Built For Dreaded Places

Published 12:03 pm Sunday, April 28, 2024

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Beauty, fish and recreation, these things kind of lull you into a sense of false security However, where the Flint River flows through Baker County, there exists some of the toughest waters to navigate on all of the river. Fraught with danger like shoals, sharp, jutting rocks and hidden hazards, all are lurking quietly below. These conditions have proven in the past that they can be deadly and that they can sink a boat in a heartbeat.

In one of the meanest stretches of the Flint River, water flows uncontrollably between Bainbridge and Newton and in several more places up onto the north. The closer you get to Newton, the more trouble you can get into, if you do not know the score. While shallow craft, such as canoes and kayaks, navigate successfully through this treacherous stretch, most of the larger craft find that they have entered into a mine field.

It’s these very conditions that exist on the Flint River, which make using this waterway for transportation unreliable in Baker County. Pity, because the river and her steamboats were a cheap form of transportation. Freight, which consisted of all types of cargo from bricks to cotton to fertilizer and fruit, hay, livestock, logs, and lumber resin, found their way to a variety of markets from this origin. Boats and barges docked at various points along the waterway with Newton and Chevertown serving as principal shipping ports.

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In spite of the challenges that the river represented, the steamboat was still the most popular form of transportation. To the people who lived on the Flint, the echo through the thick piney woods that announced the arrival of the steamboats at Newton, brought a flurry of activity. Everyone came to welcome and see these awesome vessels.

Summer time on the river was most popular with many groups which booked excursions down river. There would be music and dancing in time with the steady chug, chug of the paddle wheel as the boat wound its way slowly along the Flint.

The steamboat era lasted almost 111 years. During this time, many lives were lost as were many steamboats.  All and all, there were some 600 boats that were registered with many more lost in the passage of time, before records were accurately kept. Eventually, most steamboats did navigate up through the upper region of the Flint River. Some made it on a regular basis and some had to turn and go back down again. However, there were some steamboats that included this area as a part of what could be called a regular route. This was mainly because they were fairly successful in making it up these tricky waters. They were: the T. C. Drake, the Flint, the Jackson, the Lowell, the Mary, the Mary Emmeline, the Munnerlyn, the Newton, the Ramie Kay, and the White Rose.

In the time period between 1800 and early 1900, the steamboats were king. However, the river was not good to them. Many came to painful ends on our Flint River. Of course, ship wrecks of any kind hold an air of fascination. They never fail to stir the imagination and the Flint has contributed more than her fair share of these mishaps, some deadly. Reefs, sand bars and shallow channels have wreaked havoc on more than one unsuspecting steamboat.

Even in our modern time, there are still many places which are feared and most are in the waters flowing through Baker County. Starting up north, there is Squirrel Island, Tea Cup Shoals, Lucky Island Shoals, Ferguson Shoals, Sister Island, Buck Shoals, Dickerson Shoals, Rope Walk Rapids, Bull’s Shoals, Keating Shoals, Maple Chute, and ending with the worst, Hell’s Gate Shoals.

Very familiar to boaters in our area, Hell’s Gate has carried its reputation for being the worst obstruction with it as it passed along through time. It really does live up to its name. Try to picture this. A deep stream which is bordered by sharp, rocky shoals on both sides. As you get closer and closer, you will hear a sound somewhat like that of hissing steam. Sort of like the heat from hell is causing the water to boil. It is believed that this is caused by the devil’s own hot breath.

Daring to get closer and closer, you will see the water, swishing violently ahead. You are now ascending a part of the water way that is so narrow that the steamboats sometimes had to back up and start their way through this narrow place again. They had to start dead center so as not to get stuck in this maelstrom. Many a boatsman has said that the only captain that made it through this water and never had to back down, was the devil himself. This is Hell’s Gate.

Sometimes the fate of steamboats on the Flint River was unknown, especially in the early days when records were kept in a rather casual way. Sometimes the fate of a boat was never recorded leaving them shrouded in mystery. With this in mind, I thought today, we could talk about 5 steamboats that had uncertain endings, the “Lowell”, the “Mary Emmeline”, the “Mary”, the “Newton’, and the “T. C. Drake”. So, let’s board these steamboats and become acquainted with them. Maybe, we can solve the mysteries of their endings.

Let’s start with one of the very first steamboats to come up past Bainbridge. That would be the side wheeler, the “Lowell”. She was built in 1839 at Jeffersonville, Indiana. I could not find her dimensions but did find that she weighed 159 tons.

Under Captain Moore, the “Lowell” made her way down the east coast to the Apalachicola River. She took on her first cargo and went up river. However, on her way down, she had to dock at Iola, because of low water in March of 1840. When the water rose, she was able to go back to her home port at the city of Apalachicola, Florida. She was then assigned the route that was to be up the Flint River to Cheevertown, Georgia, then up the Chattahoochee River to Eufaula, Alabama. She was registered to have been in Columbus, Georgia, in 1843 and in Eufaula, Alabama, in 1844.

The “Lowell”, served as a rescue boat for those involved in the massive explosion which took place at what is now the site of the Woodruff Dam. The unfortunate steamboat was the “Siren”, whose boilers exploded killing 12 people and severely injuring many more.

