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

Alabama Steamboats, Part One

A steamboat’s blast rent the starless evening sky; sparks tossed up like confetti. Its passengers spun and turned and glided to the music of an orchestral waltz.

More blasts erupted from the steamboat’s boilers, louder this time. And more sparks flew. Still the dancing and music in the boat’s saloon continued. Why should we be concerned? This is what these passengers thought. We enjoy dancing to Strauss.

Well, in some instances they should be concerned. Steamboat explosions frequently happened in nineteenth century America. But in the case described above, this steamboat wasn’t about to explode. It was “venting” itself on its way to a landing on the Alabama River. Such noises, and the sparks, were expected. So, its passengers danced the night away.

Though no one is sure of the exact date steamboats first plied Alabama’s rivers, the steamboat era began almost at the same time it became a state (1819), and by the 1820s steamboats became a common mode of travel on its fourteen major rivers. In the early years of steam-boating, three Alabama companies built them. Later, by 1861, Cox, Brainerd, & Company pretty much monopolized Alabama’s steamboat trade.

As these boats churned the rivers toward the port of Mobile, they’d stop at numerous landings situated below bluffs to take on cotton, which was then loaded on its lowest deck, called the main deck. Second-class passengers had to tolerate the discomforts of this deck, for on it were the vessel’s engine and kitchen as well as cotton bales, firewood, animals, and similar freight.

The wealthier passengers traveled in more luxury on the boat’s middle deck– the boiler deck, which held its saloon and cabins. British passenger, Sir Charles Lyell, described one Alabama boat’s saloon in his work, Second Visit to the United States (1849):  …The upper deck is chiefly occupied with a handsome saloon, about 200-feet long, the ladies’ cabin at one end, opening into it with folding doors. Sofas, rocking chairs, and a stove are placed in this room, which is lighted by windows from above. On each side of it is a row of sleeping apartments, each communicating by one door with the saloon while the other leads out to the guard, as they call it, a long balcony or gallery, covered with a shade or verandah, which passes around the whole boat…

Saloon of Alabama steamboat Grand Republic, 1880. Courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives and History

On the third deck, the hurricane deck (aka Texas deck) the boat’s officers lived. Their quarters, flanked by smokestacks, were called the Texas. Finally, atop this deck was the pilot house. In his classic work, Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain described the pilot house as being as “a sumptuous glass temple; room enough to have a dance in.”

And as mentioned earlier, explosions were a real danger on these boats. Below is an article about a steamboat tragedy in the port of Mobile. The accident was believed to have been caused by its boilers not having enough water.

Bibliography

Causey, Donna, “Citizens of Alabama were excited and afraid of the first steamboats,” Alabama Pioneers (blog), Days Gone By—Stories From the Past, https://www.alabamapioneers.com/citizens-of-alabama-were-excited-and-afraid-of-the-first-steamboats/.

Encyclopedia of Alabama, Alabama Humanities Alliance, http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/e-154

Griffith, Lucille. Alabama: A Documentary History to 1900, University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1972.

Lyell, Sir Charles, Second Visit to the United States, vol. 2, London: J. Murray, 1849, quoted in Alabama: A Documentary History of the United States to 1900, University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1972.

McMillan, Malcolm C., The Land Called Alabama, Austin, Texas: Steck-Vaughn Company, 1968.

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

Twain, Mark, Life on the Mississippi, Signet Reprint Edition, 2009.

Thoroughbred Racing in the “City by the Bay”

Oakdale Race Track in Mobile, Alabama. c. early 1900s.

When most folks think of Thoroughbred racing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the Deep South, one city usually comes to mind—New Orleans. However, another city on the Gulf Coast shared equal popularity during this era—the “City by the Bay,” that is, Mobile, Alabama.

While New Orleans had its Metairie Race Track and the Fairgrounds (the nation’s third oldest track still in business), Mobile had the Bascombe, Arlington Fairgrounds, and Oakdale race courses.

Bascombe Race Course. In the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, a popular magazine in the antebellum era, Bascombe’s 1838 racing schedule is listed, along with the names of the various horses competing, the days when different races will be held, the purse for the winner, and so on. These were the races the publication had omitted in an earlier issue. In 1860, the course was used as an encampment for volunteer troops called “Camp Montgomery.” Nowadays, Mobile uses it to train its Mounted Police Unit.

