SAIL AND STEAM NAVIGATION
OF EASTERN CAROLINA
by F. ROY JOHNSON
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The First Steamboats
The New Bern Steamboat Company introduced the first steamboat to North Carolina waters. In 1817 the company purchased a steamboat at Norfolk, Virginia, for $53,000 and brought her to North Carolina. Named the Norfolk after her parent city, she arrived in New Bern on April 10, 1818, having come from Hampton, Virginia, by way of Cape Hatteras. She made the trip from Hampton to New Bern in 36 hours. Her fare from New Bern to Elizabeth City was advertised at $15.00 approximately the same as the stage between the two cities.
The National Intelligencer described her arrival in the following manner:
"The warm interest of our Citizens was strongly evinced by the throngs collected on every wharf, notwithstanding the rain, to welcome her approach. We were extremely gratified at the ease and elegance of her evolutions, under the skilled management of her pilot; and the handsome style in which she assumed her position at the wharf allot-ed for her rcception. We understand our citizens will be gratified for a day or two with the opportunity of inspect-ing her superb interior, and witnessing the very judicious management of Capt. Crocker in that department, after which will proceed to Elizabeth City."
The second steamboat to ply North Carolina waters was the Henrietta. She was launched April 30, 1818; the first of several steamboats to be built by Joseph Seawell, the holder of the monopoly for steam navigation on the Cape Fear River. She was named after her builder's daughter.
The third steamboat to operate in North Carolina was The Prometheus was launched on May 19, 1818. She was (built in) Beaufort by Otway Burns, a renown privateer captain of the War of 1812 who had taken up the trade of shipbui1ding. The Prometheus was launched on May 19, 1818. She was in use on the Cape Fear in late June that year. The Prometheus was thought to be owned by either Joseph Seawell or the Cape Fear Navigation Company. When she failed to best the current it was realized that she was a financial failure. She was abandoned in 1825.
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The Norfolk was a 222-tonner which her owners intended to ply between New Bern and Elizabeth City by way of settlements bordering Pamlico, Croatoan and Albemarle sounds. Her operation was not a profitable one. The total cargo of one trip amounted to only seven passengers and three horses. Reduction of trips from two to one didn't save her and neither reduction of fare to half for horses servants and children.
The Norfolk apparently was under powered as was many of the early steamers. She had some difficulty with high winds during its earlier sojourn at New Bern and being finally removed in 1832 for "indifferent engines."
The Henrietta, on the other hand, was remarkable, running forty years as a pioneer steamboat, a record for all North Carolina steamers. She was a side-wheeler which drew seven and a half feet of water. She was faster than most steamers. On one occasion she beat the Chatham from Fayetteville to Wilmington by two hours. Needless to say, she was one of the more profitable steamers to ply North Carolina waters.
The Albemarle, an eighty-tonner built in New York state in 1818 was intended to provide daily ferry service across the upper end of the Albemarle Sound on a two-hour run connecting Edenton and Plymouth, a distance qf twenty-one miles, in conjuction with stage lines. She was constructed to carry horses and carriages. Later her route was expanded to include Williamston and Elizabeth City, but after five months lack of partonage doomed the venture to failure.
On a voyage to Plymouth a sudden fracture of the massive crank linking the engines to the paddle wheels caused the Albemarle to capsize in 1821, and in 1822 the vessel was sold in 1822 to a Norfolk resident. Misfortune struck again in 1825 when she burned at Philadelphia.
The North Carolina, seventy-tons and built in Norfolk in 1830, was owned by the Virginia and North Carolina Transportation Company.
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A second steamer called North Carolina was built at Fayetteville in 1819 for use in South Carolina but was in operation from 1828 to 1838, when she was abandoned.
Another vessel, the Cotton Plant was operating on the Roanoke River in 1866.
