The Coosa River flows from the north-western area
of Georgia at the city of Rome, down into north eastern Alabama
and on to central Alabama where just above Montgomery it flows
into the Alabama River.
The U.S.M. Coosa
The first steamboat to ply the waters of the Coosa
River was appropriately named the COOSA
On July 4, 1845 that gallant little steamer, Captain
James Lafferty commanding, came 'round the bend below what
is now Gadsden.
The Coosa had been built at Cincinnati,
had been steamed down Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans,
through inland passages of the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile, and up
the Mobile, Alabama and Coosa rivers to Wetumpka.
At Wetumpka she had been taken apart and hauled
piecemeal on heavy wagons drawn by oxen over wretched roads to
Greensport, where she had been reassembled and made read for the
Evidently she was a very small boat and very crude.
Whether or not she carried a small cannon to announce her presence
as she steamed up the river, as was the custom of steamboats of
those early days, is not known. But the fact that a steam propelled
boat was on the way upstream brought settlers to the river for
At Double Springs (now Gadsden), a tiny relay station
on the stage line from Rome to Huntsville, a motley crowd from
the mountains and valleys gathered to meet the boat. Many of them
were clad in frontier garments , with caps of coonskin, the tail
hanging down the back. The Coosa landed at Walkers Ferry (later,
Hampton's ferry and Ewing's Ferry, and now the place where River
street intersects the Coosa River).
The steamer had a contract to carry the mail from
Greensport to Rome, and on the sides of the engine house was painted
U.S.M. Coosa. Since only a few of the assembled crowd could
read and write, one very consequential and highly educated patriarch,
Squire Bogan of Cedar Bluff, volunteered to give the assemblage
the benefit of his learning. "Let's see" he said, " U.S.M. usem,
C double-o-s-a, Susie,--yes, boys I've got it! 'Usem Susie.'"
The name was not so inappropriate and by many of the inhabitants
the Coosa was known by no other name for a long time.
Planters up and down the river were quick to use
steamboat transportation to haul their products to market and
the traffic tendered the little Coosa was enormous. She
could handle only a small fraction of it.
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Civil War Riverboats
During the War Between the States, on Sunday May
3, 1863, Rome was in a state of great excitement. John Wisdom
arrived at night to warn the citizens that Colonel Streight and
his raiders were headed for the city, intent on destroying it
and the munitions factory located there.
The steamers Laura
made a quick getaway, lest they fall into the hands of the Yankees.
Later these boats were active in transporting Confederate soldiers,
Yankee prisoners, and supplies of the South to the railroad at
Rome. Thus was the Coosa Valley able to furnish much of its production
of food and clothing and iron for the armies of General Braxton
Bragg and General Joseph E. Johnstone.
General William T. Sherman, in a chase after Joseph
E. Johnston from Dalton to Resaca, sent General J.B. McPherson
with the 14th and 16th Corps, U.S. Army, to invest Rome and capture
the steamers Laura Moore and Alphfretta then in
port. They were badly needed to maintain his lines of communication.
Advance scouts planted artillery on the hill on which Shorter
College is now located and on May 17, 1864 an artillery duel began
with Rome's defenders across the river.
The two steamers hastily raised steam; bales of
cotton were stacked around the boilers and engine house and pilot
houses and the Alphfretta, Captain
Cummins Lay at the wheel, steamed down the Coosa under cover
of darkness, closely followed by the Laura
Moore. But the muffled exhaust of the engines and sparks
from the smokestacks were detected by the Yankees who opened fire
on the steamers. Many solid shot from the cannon struck the two
boats, but the bales of cotton saved them and they were able finally
to reach Greensport, the foot of navigation on the Coosa.
Here they remained, daily expecting capture by the
Yankees. Heavy rains set in, however, raising the crest of the
Coosa sufficiently to enable the two steamers to navigate the
treacherous shoals, pass over the reefs downstream and reach Steamboat
Island, near Wilsonville, where the Alphfretta was moored.
The Laura Moore continued her journey and reached Mobile,
where Captain Lay delivered her to the Confederate authorities.
His feat in steering the Laura Moore through the
dangerous rapids of the Coosa will doubtless stand as the most
daring exploit ever attempted on any river in Alabama. Later Laura
Moore returned to Steamboat Island and tied up alongside the
Alphfretta and at the conclusion of the war, Captain
J.M. Elliott Sr., who was the principle owner of the two boats,
found both in good condition and when protracted rains raised
the river to high water, steamed then up river to Rome.
For more on riverboats in the Civil War :
Articles on Riverboats and the Civil War
Cotton Clad Gunboat
Bits and Pieces About Riverboats in the Civil War
Diary of a Confederate Mail
Letters From Three Soldiers
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Post War Riverboats
Steamboat building at once assumed large proportions
and unheard-of-profits were said to have been derived from their
operation Some of the early boats returned to their owners net
profits equaling two or three times their costs in one year. Huge
earnings continued up to the outbreak of the War between the States.
