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November 22, 2013

Steamboating on the Suwannee River - Part 2

The heyday of steamboating

Live Oak —

Information supplied by Eric Musgrove, county historian

At the end of the Civil War, steamboating had come to a complete standstill on the Suwannee River, just as it had for most waterways in the Confederacy. Several attempts to revitalize steamboat traffic on the Suwannee River just after the war failed, as too many people were recovering from the changes brought about by the end of the War Between the States. Gradually, however, enterprising men realized the importance of the Suwannee River to area trade.

On Aug. 3, 1868, (within days of Live Oak becoming the County Seat of Suwannee County), the Suwannee Steamboat Company was chartered by Washington Rogers, George W. Rogers, Peter Moran, and John A. Boyd of Florida. The Company’s stated purpose was to transport freight and produce between Cedar Key and Columbus, with exclusive privilege of navigating the Suwannee River above Clay Landing to Columbus. At the time, Columbus was a bustling community where the Suwannee River State Park is now located. Despite the destruction brought about by federal ships and troops during the Civil War, Cedar Key had quickly recovered and was soon home to several large pencil factories that harvested the abundant cedar keys growing around the lower Suwannee River. These pencil factories needed transportation of raw goods and supplies to markets throughout the state and country, and the closet railroad for interstate travel was in Suwannee County.

Despite the chartering of the Suwannee Steamboat Company in 1868, it was not until 1872 that the first known post-war steamboat began sailing upon the Suwannee River. This steamboat was Wawenock, a nearly decade-old steamboat built in Maine and used by the United States Government during the Civil War. Originally some 103 tons and with dimensions of 109’ x 19’ x 4.5’, she operated out of Norfolk, Virginia, from 1865-68. In 1868, she was reconstructed and emerged from the docks at 128 tons and with dimensions of 118’ x 27’ x 5’. After a stint in Charleston, South Carolina, by 1872 she was running up the Suwannee River from Cedar Key to New Troy (the county seat of Lafayette County at that time). Once a week she would connect at Cedar Key with the numerous vessels moving between Key West and New Orleans. In the late summer of 1874, Wawenock moved to Pensacola and then beyond before being broken up in 1880. While on the Suwannee River, her captain and master was John Gleason.

After Wawenock moved to Pensacola, another steamboat, David L. Yulee, was built in Cedar Key and began operations on the Suwannee River. Yulee was a plainly built steamboat, displacing 89 tons and being 82’ x 22’ x 4’ in size with one deck. Most, if not all, of her life was spent on the Suwannee River carrying mainly freight. Her owner and master for most of her life was Samuel C. Reddick, a well-known steamboat captain of the time. Yulee served until 1885, when her owners abandoned her near the mouth of the Suwannee River (at what aptly came to be called Yulee’s Bend). Her remains rest in the dark waters today.

Another steamboat, the two-decked Erie, soon joined David L. Yulee plying the Suwannee River.  Erie was built in Jacksonville in 1876 and displaced a mere 34 tons. She was 70’ long, 21’ wide, and had a draft of just over 4 feet. Her crew consisted of three officers and twelve men, and she probably carried passengers from time to time although her normal haul was a variety of goods.  Erie moved to Cedar Key in the summer of 1880 and was partially owned by merchants along the Suwannee River. In 1883, she was sold to merchants in Manatee County and had left the Suwannee River by 1884.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, the construction of numerous railroads threatened steamboat activities on Florida waterways. At first, it appeared that the railroads would be a complement to steamboats, but time was to tell a different story. In the next article, we will look at the emergence of Henry Bradley Plant as a powerhouse in Florida’s economy, part of which was his steamboat operations during the heyday of Suwannee River steamboating.

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