New York in 1823. She was 89 feet long and a little over 17 feet wide. She was registered as an 88-ton ship. Like most ships of her kind, she traded hands rapidly and worked on several waterways during a brief but active career. Interestingly one of her early owners was Cornelius Vanderbilt who would build his fortune on water and rail transportation.
A race of sorts began to open the fertile land long the ACF to the axe and plow, as well as expand and improve the river passages. Cotton would become the measure of this success. In 1828, 496 bales were recorded leaving the port at Apalachicola. The next year 1,200 bales were shipped, and in 1830 5,000 bales were recorded at the pier.
“There are now 75 excellent and permanent framed buildings, all of which, with more than one or two exceptions, are occupied,” The Columbus Enquirer reported on Feb. 27, 1830. There were two hotels and the town’s population was recorded as 1,261.
In 1832, commerce in Columbus, driven by the traffic on the Chattahoochee River, “has been of such infinite advantage that it may already be called a flourishing town. However, it is still a town on the frontier, the manners of the people were uncouth …The proximity to Indian Territory on the other side of the river contributed not a little to the toleration of inhabitants of a certain number of loose persons … Opposite to the town on the Alabama shore, a number of dissolute people had founded a village. Scarcely a day passed without some human blood being shed in its vicinity. As soon as the Indians have retired from this part of the country, and the state of Alabama can enforce the observance of her laws, even in the remotest of her district … not until then will Columbus see her own population happy and tranquil.”
The Anna Calhoun arrived in Columbus with the news that between 3,000 and 5,000 Creeks were rallied near Uchee, a town 20 miles below Columbus. There were 1,500 troops deployed in Columbus, 700 at Irwinton and more than 200 at Fort Gaines in an effort to bring safety and stability to the region.
In 1836, the governor of Alabama, encouraged by land speculators in Columbus, ordered General Winfield Scott to draft 2,000 men to be held ready to act against the Creeks should the need arise. Ultimately, the Creeks were removed from their homeland and relocated in Oklahoma, suffering a journey that became known as The Trail of Tears.
During the same year, 25-year-old Nelson Tift found a way to extract himself from his financial struggles in Augusta when he was offered a clerkship with the firm of Gordon & Kimberly to buy cotton and sell groceries in Hawkinsville. During this period, he played an important role in removing the Creek Indians from the region. Their ultimate removal was accomplished though the pivotal victory in the Chickasawachee Swamp.
In September, Tift entered into a partnership with five others to form “Rawls, Tift & Company” to establish a town in Baker County at the headwaters of the Flint River. This was to be one of the most fertile areas for the production of cotton east of the Mississippi River. Unlike other agricultural expansions the one in southwest Georgia was dominated by big planters instead of small farms. It was truly an era of slash-and-burn agricultural expansion. Cotton was fast becoming king and the driving force to increase transportation options to get the crop to market.
Albany was named after the city at the head of navigation on the Hudson River, then celebrating its sesquicentennial. The goal from the beginning was to establish a trading center utilizing the Flint as a trade route to Apalachicola. At the same time plans were underway to utilize the ACF riverways for transportation, entrepreneurs were also developing plans to connect river landings to inland sites by rail.
As freight on the ACF increased, the main channel at Apalachicola was dredged to allow vessels drawing up to 12 feet to enter. In 1837, a British sea captain announced his intent to establish direct trade to the port of Liverpool, England. Liverpool would become the favored destination for cotton from the ACF. The returning ships brought manufactured trade goods to the region.
In 1838 Nelson Tift bought the Edwin Forrest and two barges. Traveling to Apalachicola he bought $2,000 worth of merchandise. Twelve days later the goods were delivered in Albany. The goods going upstream ranged from clothing, Havana coffee, salt, sugar, flour, rope, silks and other “finery.” Although cotton was the main commodity going downstream, steamers also carried animal hides and turpentine along with some produce to the waiting boats in Apalachicola.
More than 200 boats are recorded to have traveled the ACF, with the majority being built on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Only eight boats were built in Apalachicola. The majority of boats were designed to have a length six times their width. They generally drew a foot of water for every 33 feet in length.
A typical 120-ton boat would average 140 feet in length and 23 feet in width with a depth of 4 feet. It could carry its own weight in cargo and only draw 30 inches when loaded. The cost to have such a boat built was $15,000.