Since freight rate regulations were unknown, boat operators were
free to make their own rates and the planters were glad to pay
the price. The day of the slow, expensive method of handling freight
by raft and flatboat was at an end.
In the early 1840's the railroad from Charleston
to Atlanta was begun and by 1845 had connected those two cities.
In 1851 the line was complete to Chattanooga , thus creating for
the Coosa River valley markets in Chattanooga, Atlanta and Savannah.
Rome became a great cotton market, and the Coosa River steamboats
benefited immeasurably by that city's rail connections.
After the War Between the States the Coosa River
Valley, like the rest of the South, was prostrate. Steamboating
was recovering slowly, but surely, however.
In 1873 six boats plied the Coosa, bring 30,000
bales of cotton to Rome in a single season. The steamer
Undine, arriving at that
time, listed as its cargo 357 bales of cotton, 40,000 shingles,
625 pelts, 50 cowhides, 50 baskets of poultry, 200 bushels of
corn, 250 bags of wheat, and 27 passengers.
Of the thirty-seven steamboats which plied the Coosa,
the finest was the Magnolia
(More on MAGNOLIA). Close behind her was
P. Smith, Joel
J. Seay, Clifford
B. Seay and Alabama.
also was a beautiful boat, but she was a government steamer used
only in connection with construction work, building locks and
dams and handling dredges for improving channels.
(More on the LEOTA below)
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Steamboats In General
A majority of Coosa River steamboats had model bows
(that is, they were gracefully curved) and square sterns. With
two exceptions all were sternwheelers. The larger and finer boats
averaged 150'length and 28' beam with perfectly flat bottoms to
facilitate navigating in shallow water. They were equipped for
pushing barges, which is some instances almost doubled their cargo
handling capacity. They had special rigging for towing immense
rafts of saw-logs upstream to lumber mills in Rome and Gadsden,
and for threescore years the logging industry was the source of
much revenue for the steamboats. The small steamers had square
bows, enabling them to push small barges loaded with freight.
These small boats were pushed in the upper reaches of the Oostanaula
and Coosawattee above Rome. All boats handled passengers as well
as freight. Mail was carried between Rome and Greensport. The
boats making two round trips per week.
A number of steamboats had splendidly appointed
staterooms. The lounge, fitted with easy chairs, settees and a
piano, was located on the upper deck facing the bow. This was
the gathering place of the first class passengers on their way
to Rome or to Gadsden on shopping expeditions.
Frequently, a fiddler would be on board and he
and a pianist supplied music for dancing, as the graceful steamer
made her way through the night, her bright lights reflecting on
the water. The dining room served meals which cannot be duplicated
today. Country produce of all kinds was abundant and could be
bought at most reasonable prices. In addition, wild duck, goose
and quail were common items on the menus and frequently venison
would be served. Fish was abundant and cheap.
Many passengers consisting of trappers, loggers
and others desiring passage only would be accommodated on the
lower deck not taken up by freight. They supplied their own meals
and bedding. All the early boats used wood for fuel and the yards
along the river were kept well supplied with cordwood by planters
residing nearby. Often, at night passengers on a remote landing
would flag the boat with a torch made of rich pine. The pilot
would reply with three blasts of the whistle, stop, take on the
passengers and resume the journey.
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The most sensational event in the peacetime history
of steamboating on the Coosa occurred in the middle 1870's and
involved the Magnolia
and the Sidney
The latter had been built for the avowed purpose
of capturing a part of the traffic enjoyed by the Magnolia.
She was thirty feet shorter than her competitor and when she passed
through shallow water she settled and her stern dragged the bottom.
(DRN Note She was modeled after vessels on the Mississippi and,
hense was ill suited for the waters of the Coosa)
The Magnolia being an unusually long craft with
corresponding width, glided over the shoals "like a moccasin."
Competition between the two boats was fierce. Major
W.P.Hollingworth was scheduled to ship 150 bales of cotton from
Gadsden to Rome, via the Magnolia. Landing in Gadsden late
in the afternoon, the captain of the Magnolia told Capt.
M.E.Pentecost, Sr. veteran steamboat accountant and agent
at Gadsden, that he would drop down to Greensport and unload a
large cargo destined to that landing, but would return next morning
and pick up the Hollingsworth cotton.
Upon his return the captain found that the Sidney
P. Smith had taken it. Securing an order from Major Hollingsworth,
the captain ordered full steam ahead in an effort to overtake
his competitor which had been gone more than two hours. Captain
Frank Benjamin, veteran engineer, crowded all the steam the
boilers would stand, and the pilots scraped the willows in order
to avoid bucking the current.
