Steamboats on the Coosa River

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 - Post War Riverboats - Steamboats In General - Piracy on the Coosa -
- Romance and the Magnolia - Party Life aboard the Steamboats - Popeye -

Pictures of Coosa River Steamboats

Ken McCulloch's Coosa River Steamboat List


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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

Dennis Nordeman

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 first journey.

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 miles around.

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

Dennis Nordeman

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 Moore, Alphfretta, and Cherokee 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 Uncle Ben
Bits and Pieces About Riverboats in the Civil War
Diary of a Confederate Mail Runner
Letters From Three Soldiers


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Post War Riverboats

Dennis Nordeman

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 the Sidney P. Smith, Joel Marbable, John J. Seay, Clifford B. Seay and Alabama.

The Leota 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

Dennis Nordeman

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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Piracy on the Coosa

Dennis Nordeman

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 P. Smith.

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

Dennis Nordeman
Romance 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

Dennis Nordeman

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 way.

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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Dennis Nordeman

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 1938.

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 sea."
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Pictures of Coosa River Steamboats

Submitted by site contributor Ken McCulloch

From the Gadsden (AL) Times Newspaper, Dated: Friday, August 20, 1880

Distressing Collision-On Monday, the 2nd inst., the new and erratic steamer "Independent" with J.M. Pickens on the roof, W.M. Lowe at the wheel, J.M. Carpenter in the pantry, and Lon Meyer on the hurricane deck and the crew, on her trial run on the Alabama waters, collided with the magnificent iron-clad man-o-war, "Democrat". She was struck by the Democrat amidship and her wheel house knocked off, her pantry stove in, her ladies cabin scuttled, and her pilot house carried away. She parted her teller ropes, unshipped her rudder, and snapped her fore and aft chain. About dark she went to pieces, and the hull sank in 2, 000 fathoms of water. The crew and passengers were good swimmers and divers, all reached the shore bruised and hungry and smelled of the bilge water.
We sincerely hope that no future attempt will be made to float such a crazy craft on the waters of our beloved state.-Tuscaloosa Times



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