New Bern transportation interests again sought to place a steamboat at that port in 1829, purchasing the Codorus, the first iron hulled vessel built in the United States. It had been built in 1825 for use on the Susquehanna River. It was to ply the thirty-five mile route between New Bern and Beaufort by way of the Clubfoot and Harlow Creek canal. It would float in two feet of water making it suitable for the shallow canals. It was abandoned in the 1830's due to lack of patronage.
A second steamer, the 142-ton Petersburg, appeared in New Bern in 1829. She was originally used on the Roanoke River by the Dismal Swamp Canal Company and later sold to the Virginia and North Carolina Transportation Company. In 1829 she was sent to New Bern because of low water on the Roanoke. After a few months she was returned to the Roanoke. She was finally sold as unsuitable for use on the Roanoke.
The North Carolina Sentinel gave an interting account of the experimental voyage made by the Petersburg on the Neuse River:
"The gallant steamer seemed to cleave to the dark blue waters, 'like a thing of life' and the glee and merry laugh, which pervaded her spacious decks, gave ample evidence of the gratification which her 'living cargo' felt. In one hour and five minutes, after she had left her moorings at the wharf, she had proceeded down the river 12 miles, thus sustaining her character for swiftness and expedition. We have seldom seen a steamboat whose motion was so little affected by the exercise and operation of her tremendous as this; and so great is the apparent security, that we lose sight of the novelty of our situation."
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Navigation of the Neuse River
Meanwhile interest developed in steam navigation on the Neuse River. The Neuse River Navigation Company, under the direction of John DeLacy reported in 1818 the removal of the principal obstructions between Stone's Mill and Smithfield. Yet the work to the Neuse amounted to little until the company was rechartered in 1850. As a result of failure to make improvements, steam navigation developed slowly.
The first boat on the river was the E. D. MacNair which made an experimental trip up the river in 1838. The steamer proceeded without obstruction or difficulty to Doherty's Bridge which was too low for her to pass under. The obstruction soon was remedied. On Febntary 21, 1839. the steamer proceeded upstream to Waynesboro, now a dead town near present Goldsboro.
In 1844 a second steamboat began navigating the Neuse between Waynesboro and New Bern, a distance of one hundred and twenty miles. The boat had an engine of thirty six horse power and drew twenty one inches of water. The trip was made in eleven hours. A short while afterwards it was noted that a steamboat had ascended as far as Smithfield.
The Rough and Ready, built in Hartford, Connecticut, was placed on the Neuse River in 1847, to navigate that river from New Bern to Smithfield. The boat was eighty feet long with "excellent cabin accomodations" and was commanded by Captain John Martin. This boat or others probably operated up to outbreak of the Civil War.
Meanwhile, in spite of the steamboats on the Neuse and the sounds, an extensive market was established at New Bern. During the year ending June 30, 1850, the number of clearances of vessels for foreign countries was thirty, carrying 3,643 tons and 183 seamen.
Ship building was active. During the same period there were four schooners, one ship and three steamers built in the district carrying 867 tons.
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Navigation of the Tar River
Steam navigation on the Tar River came a few years earlier than on the Neuse. In December 1835 the steamboat Edmund D. MacNair was launched at Washington, N. C., having been built by Tannanhill and Lavender of that place. She took a party of men and women on a pleasure excursion on January 15, 1836. By early spring with Captain Chamberlin in charge, she was making regular trips to Greenville. She made the trip of thirty miles to Greenville in five and one-half hours and returned to Washington in three.
Upon her first visit the citizens of the village of Tarboro greeted the E. D. MacNair warmly. Both the people and and cannons roared giving testimony of joy of the large crowds.
"The public spirited and enterpnsing proprietors gave a general invitation to the citizens to take a short excursion on the steamer, which was gladly accepted. A large number of ladies and gentlemen were hospitably received on board, and the steamer went down the river as far as Sparta and returned. The day was uncommonly pleasant, and music, dancing, and refreshments gave zest to entertainment which will long be remembered by the joyous and highly gratified company."
