History of Campbell County, Tennessee
 

Time Line

THE KEELBOAT AND FLATBOAT

By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

     Flatboats and keelboats were operated on the larger rivers. Merchandise was loaded at Knoxville or Nashville and floated to down river markets along the Tennessee, Cumberland and Mississippi.

     Tennessee retained a grand rural makeup. Although most Tennessee farmers worked simply to supply the food needs of their families, income could be made from selling certain cash crops.

     It has been found through time that rivers are most vital to most cultures. From the beginning of modern civilization, the population tended to build their villages, etc., on rivers. Therefore, this advantage formed a means of transportation, fresh water, irrigation potentials and many, many, more services. The grand rivers of America have been a save-all for the population.

     The new country, as we all know, had a great expansion to the West. This mode of travel depended widely on the impressive rivers. These waterways supplied transportation for the people, goods and information that was ultimately carried forward. River traffic was limited to a slow method of these routes until the extensive spread of steamboat travel.
Flatboat and keelboat journeys required a considerable amount of time to travel the rivers, which ultimately led to the development of the steamboat. Actual progress on the rivers led from to the canoe, crude raft construction, flatboats and keelboats. Flatboats were utilized for carrying larger loads than the canoe, etc. They were built more solidly than rafts with a short raised side. The flatboat was designated as "the boat that never came back." It was broken up at the end of its journey and the lumber used for building houses, furniture, etc. The crew would have either walked or ridden a horse back.
Cotton and tobacco crops were marketable from the start. These money-makers were advantageous and easily distributed. They could be produced on large farms, or plantations, with slave labor. Tennessee farmers also transformed corn, the state's most important crop, into meal, whiskey, or by feeding it to hogs, which was converted to cured pork and shipped by keelboat or flatboat to Natchez and New Orleans. The Tennessee farmers were at this time overwhelmed by a poor road system.

     Both East and Middle Tennessee were well suited for the production of whiskey, having good soil for growing corn, an abundance of firewood, white oak for the manufacture of barrels, and a good network of rivers upon which to ship the whiskey to marketing centers like Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville, Memphis, and beyond. Many Tennesseans shipped their whiskey by flatboat to Natchez where it brought $2 a gallon, twice the going price in Nashville. On the farm the mash was fed to hogs and cattle which, in the form of salted meat and hides, were also suitable for export.

     The original flatboats were at first only from four to six feet in width, but soon were made much larger. The construction was of green oak plank with no nails or iron used in building them. The heavy oak planks were fastened by wooden pins to still heavier frames of timber. The seams were at first closed with pitch or tar, but this being very expensive, tow or some other pliant substance was afterward used in caulking. Because of its construction, descending the river was the only practical way of navigating.

     Flatboats in this period of time were of different varieties, they being named ark, barge, broadhorn, Kentucky boat, and New Orleans boat. These craft were useful in their own way, but the standard flatboat had preference over the others because of its size and practicality.

     These rectangular shaped craft had generally boarded up sides from two to three feet high. The width and length had no standard size; the family generally set size preference. The lesser sort had no covering, but were provided with a shed in the rear for horses and cattle, and a cabin forward for the use of the owner and his family.

     The craft used for shorter trips were called Kentucky boats or broad-horns. The boats used for longer trips were called New Orleans boats and were covered throughout their entire length.

     Propelling of these boats was a task in itself. All flatboats were propelled by "sweeps" which were mounted on the sides. They also consisted of a rudder and a short oar in front known as the "gouger."

     A "hawser" was a strong rope which was mounted to a reel on board that could be attached to a tree stump on shore, which in turn allowed the boat to be wound ashore. The next step, the keelboat, seems a bare improvement. Keelboats were larger than flatboats, usually about seventy feet long and built with a pointed nose and stern. The deck was roofed over, and sported a mast for a sail. What set them apart was that keelboats could go upstream--but only by human muscle power. Hence the legends of the keelboating men, heavy drinking, heavy fighting, and "half-alligator, half-horse." Two methods were employed to move the boats upstream: bushwhacking, also known as poling, and walking along the shore, pulling the keelboat by a rope. The boats moved upstream at about a mile an hour; in decent weather, a fifteen hour day was expected.

     The wild Holston (now Tennessee) River and numerous mountains initially limited the new capital's growth. Since Knoxville's founding, settlers traveling westward down the river gave citizens business, although minimally. During calm flows, keelboat owners could manually transport goods upstream. Most trade was downstream and subject to the whims of nature. Millraces, small boats and a few other human contrivances were probably evident along the riverfront but development was sparse. In 1828, the steam-driven Atlas arrived and catalyzed change along the river.

     Shortly thereafter, several wharves were established at the end of Central, Prince (now Market) and Knoxville's early vein of commerce, Gay Street. Activity and industry along the waterfront soon followed. Despite numerous river improvements, unstable flows and natural hazards limited steamboat navigation and river transportation. In 1855, the completed rail line linking Knoxville with other regions lessened river traffic though various industries remained along the riverbank.

     Needless to say, anyone involved in river trade or travel were very excited at the thought of controlling steam power, attaching it to a boat, and moving against the current at five to ten miles an hour. The steamboats ushered in a great boost to interior commerce as well as a new era of travel, introducing Americans to the potential of combined speed and comfort.

Time Line



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