Steamboats Come to Georgia

We usually dedicate this space to the core mission of the museum by telling stories of the maritime history of the Civil War. A major aspect of that narrative is how transformative the war years were for life and war on the water. Admittedly, the before and after events are hidden and the true understanding of what happened along the Chattahoochee River during the mid-nineteenth century is dulled to the senses. In an effort to rectify that lack of perspective, here is a glimpse into some pre-war maritime history of Georgia.

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Steam power certainly changed the economy of Georgia during these years. In the modern age of cars, it is easy to forget that before the automobile the rivers were the great highways of movement. Before steam power, Georgia’s agricultural products were moved from the farmlands of the interior down the rivers to coastal areas by home-made barges that were broken up for firewood or building material after making the journey down the state’s rivers. These craft later found competition in pole-boats that could be taken back up-river by pushing these vessels with long poles.

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Interestingly, steamboats were slow to come to Georgia because of the success of Robert Fulton and his Clermont on the Hudson River in New York. After successfully running his new vessel in 1807, Fulton established a monopoly on the use of steamboats in New York waters and tried to extend this control over the waterways of all other states. He then later tried to sell the rights to use steamboats in other states. This monopoly and attempt at franchising was constantly under legal attack and eventually led to one of the most important Supreme Court cases of the early period of US history: Gibbons v. Ogden.

Wait! The Gibbons in this case is Thomas Gibbons from Savannah. Gibbons served three stints as mayor of Savannah before purchasing a summer home in New Jersey. There he got involved with an effort to develop steam transportation with Aaron Ogden in 1815. They originally operated under the Fulton monopoly, but Gibbons began running his own vessels. Lawsuits followed and ended with the Supreme Court weighing in on the matter in 1824. The John Marshall court ruled in favor of Gibbons by declaring Congress had the right to regulate interstate commerce, thus by extension, had the right to regulate navigation on the river systems. This legal decision led to the growth of steamboat use outside of New York waters. (It also didn’t hurt that Gibbons was represented by Daniel Webster.)

While these events were playing out in the courts, Samuel Howard of Savannah was able to obtain the exclusive right to operating steamboats in Georgia waters. Howard’s first vessel was the Enterprise, which was built in Savannah, but the engines and machinery were produced in Philadelphia. These were transported to Savannah and installed by engineers from the firm that built the engines. Enterprise made the first successful run between Savannah and Augusta arriving there on April 24, 1816.By 1835 there were more than twenty steamers running between Savannah and Augusta on a regular basis.

The late 1820s and the 1830s saw the addition of other Georgia rivers to the reach of steam power. As Columbus was being chartered as a town by the State of Georgia, efforts to reach the town by steam power were underway. The Steubenville arrived on February 22, 1828. By 1836, at least a dozen steamboats were making regular runs between Columbus and Apalachicola, Florida.

Steam power was not always safe. Mechanical failures and human error were always present. On January 28, 1854, the Eagle left Columbus with full cabins of passengers and 1300 bales of cotton. The next day as the vessel crossed the Florida border, heavy smoke began to emerge from the decks. The cause of the fire remains a mystery to this day, but the vessel was soon engulfed and was gone in about fifteen minutes. Four people lost their lives, all from the crew trying to save the passengers.

The Chattahoochee River also experienced war during 1836. During the effort to remove the Creeks from Georgia, steamboats were used as transportation for troops, supplies, and the Creeks. The Hyperion was fired on by Native Americans about eight miles south of Columbus. John Brockway, the pilot, was shot dead at the wheel. It took several minutes for the crew to regain some control to get it to the Georgia side of the river and safety. Two other crewmen were killed in the attack, but they were able to get the passengers to safety.

While this is only a taste of pre-Civil War maritime history of Georgia, these stories help put the abundant Georgia waters in greater perspective. At some point, we’ll take a look at some incidents after the war to create further understanding of these stories. Oh, by the way, the engines of the CSS Chattahoochee are now inside. Please stop by to take a closer look!

Jeff Seymour

Director of History & Collections