After rumaing about a year on the Tar River this vessel was tranlsferred to the Neuse. The Petersburg and North Carolina were among the first steamboats to serve on the Tar River. Built in New York state and launched March 11, 1819, the 142 ton Petersburg was a side wheeler. After nine years in Virginia, she was purchased for $15,000 by the Virginia-North Carolina Transportation Company and put on the Roanoke River. During a period of low water sho was transferred to the Tar.
In order to meet the challenge of shallow water a new boat, the North Carolina, was built. Launched on December 1, 1829, at Ryan Gale Shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia the "elegant boat" was sent to the Roanoke. She, too, drew too much water, and after a short while was transferred to the Tar.
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However, this early venture in the steamboat business was a failure.
In order to improve the river for steamboats, the General Assembly of 1846 appropriated $25,000 for such purposes.
In 1848 the Tar River Steamboat Company was formed and purchased the Edgecombe to go between Tarboro and Washington.
The first boat assigned permanently to the river was the Amidas. On October 27. 1849 she made htstory when she set out from Washington to Tarboro, pulling four flats loaded with goods for Tarboro merchants.
When the plank road was completed between Greenville and Wilson in 1852, the Governor Morehead was put on the river. Her main job was to meet the stage at Greenville's landing. Another important link in the flow of river commerce was the opening of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal in 1859. This canal was quite an improvement over its predecessor, the Dismal Swamp Canal. Now large steamers could come to Washington to meet the narrow draught vessels coming down the Tar.
Navigation of the Roanoke River
Steam navigation on the Roanoke River began earlier the on either the Tar or the Neuse. Navigation on this river was extensive, and drew the trade of farmers and merchants of the Roanoke region to the Virginia markets. Because of the uncertainty of river conditions much of the Roanoke's trade was carried to Elizabeth City and Norfolk on schooners and other small craft but when river conditions permitted, steamboats were used.
The Roanoke Steamboat Company was chartered in 1826. The act of incorporation "authorized the building of a steamboat, to be used on the river Roanoke, and the waters of Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. . ."
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Greatly improved navigation upon the Roanoke River was made by the company in 1829. It employed eight vessels in transporting produce between Weldon and Norfolk. They were used as tow boats after steamboats were placed on the river. The cost of transporting goods was greatly reduced through steam navigation.
The Civil War brought an end to the promising river trade. When Washington fell, the two or three boats up the river were put in military service. When Potter's raid hit Tarboro they burned the Governor Morehead and Post Boy.
When the war ended the steamboats made a slow comeback. In 1869 Captain Hatten put the Cotton Plant on the river. She was a "small insufficient boat," a stern wheel-er. She had served as a Confederate tender to the ram Albemarle during the battle of Plymouth.
By 1872 the Tar River Transportation Company was operating three boats on the Tar. They were the Greenville, the Edgecombe, and the Tarboro.
The Greenville is said to have been the most famous boat ever to operate on the river. This boat, under command of Captain Mayo, was the "fastest and most attractively equipped ever placed on the river and only one to have had a purser."
In 1880 the river boats began to feel the effects of the railroads. First to leave the because of this was the Edgecombe. This boat could carry 220 bales of cotton and accomodate 60 passengers. But in spite of the competitian with the railroads, another new boat was placed on the Tar. This was in 1887 and the boat was the Beta, owned by Captain Styron. As the new boat came on, one of the old standbys came to an end. In 1888 the tired old Cotton Plant made her final trip to a spot above Old Sparta in Edgecome County.
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Decline of Steamboat Traffic
Resumption of normal stemboat traffic after the Civil War was complicated by the large number of river obstructions built by Confederate authorities. As federal forces captured coastal areas the obstructions were constructed to ha1t Union raids upriver in Confederate territory. These included pilings, sunken sailing vessels and Yankee catchers. The Yankee catcher was a log crib filled with stones, supporting a sharpened iron shod timber placed at an angle to as impail an intruding vessel.
