Alabama Steamboats, Part 2: Rolladores, Stevedores, and Other Antebellum Steamboat Jobs

The steamboat’s paddlewheels revolved and slapped water, propelling her down the Alabama River. Atop her roof, her captain kept alert while a pilot steered her toward a  high bluff on the right bank. Beneath this bluff was a landing, one of over three hundred landings on this river, and atop the bluff were warehouses holding bales of cotton and other freight.

His hands on the boat’s enormous wheel, the pilot carefully maneuvered her to the designated wharf. Although the roof captain commanded the vessel, the pilot was also considered a captain and sometimes, in certain conditions and according to law, the roof captain had to obey the pilot’s orders.

White deck hands, under the supervision of a mate, leapt off the boat and secured lines to the wharf. Rolladores—slaves ashore—hastened toward the warehouses. From here, they unloaded freight and rolled it down a long plank, or cotton chute, to the landing where stevedores, most of them Irish, proceeded to load it onto the vessel’s lowest (main) deck. Roustabouts, who were also slaves, assisted them.

Cotton chute on the Alabama River, 1861. Courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives and History

Passengers on the boat’s middle, boiler deck observed this activity from the boat’s gallery. Other passengers socialized in her saloon. While these passengers discussed all manner of things the boat’s crew, free blacks under a steward’s supervision, kept busy— the cook and his assistants prepared supper, the chambermaids cleaned cabins, the barber cut passengers’ hair, the laundress washed clothes, and the bartender served drinks to thirsty travelers. These workers oftentimes helped slaves escape to freedom.

While all this activity continued, other officers engaged in their duties. The engineer inspected the boat’s engine to be sure it remained in good working order. If it needed more wood for its boilers, he sent his firemen ashore to get it from the wood stacked on the landing.

And the clerk, with his ledgers, figured the trip’s expenses. Since he was the vessel’s business manager, he handled all of the vessel’s financial matters.

With her cargo finally loaded, the roof captain gave the order to shove off. The pilot steered the boat back into the middle of the river and continued down it to his next stop, one after the other, until she at last reached Mobile. ‘

Bibliography

Neumeier, Franz. “Roof Captain,” Steamboating the Rivers (Blog), https://www.steamboats.org/history-education/glossary/roof_captain.html

Nash, Francis W. “Georgetown Steamboats,” Steamer Biographies (Blog), http://georgetownsteamboats.com/gs/steamer-prologue/

Mellown, Robert O., “Steamboats in Alabama,” Encyclopedia of Alabama, Alabama Humanities Alliance, updated August 16, 2019, http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1803

4 thoughts on “Alabama Steamboats, Part 2: Rolladores, Stevedores, and Other Antebellum Steamboat Jobs

  1. So fascinating. Coincidentally, I’ve been researching Showboats. Again, no word except “fascinating.” So much history. NY show biz people loved showboating because they had steady work, food and lodging, and a ready audience. Great combination.

    I never tire of researching!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve always been a boat person, having grown up fishing in the Gulf of Mexico with my father. Steamboats are indeed fascinating. And I am an avid researcher also. Your Showboat research sounds very interesting. I remember seeing the Broadway cast from the musical of the same name when they did a show in Mobile, back when I was a kid.

      Like

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