Arlington Fairgrounds. This track was located near the Bascombe Course, on a road that followed along the Mobile Bay southward for seven miles. Called the Bay Shell Road at the time, it was paved with oyster shells and to travel on it one had to pay a toll. Arlington’s track began around the 1870s, and its use for racing continued into the early twentieth century.

Oakdale. A track in this community was also in use at the turn of the twentieth century. Some local historians consider this one to have been Mobile’s best.  

In my novel-in-progress, I use a fictional track in Spring Hill, Alabama, west of Mobile. During the antebellum era, Spring Hill was a late spring and summer refuge from yellow fever for many of Mobile’s wealthy citizens.

Bibliography

“Camp Montgomery,” Alabama Historical Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1958): 293

“Fairgrounds History Remembered in New Documentary,” Mid-City Messenger, November 18, 2014,https://midcitymessenger.com/2014/11/18/fair-grounds-history-remembered-in-new-documentary/.

“Horsing Around,” Mobile Bay Magazine 37, no. 4(2021):82.

McLaurin, Melton and Michael Thomason. Mobile: The Life and Times of a Great Southern City.  Woodland Hills, CA, 1981.

“Omissions in the Racing Calendar,” American and Turf Register and Sporting Magazine 10 (January and February, 1839): 94.

Preston, Ben C. “Mobile Alabama Nostalgia Back in the Day,” Facebook, December 23. 2016, https://www.facebook.com/groups/MobileNostalgia.

Scott, Mike. “From Horses to Corpses: How Metairie Race Course Became Metairie Cemetery,” The Times Picayune, April 12, 2017; Updated July 22, 2019https://www.nola.com/300/article_4d8f567b-5039-5e52-88b7-9e6a4331925a.html

Contests & Ministry

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

During my thirty-plus years of writing, I never entered a writing contest… until recently. Why not? One word—fear. As a child, I was usually one of the last children who got picked at recess for softball and other competitive activities. Oh, I did win a few board games and such, so I’m only speaking in general terms. But the truth is, I simply wasn’t very good at much.

So, when it came to writing contests, I shied away from them. I feared that losing would cause me to quit writing altogether, which I did not want to do. In recent years, however, I’ve entered a few. Have I won any? Nah! But my novel, Vengeance & Betrayal, was a finalist once. Because I have lots of bylines and publishing credits now, losing doesn’t bother me. Hey, winning wouldn’t be so bad either.

Contests, I’ve learned, are a great motivation for doing our best work. Sometimes, the judges will give us a critique to help us improve. And if we’re a finalist or winner, it encourages us to keep at it. But if we lose, well, don’t get discouraged. Learn from that and work harder at the craft. I’ve discovered that contests are fun!

Having said that, because I’m a Christian as well as a writer, I see my writing as a ministry. If God has called us to be writers, we can enter contests, of course, especially those that involve our published works. However, our motivation and purpose should go beyond winning them. If all we’re concerned about is winning contests, we miss the point of our calling. Though they are great and can be rewarding, eternal rewards are in store for those who write for Christ’s kingdom from a heart that seeks to win others to Him.

So, let’s check our motivations. For whom do we write? For ourselves and earthly rewards or for Christ?

Guilt-Free Writing

WRITER ON BREAK. WILL BE BACK LATER.

For many years during my writing career, I suffered from guilt whenever I took time off from writing. I needed to be at my typewriter (laptop) pecking away at the keys. What was I accomplishing in a literary sense if I wasn’t? On the other hand, what was I accomplishing by staring at my typewriter paper or my laptop screen all day, struggling after ideas and stories ? Nothing, nothing at all.

I’ve since learned that little breaks are great for writers, that they’re not a waste of time. It’s how we recharge and get fresh ideas. Many a day I’ve walked away from my desk, my mental activity exhausted. Whenever I reach this point I know it’s time to do something different. Go for a drive, go for a walk, or take an entire day or weekend off. Get up from your work every ninety minutes or so instead of writing long hours on end. Nothing wrong with doing that, and I recommend it.

So, don’t feel guilty about the times you don’t write. Look at it this way: even when we’re resting, we’re working. Why? Because proper rest contributes to greater productivity. Your writer’s brain will be forever grateful.

Till next time, friends!