One finds Captain W. H. James of Wilmington employed to remove obstructions which he put down during the Civil War. The Weekly Star of Wilmington cited this as an odd coincidence.
The problem of obstructions was often a considerable one. Over two miles of obstructions comprising 18 ships, several barges and numerous pilings and other devices were removed from the Neuse River below New Bern during this period. Other wrecked vessels upriver had to be removed.
Traffic was soon resumed on the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal connecting Norfolk and the North Carolina sounds. The shallower Dismal Swamp Canal suffered patronage losses.
The recovery was slowed by a depression in agricultural commodity prices and the 1871-73 business slump. After the depression commerce experienced a much more extensive growth.
The steamboat Olive, which had been placed on the Tar and Pamlico rivers in 1868, was sold after 18 months operation to the Old Dominion Line of steamers. The Old Dominion Line, which operated the Olive and other vessels between Tarboro and Norfolk, replaced the Olive in 1875 with a larger steamboat, the Pamlico. Two years later the line added the Newberne in the same general area to handle the continued increase in shipping traffic. In 1881 the Corps of Engineers noted six to eight steamboats on the upper Neuse.
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Such prosperity was not to continue for long. The railroads, with expanding lines, began to take more of the business. Heavy users operated their own boats. In the 1890s the gasoline engine was used in smaller boats. It did not require a licensed engineer. This gave it a consider-able advantage. All contributed to the woes of the steam- boat.
The Old Dominion Line
The Old Dominion Line, a Virginia company, was the only large firm to operate steamboats in North Carolina. Its steamers operated only in the northern half of the state's coast. It survived long past its smaller competitors since it hand1ed a considerable portion of the less difficult and more profitable Chesapeake Bay traffic.
The Albemarle Steam Navigation Steamers
The Albemarle Steam Navigation Company, with headquarters in Franklin, Virginia, over a life span of about ninety years operated no less than twenty-two steamers upon waters of northeastern N. C. Five of these, the Curlew, the Fox, the Leonora, the Schultz and the Stag were in operation before the Civil War. The company introduced its Old Dominion Line with the purchase of the screw steamer Olive in 1869.
The first A.S.N. steamer was the Fox with Captain John Middleton at her helm. Late 1835 she was brought down from New York to run between the Blackwater River at the present site of Franklin to Edenton.
She was described as "a neat and handy little boat with good traveling accomodations."
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In 1856 one finds Port Crayon (David Hunter Strother) taking the steamer Stag from Blackwater Station to Edenton. The train which had transported him from Suffolk left him amidst a dark forest which soon was interrupted by the Blackwater River, "a narrow, black ditch, embanked with tangled bushes and cypress-knees, and overarched completely with trees clothed in vines and hanging moss."
In 1866, Albemarle Steam Navigation Company purchased the steamer Ella, the largest and speediest boat ever in these waters up to that time. During the war the Ella, operated by private individuals, had been used to run the blockade which the Federal navy had established. A side-wheeler, and with a hull shaped for speed, the Ella was eminently suited for the hazardous game of running the blockade between Wilmington, N. C. and Hamilton or St. George in the Bermuda islands. In 1859 the iron hulled Curlew was put on the route. During the Civil War the Curlew was taken from its owners by the Confederate government which armed the vessel. In the naval engagement off Roanoke Island in 1862 the Curlew ventured too near enemy's vessels and was sunk by a shell from one of the Federal gunboats. The vessel's crew escaped unharmed and returned home.
After the Yankees gained possession of northeastem North Carolina, the Stag was placed across the channel of the Blackwater River aout 100 yards upstream from the wharf and sank. Two small steamers, the Emma and the Arrow were brought up fdim northeastern North Carolina and sank where they were tied to the wharf. At the close of the war the little vessels were raised and the machinery of the Stag was salvaged.
After termination of the war the Albemarle Steam Navi-gation effected a partial reorganization and puichased the Ella, a large and fast boat. During the war the Ella, operated by privates individuals, had been used to run the blockade along the Atlantic coast. She was a side-wheeler of about 300 tons, 170 feet in length, drawing seven feet of water.
