Because its entry into the Union coincided with the beginning of the steam era and a period of rapid growth in river transportation in the United States, steamboats played an important role in the economic development of Alabama. Well into the twentieth century, the state had few modern roads, and those that existed were poorly maintained and often impassable in bad weather. Alabama was fortunate, however, in having an abundance of navigable rivers. The first steamboat to ply the rivers, the Alabama, was built in St. Stephens and launched in 1818 on the Alabama River.
Alabama's rivers quickly became major thoroughfares with the invention and widespread use of steam-powered river craft with shallow drafts (boats that can float in fairly shallow water) that could travel upstream against strong currents. River development in north Alabama was hampered by a series of hazardous cascades on the Tennessee River known as Muscle Shoals, which prevented the passage of vessels further upstream except during periods of high water or flood. South Alabama rivers had no such impediments; as a result, steamboat traffic flourished, particularly on the Alabama, Tombigbee, and Black Warrior rivers, all of which funneled into Mobile Bay. The state's most important towns developed along these navigable rivers, and Mobile, the largest metropolis, became known as the Port City. On the east side of the state, the Chattahoochee River created another north-south thoroughfare, opening up that side of the state to transportation and commerce.
Alabama steamboats were owned by companies and individuals throughout the nineteenth century. The earliest steamboat companies were the St. Stephens Steamboat Company, organized in 1818, the Steamboat Company of Alabama in 1820, and the Mobile Steamboat Company in 1821. By 1861, however, most boats on Alabama rivers belonged to Cox, Brainard & Company. In the antebellum period, slaves owned by the company or individual owners served as deck hands.
Steamboat transportation made possible the plantation-based cotton economy that flourished during the steam era and lasted from approximately 1820 to the end of the nineteenth century. The primary function of most steamboats was to carry as much cotton as quickly and as cheaply as possible from the interior of the state to the ports along the Gulf Coast. In antebellum Alabama, steamboats going downstream to Mobile stopped to load cotton bales at nearly 300 landings along the Tombigbee River and 200 more along the Alabama River. Ideally, cotton landings were located below high bluffs rising out of the river. Cotton warehouses were located on the top of the bluffs and were connected to the landings below by wooden slides. The men who worked at the top of the cotton slide were called "rolladores" and were usually slaves; whereas Irish immigrants typically made up the class of workers called stevedores, who performed the more dangerous jobs at the bottom; slaves were too valuable for such work. Numerous other landings dotted the rivers because steamboats had to stop frequently to take on firewood to stoke their boilers and keep up a good head of steam. On trips upstream, the same boats carried cargoes of sugar, coffee, food, clothing, household goods, farm supplies, and other similar products to merchants in towns up river. They also carried luxury items including fine furniture purchased by wealthy Alabamians in Mobile, New Orleans, Philadelphia, New York, and even abroad.
Most of Alabama's antebellum steamboats were side-wheelers. (Powerful but less maneuverable stern-wheelers became more common in the last quarter of the nineteenth century). Side-wheelers averaged about 200 feet long and 30 to 40 feet wide and were well suited to the state's narrow, shallow rivers. They were constructed of wood and were, in effect, little more than long barges with a steam engine, boiler, and paddle wheels located across the center.
Most steamboats featured several decks. The main deck was usually open and unobstructed (except for the cooking facilities and machinery) to accommodate as many cotton bales and stacks of firewood as possible. Cotton bales often were stacked in any available space on the upper decks as well, which inconvenienced passengers and created serious fire hazards. Second-class, or "deck," passengers were not assigned cabins and slept on the main deck wherever they could find a spot between cotton bales or stacks of firewood.
