Friday, December 10, 2010

A Tolerable Bateau Navigation

Here's an excerpt from my next forthcoming book A Tolerable Bateau Navigation: The Story of the Deep and Haw River Navigation Company, 1796-1881. You can order the book via email:

Round IV on the Upper Cape Fear: A Bateau Navigation 1828-1832

By the fall of 1828, the Fayetteville Observer was already complaining again about the Cape Fear Navigation Company’s emphasis on the Upper Cape Fear: “We understand that the hands employed upon our River are at work 20 or 30 miles above this town; to which no one could have a reasonable objection, if the Navigation Company had really removed the obstructions between this place and Wilmington, and had the funds left to prosecute the works above . . . The Navigation Company may possibly be promoting their own interests by their operations; but the merchants and boat owners here complain, and apparently with reason, that they pay heavy tolls, for no good that they can see except to furnish money to prosecute a visionary scheme of opening a navigation to Haywood, or Murphey’s Mills [Swepsonville]. Is there no remedy?” In response, the Board of Internal Improvements’ engineer Alanson Nash supervised the removal of snags below Fayetteville and the construction of an additional wing dam at Spring Hill Shoal (Observer 10/30/1828). Nash also reported that more such improvements were needed at the ferry at Elizabethtown and at the old ferry site a few miles below (1828 Report).

The summer of 1829 was a time of great optimism for the Cape Fear Navigation Co. The renewed investment from the State of North Carolina was making it possible to make major progress on improving the river above Fayetteville and the passable condition of the lower Cape Fear was allowing the Company to collect significant tolls. As the Recorder reported (6/10/1829) the CFN Company’s Directors at their annual meeting found “the affairs of the Company in a much more prosperous situation than at any other meeting during the time they have had the honor to direct its concerns.”

In fact, the papers were full of promising reports about navigation of the upper Cape Fear in the summer and fall of 1829. By July, the Recorder said that work on the Buckhorn locks was complete and that hands had been moved down to Smiley’s Falls (7/20/1829), allowing Haywood businessman Jonathan Haralson to send his boat the Clara Fisher to Fayetteville with 27 bales of cotton using hired boat hands (see also Observer 5/28/1829). Work was still progressing at Smiley’s Falls in September, but Archibald D. Murphey was able to send his boat from Haywood to Fayetteville (Recorder 9/23/1829). And still another trip through Smiley’s Falls reportedly at low water and at night was approvingly noted in October that year (Observer 10/22/1829).

The newspaper accounts certainly make it appear that the navigation of the Upper Cape Fear was complete by the end of 1829. As the Recorder (9/23/1829) put it: “The river, for the first time this season, is in good working order and nothing is wanting but hands for which liberal wages are offered.” But high-water in the winter of 1829-30 must have been hard on the works put in place in 1828 and 1829, as the summer of 1830 saw a furious new round of improvements under way above Fayetteville.

In 1830, the BII’s superintendent on the river, Abraham G. Keen built a breakwater dam at Haralson's landing, blasted ledges and built wing dams at Upper Little river falls, built more wing dams at Williams' Falls, and removed fish traps at Borough Shoals. They did more blasting and built more wing dams at Stewart's Creek ledge, at Shaw's Upper Falls and Wirt's Fish Stand Falls, at Thorington Creek Shoals , and at Jones Falls and Massie's Fish Stand Falls - to say nothing of wing dams built at M'Craney's Fish Stand Falls, Dry Creek Shoals, Norrington's Falls, Ford Shoals, Mrs. Atkins Ferry Shoal, John Atkin's Fish Trap Shoals, M'Neal Shoals, Guess Ford Shoals, James Battle's Falls, Blalock's Falls, and Brazier Falls. And they also built "several other dams." To his credit, Mr. Keen complained only that "[o]wing to the extreme low water this summer, I had a great deal of unnecessary work to do to enable us to get up the river with our loaded boats." (1830 Report)

The sweaty and noisy summer of 1830 must have resulted in a notable level of success. The BII met in June of 1830 at Haywood (Observer 6/10/1830) and “proceeded down the River in one of the Company’s boats, accompanied by several of the neighboring planters, and there being no obstruction in the River for ten miles, they had a pleasant passage to the dam across it near the Buckhorn Falls . . . The Boat then entered an outlet from the river which leads to the Buckhorn Canal. The river being low, Mr. Keene had some fears that it would not be found sufficient to carry the boat through the Locks; but the event found his fears groundless . . . and when [the boat] again entered the river, it met with but few obstructions. It had indeed to pass a number of inconsiderable falls, and some very shoal places; but from the sluices cut through the former, and the activity of the hands in managing over the latter, but little inconvenience was sustained from either.” The report allowed that the passage through Smiley’s Falls was rapid, but successful owing to wing dams, sluices and blasting that had been going on. Along the side of these long Sluices are erected substantial Stone Walls, which serve for towing paths for ascending boats.” (See also Observer 7/15/1830)

In fact, the level of optimism about the improvements to the upper Cape Fear was so high that some quarters seemed to think that boats, rather than wing dams were the missing ingredient. “As soon as it shall be generally known that there is a good navigation opened between Haywood and Fayetteville,” the Observer opined, “there is no doubt that the planters within a reasonable distance from the River, will avail themselves of this easy mode of sending their crops to market.” (Observer 6/10/1830) Even George M'Neill, no admirer of the Board of Internal Improvements, grudgingly admitted: "[T]he River was sluiced through Smiley's falls, and other falls between Fayetteville and Averasborough, which afforded a tolerable navigation for such bateaus as could pass the Canal and Locks at Buckhorn falls." (1838 Report)

The Backlash

In late 1830 increasing frustration with the Navigation Company led to sharp criticism in the newspapers. An anonymous letter to the editor of the Observer of 11/25/1830 bemoaned the navigation problems below Fayetteville and asked: “Why have not the stockholders for the last 3 years foreseen these fatal consequences at their general meetings? The only answer that can be given to that question is that the well known zeal manifested by Mr. [CFN Co. President James] Mebane in promoting operations above Fayetteville, and his representation of the 650 shares of stock owned by the State (and which generally constitutes a majority of stock represented at those meetings) precludes the possibility of any successful argument in favor of the true interests of the Company.” Still more criticism was published 12/2/1830 and on 12/23/1830. The Observer reported that a group of Wilmington residents had organized a petition to the legislature to revoke the CFN’s power to charge tolls on the river because of the shortcomings of the Company’s efforts between Fayetteville and Wilmington.

This critical sentiment was also reflected in the CFN Company’s annual report to the BII in 1830. "When the work now in progress, under the direction of your Board, between Fayetteville and Haywood is completed, it is hoped that the large sum expended at and about Buckhorn Falls will not be entirely unproductive. The Canal at and near Fayetteville is not likely to yield the company any income; but, on the contrary, it is a continual expense." (emphasis in original).

In 1831, there was evidently renewed unhappiness with the company in the legislature, as the Board of Internal Improvements was directed to assess the question of what had been accomplished by the Company . . .

For the rest of the story, please order a copy of the book via email:

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