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She was eminently suited for the hazardous game of running the Federal gauntlet between Wilmington, North Carolina, and Hamilton or St. George in the Bermudas.
In 1868 the Isadora and in l871 the Lota were added to the A.S.N. fleet. The rapidly expanding traffic in both freight and passengers forced the company to provide additional facilities to handle it, and resulted in building of the 400-ton Chowan.
For a few years the Clyde Line, with headquarters in Franklin, Virginia, with six steamers offered competition to the Albemarle Steam Navigation Company. In 1876 the Clyde Line withdrew leaving the old strong line without opposition.
In addition to these there were several privately owned steamers. Among these was the Calumet, a small boat owned and operated by James Hill of Murfreesboro, North Carolina. She carried mail and light freight between the railroad at Tunis and Murfreesboro by way of the Chowan and Meherrin river.
The Calumet hit a snag and sank on the Meherrin River at the lower end of a treacherous bend called Devil's Elbow. She was never raised.
Plying between Franklin and Murfreesboro on the Meherrin River the Lota made daily trips, carrying both freight and passengers. Of shallower draft than the Chowan or the Lota, the Silver Wave and the Keystone carried freight not only on the Blackwater and the Chowan but also on Bennetts Creek as far GatesviIle and on the Wiccacon River to Harrellsville.
Albemarle Steam Navigation Company steamers before 1862 were the Fox, Stag, Curlew, Leonara, and Schultz.
Those operating between 1866 and 1924 were the Appomattox, Aurora, Carolina, Chowan, Clio, Edenton, Ella, Franklin, Haven Belle, Hertford, Isadore, Keystone, Lota, Olive, Oriole, Silver Wave and Virginia.
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Steamers of the rival Clyde Line were these side-wheelers: Gypsy, Helen Smith, John Stiles, Lemokin, Pamlico and Seabird.
Albemarle Steam Navigation shipmasters 1835-1861 were: Captain John Middleton of Berkley, John Keeling of Suffolk, Thomas Bernard of Magnolia, Hiram Freeman of Winton.
Shipmasters 1866-1933 were: D. Leefler of Baltimore, Thomas I. Burbage of Franklin, E. Jester of Murfrees-boro, Andrew Ainsworth of Massachusetts, William Thrower of Portsmouth, George H. Withy of Franklin, Charles Jester and Frank Jester of Murfreesboro, D. Mathias of Norfolk, J. C. Williams of Murfreesboro, William G. Smith of Suffolk, and W. R. Hayes of Franklin.
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The Terrible Storm
Line Drawing by Eugenia Johnson
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The Terrible Storm
Before arrival of the steamboat travel by sail upon the North Carolina sounds was hazardous.
Upon making a voyage in 1712 from New Bern to Virginia Baron DeGraffenried experienced such danger. It took ten days to make the trip where two had been anticipated.
The Baron's voyage started with fine weather and a favorable wind. But it did not last long; it was not very happy for ". . . already in the evening, when we were at the outlet of the river and at the point of entering the sound, something remarkable happened. After sunset, at the top of the mast appeared a little fire, about the size of a big candle's flame, which made about the same noise as an ascending rocket; it lasted about one good quarter of an hour, and we were looking on with great attention and suzprise. We asked the patron of the vessel what it meant; he answered that it did not mean anything good, and that before night, we should have a great and dangerous storm, that accordingly we ought to sail towards land, in order to find some shelter, -- but, not paying attention to his warnings I told him with a smile, to go on. He had hardly gone for a league, when suddenly the wind changed and became so violent, that, night being near, we were glad to see some land in view, in order to draw nearer and cast anchor. We had hardly been able to land, when such a terri-ble storm arose, that we had remained on the Sound, we should certainly have been lost on the sand banks which are found in it."
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Prepared by John McGowan and Other Descendants of Carolina Watermen
Carolina Work Boats Project