By Alice Chapman Newgen
Steamboats were a fairly common mode of transportation in the 1800s traveling up and down rivers that were wide and deep enough to carry them to cities and towns along the riverbanks. Flatboats carried cargo including whiskey, pork, vegetables, and furs to many marketplaces before steamboats became more popular. These flatboats would occasionally transport passengers to various destinations.
Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States, was in power from 1801 to 1809 during the steamboat era. It was in 1769 when James Watt patented an improved version of the steam engine. Not long after that inventors came up with the idea that steam could propel boats in the water. John Fitch is noted in history to have been granted a patent for a steamboat on August 26, 1791. This type of water vessel showed promise for another type of transportation. After Watt passed away, Robert Fulton built his first steamboat. Fulton later became known as the “Father of Steam Navigation.” Steamboats ran off power by a steam engine that turned a paddlewheel located in the back of the boat. Some of them had two paddlewheels on each side of the water vessel that helped increase speed down the rivers and tributaries. Steamboats had two advantages over flatboats. They could travel upstream and arrive twice as fast when going downstream to their destinations with speeds of up to 5 miles per hour.
As trade and commerce became open to new ideas to expand production, people relied more and more on ferries and steamboats. They were able to reach destinations that were more accessible by water than back roads and rough mountainous terrain.
This exciting new mode of transporting passengers and cargo became common on the waterways in southern states like Georgia. Eulalie M. Lewis told stories about the days when steamboats traveled down north Georgia rivers in an article published in a 2004 Whitfield-Murray Quarterly.
Carters Quarter in Murray County became a significant landing for steamboats. Mr. Carter had a large plantation that covered a territory from the Conasauga River to the Coosawattee. Having a steamboat route that came by his plantation was very advantageous for him as a farmer and businessman.
There were quite a few steamboats that traveled in the mountainous areas in Georgia. The “Coosa” was a small steamboat that navigated its way in the upper branches of the Coosa River and its main stream around 1845.
A steamboat called “Mary Carter” was built in Gordon County in Resaca in 1874. The water vessel had two decks; was 111 ft. long, 18 ft. wide, and was 3 ft. deep. Captain F.M. Coulter of Rome built the boat. The “Mary Carter” was one of more than a dozen that Coulter built before and after the War Between the States.
Other steamboats named the “Resaca,” “Conasauga,” “DeSota,” “Coosawattee,” “Calhoun,” “Cherokee,” and “Oostanaula” were in the Coosa system. Steamboats like the “John T. Warlick,” "Etowah Bill,” “Sporter,” and “Dixie” may have navigated their way up the Coosawattee to Carters Quarter.
L. C. Mitchell, from Gordon County, was the principal owner and master of the steamboat “Mitchell.” It was built in Rome, Georgia in 1884. John J. Seay took ownership of the “Mitchell” in 1885. The boat was dismantled and ceased operation in 1892.
With the increasing importance of steamboats, the 1824 General Survey Act became a law that was passed by the United States Congress. This law specified that the Corps of Engineers could conduct surveys authorized by the president for routes requiring roads and canals relating to national importance concerning commercial or military purposes as deemed necessary. It also aided in the transportation of public mail. Maintenance of the rivers was a priority to keep these steamboats running as smoothly as possible on the waterways. Improvements were made on the Oostanaula and Coosawattee Rivers by tow boats. The “Annie M.” was built in 1888. The stream vessel’s name was later changed to “Leota” in 1892. Another towboat was the “Coosada.” Dredging and deepening the river beds was instrumental in maintaining these waterways. Bridges had to be regulated and had to meet certain requirements so the steamboats could pass safely under them as they navigated down the rivers.
Circumstances began to change in our culture and the need for these water vessels diminished. They served a great purpose back in their time and are an important part of our history.