While visiting relatives in LA (Lower Alabama) I came across a copy of Rufus Ward’s book The Tombigbee River Steamboats: Rollodores, Dead Heads, and Side-Wheelers. Ward takes a look at Alabama’s almost forgotten steamboat era from the 1840s to the 1880s, in which the steamboats plying the Mobile, Alabama, Warrior and Tombigbee rivers dominated the economic scene. From a humble beginning in 1818, by the 1850s the river boats transported cotton, goods, and passengers from one end of Alabama to the other. The focal point of the trade was Mobile, from where the cotton was transshipped to Europe and the rest of the world. Although the “floating palaces” carried the wealthy in luxury, the hazards were many—boats loaded with cotton sank on sandbars, shoals, and after hitting dead heads and snags; caught fire and blew up when the primitive boilers let go.
Ward relates the harrowing tale of the Eliza Battle, which sank on a frigid February night after catching fire. Much like the Sultana tragedy a decade later, many of those who survived the fire succumbed to hypothermia. Even to day, it is said, the ghost ship can still be seen on stormy winter nights, afire with the passengers shrieking for help.
I bought this not only for the history but because of a family connection. My ancestor’s family migrated from Maine to Eight Mile, Alabama (just outside of Mobile) some time in the 1850s. John Patten and his son Jason were shipwrights and apparently came to the area to work on the steamboats, which were then being built in places like the nearby Meagher Brothers shipyard. There he met my great-grandmother, whose brother is listed as a “steamboatman.” When the war came in 1861 Jason Patten signed up with the Confederacy and became a sharpshooter.
There is more on the steamboats in the Encyclopedia of Alabama. An interesting detail is one that Ward makes also (emphasis added):
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.
Well worth reading if you would understand the political economy of Alabama in the steam age. The period illustrations are worth the cost of the book.