Shakespeare’s Row, Gentlemen Only

Gideon Deshler, c. 1850s
Gideon entered the game room and strode straight to the bar to purchase a beer. Tobacco fogs swirled over tables, and lights from gaslit chandeliers danced in their mist. Murmurs punctuated whirring roulette wheels. Along a far wall, men played games of twenty-one and faro. Billiard balls cracking against each other echoed from an adjoining room.
Gideon never played roulette, though he did sometimes play billiards, and he occasionally engaged in twenty-one and faro. Poker, though, was the pastime he’d come to love. Men who stood beside him at the bar conversed while drinking their liquors of choice. The entire place smelled of beer and tobacco.

In the above scene the protagonist in my WIP, Gideon Deshler, enters a game room in antebellum Mobile’s popular gaming establishment, Shakespeare’s Row. Like New Orleans, Mobile attracted gamblers from a variety of backgrounds—gentlemen, professional gamblers, and the unsavory types.

Shakespeare’s Row, however, only catered to well-mannered and honest gamblers, those who at least appeared to be gentlemen. Troublemakers and dishonest players weren’t allowed on its premises. One writer described it as a string of brick buildings housing numerous businesses along the street, then when a person entered through one of its two arched doorways, he’d find a courtyard. In the middle of this courtyard stood a three-story building, with stairways, that housed twenty-eight game rooms facing it. Gambling activity continued there all night.

Shakespeare’s Row is one of the central settings of my novel-in-progress, tentatively titled Thoroughbreds and the Prodigal. 

Sources

Amos, Harriet E. Cotton City: Urban Development in Antebellum Mobile, Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1985.

Chafetz, Henry. Play the Devil: A History of Gambling in the United States from 1492 to 1955, N.p.,Bonanza Books, 1960.

Going “Over the Bay”

Bay Boat James Carney, 1905, Point Clear, Alabama. Historic Mobile Preservation Society, William E. Wilson Collection

My sister and I burst into laughter, pointing and guffawing at the uniformed men in Mobile, Alabama’s Bankhead Tunnel, constantly waving “come on” at our cars. We sped through it almost bumper-to-bumper as our father, driving, sped out of the city onto a causeway to go “over the Bay.” Why were they always waving at us? No car was pokey, and if one of us happened to break down, well, it was a narrow two-lane tunnel. It would be one huge traffic jam! For my sister and me, watching these men constantly waving their arms was entertaining.

“Over the Bay” is one of those expressions we Mobilians often use. It simply means crossing Mobile Bay for a visit on the Eastern Shore—to a beach, to visit a friend, a restaurant, a town, etc.

Before 1927, the year the bridges and the Causeway opened, people traveled to the Eastern Shore via bay boat. These boats, like the one pictured above, brought goods to those who lived on the Bay’s Eastern Shore as well as passengers. Toll rates ranged from $3.50 to $6.00 per person. One tragic event happened on a Sunday in 1871 when a bay boat, the Ocean Wave, exploded, killing an untold number of people. Later estimates put the number of deaths at close to 100.

Boat person that I am, I enjoyed using a bay boat as a setting in one of my chapters. Mobile Bay is beautiful, especially at sunrise and sunset!

Later, the Bankhead Tunnel was built. Nowadays, the city has two, more heavily-used tunnels.

As for me, whenever I visit my hometown I always drive the Causeway through the old Bankhead. No longer is it bumper-to-bumper, and numerous fond memories flood my mind. I only wish I’d been able to take a bay boat “over the Bay,” at least once in my lifetime.

Sources:

Angela Levins. “How to get to the other side? Vintage photos document storied past of Mobile’s tunnels and roadways,” Mobile Real-Time News, Updated March 6, 2019, https://www.al.com/news/mobile/2015/06/how_to_get_to_the_other_side_v.html

Angela Levins. “Quick Facts of Mobile Bay’s Tunnels and roadways with vintage photos,” Mobile Real-Time News, Updated January 13, 2019, https://www.al.com/news/mobile/2015/06/quick_facts_of_mobile_bays_tun.html

Tom McGehee, “What caused a bay boat to explode at Point Clear in the summer of 1871?” Mobile Bay Magazine, August 17, 2020

Michael V.R. Thomason and Carol Ellis, Mobile Bay: Yesterday, Today, and Forever, n.p.: Beers & Associates, LLC. 2009

The Great Post Stakes Race, Lecomte’s Revenge, Part Four

Photo by Tobi on Pexels.com

After Lexington won the Great Post Stakes his owner, Richard Ten Broeck and Lecomte’s owner, Thomas Jefferson Wells, had a rematch. Instead of racing each other, however, they agreed that their horses would race against the clock for four miles.

