Southern River Navigation

06 May

NOTES:  An excellent article, by Theodore Lucas, published in the State newspaper, of Columbia, South Carolina, in June, 1904.  This was just at the time when the steamer Highlander had started to run between Georgetown and Columbia, SC.  Mr. Lucas showed the forward thinking that would be necessary for freight boats to flourish in the shallow waters of many Southern rivers.  He suggested that switching from steam to gasoline power would provide an extreme cost savings.  I have linked to two illustrations which were included in the lengthy article.  I would also suggest reading the article on this site regarding the Highlander Upon the Congaree.


Written for the State by Theodore Lucas,

Member Society Naval Architecture, formerly Editor Nautical Gazette, New York.


Among the principal factors in the industrial development of a country are the transportation facilities  Particularly where raw materials or articles of much bulk and small value are handled, the question of cheap transportation is of primary importance., in many instances even deciding whether the marketing of such articles can economically and profitably be done or not.

In the rapidly growing commercial and industrial development of the south, railroad transportation has been so far the most prominent means of marketing and inter-communication.  While the railroads naturally will always be the means of handling high class goods, their relatively high freight rates leave districts that produce only the co##ser goods with only few facilities of placing them on the market to advantage.

It may not be out of place to draw attention to one mode of transportation that through its cheapness is suitable even for the bulkiest goods, and which so far has been made little use of in the south, namely, water transportation upon the natural waterways of sea, bays and principally rivers.  Water transportation needs no expensive roadway and where possible it is the most economical method of shipping.

The south particularly is so eminently favored with the finest natural waterways in the form of large rivers that it is almost surprising to see how little advantage has been taken of the inviting natural facilities.  One of the few gratifying instances of such river navigation is the recent inauguration of a steamer line between Georgetown and Columbia on the Santee and Congaree rivers.  Similar lines of main importance with feeding branches from side rivers might with advantage be established, thus furnishing to the surrounding territory improved communication with the larger commercial centres.  Among the products that might thus become available in increasing quantity and more easy supply may be numbered  lumber, coal, phosphates, brick, building material, rice, cotton, tobacco, corn, oil mill products, besides others.

The geographical features of the south are highly advantageous to the development of such internal water transportation by the rivers.  From Virginia to Texas a broad band of particularly level country extends between the sea and gulf on one side and the mountains of the interior on the other side, traversed by magnificent rivers of comparatively little fall and splendidly suited to rough and ready navigation and transportation of coarse bulk freight.  There are found the rivers Roanoke, Pamlico, Neuse, Cape Fear, Pee Dee, Savannah, Altamaha, St. Johns, Chattahoochee, Alabama and Mobile, and last but not least, the magnificent Mississippi, that already affords a splendid object lesson, as to what immense proportions southern river navigation can be developed.  All these streams are open the year around and can according to their higher and lower water level accommodate more or less traffic at any time of the year.  Ice difficulties that make so much disturbance in northern rivers are unknown, removing thereby the most powerful natural hindrance that is known to river navigation.  The slope of the country is so gradual that the rivers have hardly any perceptible rapids for several hundred miles, while the currents are hardly ever strong enough to prevent a steamer from going up stream.

The cheapness of these means of transportation cannot be exceeded by any other mode.  Particularly where a number of barges are loaded to take advantage of high water, with which to go down stream, as is done on the Ohio river in the coal trade, the operating expenses are of the smallest and truly insignificant in comparison with railroad freights.

The increased accessibility of all land bordering upon the rivers would immediately enhance the value of the forests, the mines, the farms through the more ready delivery of their products.  Landings could with little cost be constructed everywhere to accommodate the loading and unloading of a suitable type of river craft.

What might be called a disadvantage of the gradual slope of the land and small fall in the river is the possibility of swamp formation that through malarial infection might prevent close settlement of the river banks.  The Mississippi river, however, shows how, with the growing importance of the river traffic, leves construction, can win the land from the river, making out of disease breeding waste healthy garden spots of agriculture, which for transportation of their products depend more than ever upon the river.

A drawback of beginning river navigation is the lack of improvement of the internal waterways, which while highly useful in their natural state would be many times more so if corrected, provided with lights, marks and buoys and cleared of obstructions.  The government is giving all possible help and with increasing traffic will be still more willing to grant the desirable improvements.

The state legislatures even might be willing to devote a certain amount of funds to the improvement of the waterways in their States to the lasting benefit of commerce and industry.

A difficulty in rivers that flow through timbered country is the presence of fallen trees and driftwood in the water.  Such snags or sinkers may offer considerable impediments to navigation.

To make a practical success{s} of river navigation, even on unimproved streams, it is necessary to choose a suitable vessel, able to meet the emergencies of the traffic with the least delay and hindrance.  The technical and economic solution of the problem calls for special consideration of the types of vessel.  There again Mississippi river conditions offer a mass of technical and commercial experience that might prove of the highest value for inaugurating traffic on the other southern rivers.  It would seem however, that a modification of the vessel would be desirable, as the high class goods and passenger boats of considerable size and speed commonly used on the Mississippi would at the beginning of navigation have no place yet on the smaller rivers.  A vessel suited to the coarse goods traffic and not too large would in all probability be quite a success on nearly all rivers.