After that, the “Lowell” was going up the Chattahoochee River from the explosion site to deliver her cargo of 600 bales of cotton when she hit the bottom at Rob Roy Shoals, just below Fort Gaines, Georgia, and sank. One third of her cargo was insured, one third was a total loss and one third was saved by the steamboat, “Augusta”. Nonetheless, the “Lowell” was considered a total loss. As with many of the early steamboats, I was not able to get a date for her demise.

In the early times of steam boating, the Flint River was serviced almost solely by boats owned by Nelson Tift. The “Mary Emmeline” was one of these vessels. She was built at Fort Gaines, Georgia, in 1836. She was 75 tons and was 90’ long by 15’ wide. She probably was a side-wheeler judging from her narrow width.

In January of 1837, Tift boarded the “Mary Emmeline” at Hell’s Gate Shoal and traveled to Apalachicola on business. Later in February, the “Mary Emmeline” brought a barge to Albany loaded with cargo. Tift then went by canoe down to Keating Shoals, which was down the Flint and above Hell’s Gate. Here, the “Mary Emmeline” had ran aground and could not be refloated.

All the hands on the boat were discouraged and felt that they could go no farther. However, with the arrival of Tift, some spirits were uplifted and these men believed that they could refloat the vessel. However, those of the crew that held on to the feelings that all was lost were discharged. After a week of work, the “Mary Emmeline” was once again afloat and pulling a barge, and succeeded in getting all the way up to Albany. After unloading her cargo, the she was then reloaded and sent down to Bainbridge where she took on more cargo. She then went down the Apalachicola River to the Gulf of Mexico, where she was refitted with new piping on her boilers. The “Mary Emmeline”, left Apalachicola on March 17th, 1837, went to Bainbridge and then again, up to Albany. Unfortunately, she once again went aground at her nemesis Keating Shoal, where she broke a boiler support.

The “Mary Emmeline” then finished her voyage to Albany a few days later. Next, she cruised up the Chattahoochee River and went to Fort Gaines for much needed repairs. After few weeks, she was sold. This was in 1838. I could not find out her fate. However, I did locate a note in a book that said, “She was used until she just wore out”.

All that I could find out about the “Newton” was in an article that appeared in an Albany newspaper. It was an account of what happened on December 7, 1881, when the “Newton” sank at Lucky Island which is north of the city of Newton. She got stuck between two boulders in such a way that it was believed that the boat could not be raised. Her Captain, Billy Sutton, took this accident quite hard. He was a very determined man who could not take no for an answer. So, when he was told that the “Newton” could not be raised, he set his energy towards doing all he could to prove that this was a wrong assumption. He was successful and brought her up, repaired her and put her back in service. Once again, she was working on the Flint, going between Albany and Newton and then on down Newton to Bainbridge.

However, the resurrection of the “Newton” did not last long as once again she sank when she scraped bottom while trying to navigate through Hell’s Gate. She came to rest down in the neighborhood of Fodder Stack Shoals, very near where the Ichauway Nochaway Creek empties into the Flint. The last mention of the “Newton” was that she was waiting to be repaired. However, there was no mention if these repairs ever happened.

Built in Bainbridge in 1908, by the Thronateeska Navigation Company, “T. C. Drake” was smaller than most sternwheelers, at 95 feet long and 23 feet wide. Nonetheless, she could hold 80 tons of freight. Described as a “pretty one” and “large enough to handle business” in the Bainbridge newspaper, she was very active. She was on the rivers in 1916. However, how long she kept her route and her final destinations are unknown. Some say she sunk on the Flint River but where seems to be a mystery

Lastly, we have the “Mary”. Built in Geneva, Alabama, she was 100 feet long and 19.3 feet wide and launched in 1907. Her destiny was to have the route on the upper Flint River. Built specifically for this, she could navigate around the obstructions and even go through Hell’s Gate.

Occasionally, she operated between Albany and Newton. However, try as hard as they could, her trips were irregular because of the fluctuations in the water of the Flint. The “Mary” was very popular with the ladies because they could board her at Newton, shop in Albany and stay overnight with friends and come home the next day.

The “Mary” was on her route between Albany and Newton until 1917, when she was sold. The new owners remodeled her and gave her a new route, on the Apalachicola River and over to St. Andrew’s Bay. Occasionally, she ran on the also treacherous, Apalachicola and the Chipola Rivers for they too, were fraught with very shallow spots and dangerous currents.

The “Mary” stopped making runs to St Andrews Bay in 1918, and was sold to the Thronateeska Navigation Company. Once again, her destiny became to run the Flint River.

The “Mary” was traveling on the Apalachicola when she hit a snag and tore open her hull. She sank near, Bristol, Florida. However, this sinking was a little bit different from that of other steamboats, in that it was rumored she was carrying one hundred barrels of whiskey. This sunken treasure was much sought after, especially during prohibition. Thus, the “Mary” did not rest peacefully in her watery grave.

Folks came from as far away as Chicago to try to bring up this treasure from the sunken boat. However, the “Mary” did not relinquish her cargo and for a long time her iron smoke stack could be seen above the river water as if to taunt those who wanted to “just come and try”.   

Next week we will learn about the ghost town that was just next to Bainbridge on the Flint River.