THE KEELBOAT AND FLATBOAT
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
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
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
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
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.