Such boats should meet a number of requirements to fulfill effectively the service for which they are destined.

They should be of

1.  Low cost.

2.  Low running expense.

3.  Good strength to withstand frequent grounding.

4.  Comparative lightness to give cargo capacity.

Besides numerous barges, self-propelling vessels will be required principally.  Of these the propelling apparatus might be best modeled after Mississippi river conditions that have almost exclusively adopted the sternwheel as the propelling agent.  It offers powerful propulsive capacity, while at the same time it is somewhat protected in its position by the hull of the boat and can readily free itself at the afterside from floating objects, driftwood, etc.  Its construction is simple and strong and any damage is readily repaired by simple tools and unskilled labor.

The propelling motor of the large and fast river steamers of the stern wheel type is generally a double steam engine, actuating a crank at each end of the stern wheel shaft.  The steam is furnished to these engines by one or more boilers, usually situated forward on the main deck.  This arrangement, while very satisfactory from a mechanical point of view is more or less costly, particularly for small boats.  The government requires for the running of these engines licensed engineers, commanding generally rather high wages.  Aside from them firemen are needed to supply the boilers with the necessary fuel.  These engineer crews are not available for any other work, as the delicacy of the machinery in regard to ofling, stopping, reversing, etc., demands the entire and undivided attention of the engineer, while the possible danger of explosion of the boilers requires the unceasing vigilance of the fireman for feeding and firing the boilers at the right moment.  The boats need, therefore, pilots, deck hands, etc., in addition to the engineer crews, making the wage cost of running them relatively high and generally only remunerative in large vessels.

For small craft it would seem desirable to bring the running expenses down to a minimum and particularly to cut the wage cost to the very lowest figure.  If it were possible to let the pilot attend also to the handling of the propelling machinery, then the engineer crew might be dispensed with at a decided economy.  Such an arrangement is possible and has been adopted with marked success in small boats propelled by gasoline engines.  With them the boiler is absent and no fireman needed at all, while the engine tendered at present needs no license for small boats and may be a man of less mechanican skill than is required for a steam engine.  This is due to the fact that the reversing is done by clutch and gear mechanism, which is readily controlled and shifted by a single lever that conveniently may be in the pilot house.  The engine runs always in the same direction, needs no warming up or letting off of the condensed water, as required in a steam engine, and all around much less care is generally bestowed upon the gasoline engine than on its steam competitor.

As shown in the accompanying plans, a strong, simple type of gasoline engine connected by heavy gears to a stern wheel would seem to be about as economical a motive power for small river steamers as could be found.  Only one or two men might be necessary under favorable conditions to handle such a boat at the lowest possible cost per unit measure of freight.

As regards the vessel itself, the greatest economy should be practiced in regard to first cost for the highest commercial success, duly considering length of life, yearly depreciation and probably necessary repairs.  The hull should be strong, as the unavoidable grounding, running into sand banks, shagqe and sinkers will of course test the hull structure more or less severely.  Wood material of ample scantings is probably the best material in any case, best suited to southern conditions, where fine timber is plentiful and cheap and labor best acquainted with this material.  To avoid unnecessary compilcation, square construction proves commercially the most successful.  In this form the deck has a rectangular outline, while the finding of the ends is gined by shaping up from below.  This is fully sufficient for freight boats of low speed, as outlined and shown in the plans for an 80 foot boat, while fast boats for high class freight and passenger traffic can of course be profitably constructed with shipshape bodies.  The most profitable sizes of such freight boats will probably range from 60 to 100 feet in length.  The freight accommodation is conveniently all on the main deck, extending from the space under the elevated pilot house to the forward engine – room bulkhead.  To secure increased safety against grounding as well as security against excessive heel or list of the boat, bulkheads are put into the hold, dividing it into several small spaces.

In the forward compartments under the main deck are the gasoline tanks that hold sufficient fuel to run the propelling machinery three or four days.  At the forward end of the boat is a broad gangway that enables rapid loading and unloading to be carried on even from steep banks or over driftwood and natural obstruction to access of the shore.  The after end of the boat is fitted with three rudders that exercise a powerful turning effect.  An advantage of sternwheel propulsion is that the rudders act not only on forward motion, but also on backing under the impact of the stream of water thrown from the wheel.  Accommodations for the crew is arranged in the engine room for cooking and in the pilot house for sleeping.

Boats of this type represent the highest economy in the transportation of coarse or bulk freight and should prove in large numbers of a powerful factor in the development of the interior by giving the needed connection to tidal harbors, form where the products of the country can be economically distributed not only to home ports but foreign ones as well, thus giving the widest possible surface with the accompanying desirable stability in production as well as consumption.

May southern rivers speedily take the important place in the commercial household of the country that is due to them.

Theodore Lucas.

Hyatt Park, June 4.

[ The State – Columbia, SC – 20th June, 1904 ]

The Cape Fear River Steamers

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Posted by on May 6, 2009 in Uncategorized


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