History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the LaFollette Press.

       Early river traffic was one of the chief transportation modes before the advent of modern vehicles in Tennessee. Pioneers living along the Clinch and Powell rivers utilized this method of shipping by cutting and rafting timber along these streams. This proved to be a moneymaking occupation for those so located. The rafts that were used as barges and scows were employed to transport iron ore and finished products, mussell shells, corn and other bulky materials to downstream landings. The building of flatboats proved not to be economical except in unusual instances, because they could be used only once. They proved to be impractical as far as floating them upstream. 

     The Powell River was never considered a navigable stream, while the Clinch River was negotiable from its mouth by steamboats to about sixty miles upstream to Clinton. 

     An early resident of the area had run the Clinch River periodically for thirty-two years. He stated that "those were hard times. Everybody had some timber and could get five dollars for a log of good poplar, pine and white oak, and a lot more for walnut in Chattanooga." 

     One trip this gentleman made mention of was that "It took us five days to reach Chattanooga. One raft was 265 feet long, 12 to 14 feet wide, and had 152 to 153 logs to a strand. We took enough grub for three days to Kingston (where the Clinch joined the Tennessee), tying up a night, and there we had to cook. There were seven men in our crew; sometimes there were twenty.

     "There was no drinking on the rafts, but some after we reached Chattanooga. We had to be locked up in the cars (railroad) from Chattanooga to Knoxville. 

     "We sold our logs in Chattanooga to Mr. Hascue and he took them through the Suck to Pittsburg Landing."

     Tradition says that in earlier years some locals floated log rafts all the way to New Orleans. Most, if not all, contained maple, cherry and black walnut to be made into fine furniture. Occasionally, iron moldings were rafted to this destination. 

     The Cumberland Gap Progress, published in Tazewell February 20, 1889, writes that "about fifty rafts went down Sycamore Saturday and Sunday." Reference to this "creek" is Big Sycamore Creek, located in Claiborne County. 

     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. 

     Evolution of the flatboat was at first canoes, piroques and rafts. 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. No nails or iron was 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 con-struction, 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 that was used for shorter trips were called Kentucky boats or broad-horns. The boats that were 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 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 first steamboat on the Cumberland, in 1819, the General Jackson, chugged up the river from New Orleans to Nashville and docked on March 11. A new transportation era was thus ushered in which made Nashville the shipping center of Tennessee. The dangerous Muscle Shoals lay between Knoxville and the Mississippi, which caused much of Knoxville's early commercial shipping to be passed on to Nashville. Steamboats eventually increased in size, which caused channels to be a problem. 

     Subsequently, the Tennessee legislature voted $150,000, in 1830, to be divided between road making and channel clearance. Subsequently, East Tennessee improved the channels of the Tennessee River and its major tributaries. 

     Eventually, the Cumberland River remained the main water artery into Middle Tennessee until the Illinois Central Railroad was built. The lower Tennessee River and the Mississippi immediately became an important link to the cotton-growing region. 

     The Atlas, on March 3, 1828, became the first steamboat to reach Knoxville. In 1831, during times of high water in autumn and spring, regular service on the upper Tennessee and Holston Rivers was utilized. In 1890 the Federal Government built two dams at Muscle Shoals which made navigation on the upper Tennessee possible the year round. 

     The State's waterways declined rapidly after 1900 because of other transportation methods, the railroad becoming the chief transporter of goods. However, waterway traffic along these rivers has been revived tremendously because of improved methods of mass freight-hauling by tug and barge fleet. 

Time Line

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