The draft of the steamers was critical to potential profit. Wider boats were popular due to their shallow draft, allowing them to operate during dry months and to carry cargo farther upstream during dry months. Early steamboats went up the Flint as far as Montezuma. Eventually the risk outweighed profit, and Albany was acknowledged as the headwater.
Cotton boxes would continue to serve the shallower upper reaches of the ACF moving cotton downstream. They would also continue on the ACF basin as a whole due to factors including cost and risk. When the boxes reached Apalachicola, they were broken apart and the lumber was sold.
The majority of steamers on the ACF were sidewheelers, in light of the fact that a sternwheel drive boat was more likely to be destroyed in the strong shallow currents on the river system. This failure was known as “hog backing,” where the ship breaks in half due to the excessive weight of the boilers and stern wheel in the rear half of the boat. Steamboats on the ACF were diverse in design ranging from the most spartan cargo vessel to those with grandiose parlors and cabins.
In 1837, 32,291 bales of cotton were delivered to the Apalachicola. There were 72,232 bales recorded in 1840, and 1845 saw this figure more than double at 153,392 bales. This was the port’s pinnacle. In 1850 steamboats brought 130,240 bales to the port. However, this was only 80% of the region’s production of 163,392 bales.
The following decade would see three years of drought and the expanding railroad options in the region. By 1860, the port recorded 133,079 bales, a mere 43% of the regions 303,841 bales.
The hazards on the ACF made for high insurance rates. Snags punctured hulls, sinking many ships. Boilers exploded almost routinely, and if that wasn’t enough, embers from the ship’s stacks frequently ignited the dry cotton stacked on the decks, creating a water-born inferno. A lack of safety equipment, faulty construction and inexperienced crews added to the recipe for disaster. Comparisons of rates charged during the period show that insurance companies considered the ACF to be the most hazardous waterway in the nation.
On March 24, 1850, a disaster on the H.S. Smith highlights the danger. The ship caught fire on her trip from Columbus to Apalachicola. Two passengers and two deckhands drowned. Fire engulfed the ship so rapidly it could not go ashore. Of the cargo of 1,015 bales, only three were salvaged. Gen Irwin, one of the passengers lost, was a wealthy planter returning home with the proceeds from the sale of his crop, $8,000 in gold. When the alarm was sounded, he hastily seized his bag of gold and jumped overboard, instantly sinking and, sadly, proving you can take it with you.
During the War Between the States, several steamboats continued to ply the ACF, generally under a lease arrangement with the Confederacy. However, by 1861 the port would be blockaded and no longer of service to the Southern cause.
The first steamer to arrive in Albany after the war was the White Rose, with a cargo of salt, whiskey, oysters, fish and oranges. She had anticipated traveling back with cotton on board, but for financial reasons the local planters were once again relying on cotton boxes. She did take 700 bales on board, but on the return struck a rock and sank. Her 100 passengers were not injured.
Although traffic would continue on the ACF until the 1920s, it was in a downward spiral following the war. In 1915, the Albany was serving as a dredge and snag boat for the Corps of Engineers in a dwindling effort to make the Flint more viable. However, during that year, only three steamboats operated on the river. Interestingly, while canoeing down the Flint in the mid-60s, I observed the Albany sitting on the eastern bank of the Chattahoochee just below the locks at Lake Seminole.
The ACF has numerous landings that trace their roots back to the glory days of the steamboats. Logs showing landings and distances along the ACF show more than 200 sites where steamers were able to pull over to load or off-load goods and passengers. The charts of the rivers and maps also bear the names of many sandbars and sites where these ships met their demise.
Just south of Albany, Viola Bend and Cotton Box Shoal testify to this. The remains of the Viola were visible close to Riverside Cemetery until they were scavenged in the 1960s. Just south of there, what was originally believed to be the remnants of a cotton box are exposed during extremely low water. Interestingly, investigations by local divers indicate that the current wreckage contains metal fixtures inconsistent with a cotton box. David Dixon said he believes that it is actually the remains of the Bessie Clary, a steamer reported to have sunk near the location.
The eventual construction of a Southern railroad system brought the end to Steamers on the ACF. However, the impact they had is still reflected in the region today.