Above the main deck was a series of enclosed decks. The one immediately above it, the so-called "boiler deck," contained first-class passenger accommodations, including a long saloon that ran the full length of the deck. On both sides of this deck were small, sparsely furnished sleeping rooms equipped with bunks. Each compartment had two doors, one opening onto the outside gallery that traversed the entire deck and the other into the saloon that ran down the center of the deck. The saloon was the most comfortable area of the steamboat. Lighted by high windows and heated by wood burning stoves, saloons usually contained tables, rocking chairs, and sofas where passengers could relax, play cards, and read. They also functioned as the steamboat's dining room. To the rear of the saloon, separated by either folding doors or curtains, was the "ladies cabin."
Above the boiler deck was the hurricane deck, on which was located another row of cabins called the Texas, inhabited by the ship's officers. This deck was usually the same length as the boiler deck. Atop that deck was the pilot house, a much shorter deck, flanked by two tall iron smokestacks with ornamented tops that emitted sparks and huge clouds of sooty smoke.
It was often more comfortable and sometimes faster to travel by river than overland by stage. In 1850, the trip from Selma to Mobile by stage took three days and cost eight dollars. By boat, the same trip was two hours shorter but cost 10 dollars. It would have been considerably more comfortable for passengers, despite the ever-present danger of explosions and fire. Steamboat accidents occurred frequently, especially on the heavily traveled Alabama River. Boats often ran aground on sandbars, accidents that were annoying and sometimes resulted in long delays but that usually created only minor damage. Once aground, the steamer often could be towed back into deep water or, after passengers and freight were transferred to another vessel, simply left until high water refloated it. Snags and "sawyers" (a snag consisting of a log embedded in the river bottom that "sawed" back and forth in the current) were more dangerous because they could quickly rip gaping holes in the hulls of vessels. Even then, passenger casualties were rare because most of the state's rivers were so narrow that a skilled pilot could maneuver the boat to a nearby bank before it sank. Boiler explosions were the most dreaded accident because they often totally destroyed the steamboat and its cargo and because many passengers and crew members were either blown to bits, drowned, or horribly maimed by scalding steam.
River travel remained the most efficient mode of transportation in Alabama for some years after the Civil War. In the 1880s, with assistance from the federal government, the state's river systems were improved for boat traffic by dredging channels and removing snags. The addition of locks and dams on the shallow Black Warrior, Tombigbee, and Coosa rivers eventually made them navigable during the entire year rather than just during months of high water. Despite these improvements, the steamboat era slowly came to an end because of competition from railroads. As new railroad companies were created and thousands of miles of new steel tracks were laid, replacing the easily damaged wrought-iron rails of the antebellum period, railroads soon surpassed steamboats as the primary way to transport passengers and cargo throughout the state. Trains were faster, more direct, safer, and, most importantly, more economical than steamboats that had to follow the twisted and convoluted river systems to reach their destinations, which were limited to towns and cities located along the waterways. Ironically, by the time locks and dams were mostly completed on the major rivers in the second decade of the twentieth century, the steamboat era had essentially come to an end.
Advancements in transportation technology, including the perfection of the gasoline and diesel engines, more railroads and
faster trains, greatly improved roads, and air travel, caused steam-powered boats—once the most popular method of transporting
goods and passengers—to disappear from Alabama's rivers. The last major use of steam powered vessels on the state's waterways
was for snagboats. Owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since about 1900, these sternwheelers kept the channels
of rivers free from snags and other obstructions. When the Corps retired the U.S. Snagboat Montgomery in 1982, it was one of the last steam-powered snagboats to operate in the South. Now restored and designated a National Historic
Landmark in 1989, the Montgomery is docked at the Tom Bevill Visitor Center at Pickensville on the Tenn-Tombigbee waterway.
Frazer, Mell A. "Early History of Steamboats in Alabama." Alabama Polytechnic Institute Historical Studies 3 (1) 1-31.
Jackson, Harvey. Rivers of History, Life on the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Coosa and Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Mellown, Robert O. "Steamboat Travel in Early Alabama." Alabama Heritage 2 (Fall 1986): 2-11.
Robert O. Mellown
University of Alabama
Published September 30, 2008
Last updated August 12, 2013