The Rowena was the last commercial steam packet to travel up the Cumberland River to Hartsville, Carthage and Granville.

The Cumberland River cuts through the bottom section of Trousdale County and makes up a good part of our county line to the south.

It should come as no surprise that the river has played a big part in our county’s history. Without the freight traffic on the river, our town of Hartsville would never have been much larger than a few homes and a country store. Without the town of Hartsville, what is now Trousdale County would have stayed parts of Sumner, Wilson, Smith and Macon.

We know that the Native Americans used dugout canoes to travel the river and when the white man arrived, he too made simple canoes to move about.

But he rapidly advanced to build more practical vessels.

The first large boats were “flatboats” made of hewn logs, lashed and pegged together to create a flat surface with a crude log hut in the middle. They were used by John Donelson and the first party of settlers to float down the Ohio River, into the Cumberland and into what is now Nashville.

Next came the “keelboats.”

These were boats with a pointed bow and stern, but with a deck and room under the deck for freight. A small hut or room was built on top of the deck. While a keelboat could float downstream, it needed oars or men pushing it with long poles if it wanted to travel against the current. At times they would pull it with long ropes from the shore, using either manpower or mule power.

But it was the “steamboat” that we think of the most when we talk about river traffic.

Steamboats ruled the river from the early 1800s up into the early 1900s, until train travel took their business.

Sometimes you will hear a boat referred to as a “steam packet.” A “packet” was simply a steamboat that carried both freight and passengers, reserving the lower deck for freight and livestock and the upper deck for passengers.

Above the passenger deck was the “Texas.” or quarters for the crew. It took its name from the simple fact that it was an innovation at about the same time that Texas became a part of the Union!

Above the “Texas” was the “wheelhouse,” where the pilot stood to steer the boat. He had to stand there because the only way to make your way up or down the river was to look out and see the river itself.

Books have been written about the glory days of riverboat travel and we have some tales of our own. For instance, one steam packet to travel up the Cumberland was named “The Hartsville.”

It was the decision of the owners of a steamboat to choose a proper name and as varied as people are, so are their choices for names.

But they often reflected a connection to the owner, such as the name of their wife, a business associate, or a river town — which is what we think is the case with ‘The Hartsville.”

Perhaps the owner had a connection to our town or perhaps some local businessmen invested in its construction, which was often the case as building a large steam packet was a considerable expense.

The boat shows up in newspaper articles by 1854, when we find the Port of Nashville listing the boats that arrived in town on April 2 of that year: “Arrived, Rescue, Cincinnati, Republic, Waitsboro, Hartsville, Clarksville, Castle Garden and the Pittsburg.”

We find it mentioned in the succeeding years until 1859 when this brief news item was written for the February 22 paper: “SINKING OF THE HARTSVILLE — We heard a report late last evening that the Hartsville sunk yesterday at Robinson’s Island, about fourteen miles below the city. We could learn no particulars.”

The boat seems to have had a short life, which was not unusual in those days.

There were many things that could sink a boat, such as hitting a large rock hidden beneath the surface or hitting a “snag,” which was a large tree floating in the river. A strong wind could blow a boat into the face of a rock cliff. Sometimes a boat would catch on fire and simply burn down to the waterline.

In shallow water a boat could be raised, again at considerable expense and labor.

We find no further mention of “The Hartsville” so we don’t know the particulars. But we are researching and will continue to try and solve the mystery, and we will keep you posted if we find out more.

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