Last week we wrote about “The Hartsville.” It was a type of steamboat known as a “packet,” a steam-powered boat that carried both freight and passengers.
The Hartsville ran on the Cumberland River in the 1850s until it sank in 1859. It had a short life, which was typical of a riverboat. The life expectancy of such boats could be as short as five to 10 years. Maybe not what investors in such boats wanted, but it was the reality.
There were many things that could sink a steamboat.
The biggest threat was running the boat into a large rock in the river channel. An experienced river man knew where such rocks lay and how to steer around them.
These rocks might be visible during dry spells when the river level was low, but a rain might raise the river and cover those obstacles up. Which is one reason you always had a man on lookout.
Another reason a boat could sink was due to its running into a “snag.”
A snag was a large tree that had broken off in a storm and was floating in the river. Snags could be visible or slightly below the surface, which made them all the more dangerous.
Fire was another danger.
Not only did the boat have a hot fire heating the boiler of the steam engine, but all of the lighting on the boat would have been oil lamps.
Occasionally, the boiler of the steam engine would explode. When that happened, it was like a bomb went off.
To show how often such boats sank, the famous steamboat “The Natchez” sank eight times!
A steamboat that sank in shallow water could be brought back up, if the damage to the hull could be fixed. Other times a new ship was built and simply given the same name, giving it a new lease on life.
We can’t find in our research, what sunk the steam packet “The Hartsville.”
But we do know of a boat that sank right at the old Hartsville Landing, which today we call Taylor’s Landing.
In 1843, a boat called “The City of Huntsville” had a bit of bad luck.
We quote from an article in The Tennessean from 1904:
“One of the queerest accidents on the river was that befalling the City of Huntsville in 1843 while trying to make a landing at Hartsville during high water. The boat’s prow hung up on the bank and before it could be freed, the river went down two feet. The boat finally slid off the bank and went stern foremost straight to the bottom.”
This makes us wonder if the remains of the old ship are still lying in the mud below the landing!
However, a ship using the same name was built in 1852 and sank six years later at Palmyra Island in the Mississippi.
That sinking was a little more deadly than the one that sank here — eight passengers drowned!
But the City of Huntsville wasn’t the only boat to sink here.
Again we quote from an old copy of a Nashville newspaper, “Just after the war (the Civil War) the good ship Ella Hughs landed at Hartsville. The river was falling rapidly and the bow caught slightly on the bank, which at this place is very steep and slippery. No one paid any special attention to it, thinking it would easily pull off, as they were ready to leave in a few minutes. But, on attempting to pull out she could not be moved and the rapidly falling river made each minute of delay dangerous. Now fully aware of their danger they put forth every means to get off. She still stuck fast, and within a few hours the falling river had left her bow high and dry on the steep sloping bank, and this had forced her stern deep under the water.
“Finally, when the river had fallen enough for her to slide down the steep and slippery bank into the river, the lifting force of the river under her stern broke her up in two amid-ship and the boat and cargo were a total loss.”
In this case it is quite possible for parts of the old boat to still be at the bottom of the muddy Cumberland, just a few feet away from shore.
The river is higher today than it was in the 1870s due to the creation of Old Hickory Lake and the steep bank mentioned in the article is no longer visible. But if anyone is ever fishing from the small dock at Taylor’s Landing and they hook a strange piece of metal, it might be part of an old steamboat!