Riding Lecomte: Abe Hawkins, whom Wells obtained from Abe’s owner, Duncan Kenner.

Riding Lexington: a famous white jockey named Gilbert Kilpatrick

Race Date: April, 1855

Place: Metairie Race Course, New Orleans, Louisiana

Course conditions: dry

 Grandstands: about 10,000 spectators

When the timekeepers nodded “ready,” the starter lowered his flag, and Lecomte and Lexington galloped down the track, their hoofs thundering amidst cheers.  

Lecomte, sweating hard and breathing hard, surged ahead as Abe, fierce competitor that he was, urged him on. Wider and wider the distance between the horses stretched, Lecomte constantly in the lead till he defeated Lexington by six lengths and set a world record: seven minutes and twenty-five seconds.

Upon hearing this time announced, clapping and hurrahs rocked the grandstands. Everyone, it seemed, had gone wild.

All wasn’t lost for Lexington yet. He had one more heat. But Abe galloped Lecomte into racing history when he won it as well. Though jockeys who were slaves were seldom referred to by name, such wasn’t the case with Abe. Everyone involved in racing in this era now knew him. As for Lecomte, every January at the Fair Grounds Race Track in New Orleans a race is held in his memory—the Lecomte Stakes.

Lecomte and Lexington, half-brothers who shared the same sire, became the greatest Thoroughbreds of their era.

Sources

Mooney, Katherine. Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA and London, England, 2014.

Weldon, Nick. “From slavery to sports stardom: Abe Hawkins’ rise from a Louisiana plantation to horse-racing fame,” The Historic New Orleans Collection, January 11, 2019, https://www.hnoc.org/publications/first-draft/slavery-sports-stardom-abe-hawkins%E2%80%99s-rise-louisiana-plantation-horse-racing.

FINALIST!

I am pleased, and honored, to announce that my Civil War novel, Vengeance & Betrayal, is a finalist in the Notable Book Awards. The winner will be announced on Saturday, February 6, at the Southern Christian Writers Book Expo. This book, and many others, will be available for purchase on the Expo’s public Facebook site on that day.

The Great Post Stakes Race, Part Three, The First Races

Photo by Gusztu00e1v Gallu00f3 on Pexels.com

April, 1854—a delightful spring day. Metairie Race Course conditions—dry. New Orleans’s St. Charles Hotel—thronging with guests. Some 20,000 people had arrived, eager to watch a special horse race, among them former U.S. president Millard Filmore. And why not? America’s two greatest Thoroughbreds, half-brothers, were scheduled to race each other in the Great Post Stakes.

Richard Ten Broeck, the course’s primary shareholder, conceived the idea. For an entry fee of $5,000, a state could send a Thoroughbred to represent it in the competition.

By race day, only four horses participated:  Arrow (Louisiana), Highlander (Alabama), Lexington (Kentucky), and Lecomte (Mississippi). Because Louisiana had Arrow, Lecomte’s Louisiana owner, Thomas Wells, entered him to represent Mississippi. Ten Broeck’s horse Lexington, Lecomte’s half-brother, represented the state where he was foaled.

Because the standard Thoroughbred racing track is one mile, these horses would run four laps in two heats with a break for a rub down in between. Lexington won the first heat, clocking just over eight minutes, but Lecomte gave Lexington a run for his money in Heat Two. For three miles, Lecomte galloped ahead of Lexington. Kentuckians attending the race fretted. Their champion, losing! It couldn’t be!

And then, Lexington got “a new set of legs,” gained on Lecomte, passed him, and defeated him by four lengths. The grandstand’s spectators went wild! Roars of approval hit the clouds.

In 1855, LeComte and Lexington would again compete to determine which horse was the fastest.

Sources

Mooney, Katherine. Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA and London, England, 2014

Perrault, Matthew Saul. “Jockeying for Position: Horse Racing in New Orleans,1865-1920,” LSU Digital Commons,Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, 2016. https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_theses/3455/