About half way from Gadsden to Rome, the Magnolia's
captain spied the lights of the Smith several miles upstream
from Cedar Bluff. As the Magnolia pulled up below Sewell's
Ferry, there was the Smith, tied up and her lights extinguished,
while the deck hands wooded up-she had run out of fuel.
The Magnolia came up along side the Smith,
and her captain ordered the two boats lashed together and the
cotton transferred. Just to guard against dire threats of the
Smith's captain, a man on the upper deck of the Magnolia,
armed with a double-barreled ten-gauge goose gun loaded with buckshot,
kept close watch until the last bale of cotton had been transferred.
The Magnolia continued on her way to Rome.
On her next trip to Gadsden she was confronted by a Federal Marshall,
who arrested her captain and seized the boat, charging piracy.
Bond was promptly furnished by Major Hollingsworth. The case was
tried in the United States Court at Hunstville and ,after a long
legal battle, was decided in favor of the Magnolia.
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Romance and the Magnolia
byRomance and the Magnolia
There was competition in another matter besides
that of steam boating. There was an affair of the heart, the intensity
of which reached white heat.
The young Captains of the "Sidney
P. Smith and the Magnolia
paid court to one of Gadsden's most beautiful and accomplished
young women. Oftimes when the Magnolia neared Gadsden with a heavy
cargo necessitating a stay of several hours for unloading, the
Captain would desire a date with the lady of his heart. How did
he communicate with her? There was no short-wave radio, and the
word probably unknown in those days. But the Magnolia had one
of the sweetest-toned whistles ever to sound over the Coosa, and
by a novel way in blowing the whistle for the landing, his lady
love would understand the message which only the two of them understood.
Immediately upon receiving the whistle message, she would summons
the groom and have the horses saddled, and shortly after the Magnolia
docked they would be at the wharf. The young Captain and his lady
would canter away over the countryside to talk over "steam boating."
Undoubtedly their conversation included something more interesting
and important than boats.
Again the young Captain of the Magnolia won, - not
a lawsuit - but the heart of a lady fair. They were married and
their honeymoon was spent on the Magnolia.... The steam boat's
Captain was James
M. Elliott Jr. And the young lady was Miss Nena Kyle.
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Party Life aboard the Steamboats
In the early 1880's companies operating steamboats
built the first telephone line in the Coosa River Valley . It
connected the principle landings with Rome as far as Centre. Steamer
continued to carry mail to points along the river a few years
after completion of the railroad from Rome to Attalla.
Coosa River steamboats were not only a large factor
in the building of Rome and Gadsden, but they also added much
to the enrichment of the lives of both the young and the old.
During the summer and early autumn months a steamer was often
chartered for four or five days at a time, and the elite of Rome's
society would sail to Greensport, dancing and feasting all the
At Gadsden they disembarked for a dance at one
of the hotels. On the return trip another stop was made and another
dance, this time at Noccalula Falls. Old timers who recount these
memorable trips speak in excited terms and their eyes sparkle.
The larger churches of both Rome and Gadsden held
Sunday school picnics on the steamers during the summer months,
at which time business would come almost to a standstill and hundreds
would turn out for a day on the Coosa.
Then too, there were moonlight excursions-with always
a good string band on board, usually a violin, guitar and a bass
viol. Any man who has stood behind the great wheel of a river
steamer as it glided down the current in the face of a full moon
knows what it means to come under the spell of the Coosa.
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The Coosa River can claim the world's most famous
sailor as one of her own.
The story goes back to 1913. The lock and dam at
Mayo's Bar had been completed by the Corps of Engineers and the
level of the Coosa had been raised to make navigation over the
trecherous Horseleg Shoals much easier. The dam successfully raised
the water level about 10 feet.
Now the day to day task of keeping the channel clear
fell to the Corps. They purchased the "
Annie M" and renamed
her "Leota". Her Captain was an Ohatchee, Alabama resident
by the name of Sims. His son, Tom Sims, began drawing the comic
strip "Thimble Theater" when it's creator Elzie Segar died in
The strip's story line dealt with the Oyl family
that owned a shipping business. Commodore Oyl had a son, Castor,
and a daughter, Olive. One of the sailors that worked for the
Commodore was a "wise cracking, spinich eating, chap" named Popeye.
Tom Sims took that character, spun him off and gave him his own
strip thus creating "Popeye the Sailorman".
Tom Sims is quoted saying, "Fantastic as Popeye
is, the whole story is based on facts. As a boy I was raised on
the Coosa River. When I began writing the script for Popeye I
put my characters back on the old "Leota" that I knew as
a boy, transformed it into a ship and made the Coosa River a salty
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