Monday, September 8, 2014

First steamboat over Look and Tremble Falls (1861)

Look and Tremble Falls
Calhoun County, Florida
The long forgotten steamboat Jackson was the first paddlewheel vessel ever to cross the treacherous waters of Look and Tremble Falls in Calhoun County, Florida. It did so even as the clouds of war were gathering over the South.

The boat churned its way up the Chipola River shortly after Florida seceded from the Union in 1861. Described by newspapers of the time as being 100-feet long but with a draft of only one-foot, the Jackson made it all the way up to Marianna in January 1861.

The vessel was specially designed to navigate the Chipola River during winter and the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers during summer on specs provided by her captain and owner, Daniel Fry. When she steamed up the Apalachicola and Chattahoochee Rivers to Columbus, Georgia, in August 1860, a newspaper described the Jackson as a "mode of symmetry and beautiful proportion."

Marianna before its streets were paved.
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
Captain Fry proposed doing something with the Jackson that had never been done before: steaming a large vessel all the way up the Chipola to Marianna. Prior to the completion of his vessel, all commerce on the middle and upper river had been carried out by pole boat and barge. One of the big reasons for this was a rapids or "falls" in the river called "Look and Tremble."

Located near the modern community of Altha in Calhoun County, Look and Tremble is a Class I rapids that all but disappears when the river is high. It can reach Class II status when the water is just right, but lost some of its original fierce appearance during the late 1800s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blasted a channel through the rocks.

Boat docks at Apalachicola, Florida
When Captain Fry planned his first trip up the Chipola, however, Look and Tremble still roared. In hopes of steaming directly over the rapids, he took the Jackson down to Apalachicola and waited for the annual winter rise of the river. It was an exciting venture and the entire South followed his journey in the newspapers of the day and waited with excited anticipation to see if his adventure would succeed.

The trip began even as delegates met in Tallahassee to consider the secession of Florida. They voted to declare independence and state troops seized the Apalachicola Arsenal at Chattahoochee, Fort Barrancas in Pensacola and the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine as the boat and its crew started on their journey.

Look and Tremble Falls
In Marianna, anticipation grew as the Jackson slowly made its way up the Chipola. Its crew cleared snags and obstructions as they advanced and then, with the engines at full power, drove the boat up and over the rapids at Look and Tremble. The news was greeted with celebration in Jackson County, a political entity roughly divided by the Chipola River and then one of the three most populated counties in Florida.

On January 27, 1861, as the men of Florida were flooding into military units for the defense of their state, the Jackson reached Marianna. Huge crowds lined the banks of the river to see the beautiful little steamboat arrive:

Marianna today
...There was great rejoicing among the people, and on the Tuesday following, a ball was given in honor of the steamer and her officers...It was a great day for Marianna, and "inaugurated a new era in her commerce; substituting steam for the slow pole-boat or barge," with which, it seems, the Chipola river, as far up as that place, has been navigated heretofore. (Augusta Chronicle, February 8, 1861).

The steamboat remained at Marianna for three days taking on a cargo of 274 bales of cotton. It was the largest single shipment of cotton ever made from Marianna up to that time. Then, with passengers enjoying her luxurious staterooms and a crowd of well-wishers on shore, the steamer turned down the Chipola and began her journey back to Apalachicola.

Apalachicola River
Photo taken from Confederate battery site at
Alum Bluff in Liberty County, Florida.
The Jackson probably repeated her voyage to Marianna several more times in early 1861, but the imposition of the Union blockade soon brought cotton shipping to an end at Apalachicola. The boat was converted for use as a scout vessel and troop transport by the Confederate army and continued to navigate the Apalachicola River for much of the war. Captain Fry served as an important pilot for Confederate vessels on that river throughout the War Between the States (or Civil War).

The Jackson did not survive the war. She went down on the lower Apalachicola in 1864 after accidentally striking a snag.

Please click here to learn more about Look and Tremble Falls.

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