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Wednesday, 21 December 2011 15:13

Navigating the waterways of WNC

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When one thinks about navigation in regard to the rivers here in the Smokies region, it’s old-time ferries and modern-day canoes, kayaks, rafts, tubes, and motorboats that come to mind. But there have been other sorts of navigation involving flatboats, keelboats, mule boats, whaling boats, and even steamboats. Some incredible stories have been recorded in this regard.

The 19th century was the flatboat, keelboat, and mule boat era on the lower Little Tennessee River. It is best described by Alberta and Carson Brewer in Valley So Wild: A Folk History (Knoxville: East Tennessee Historical Society, 1975):

“The big wooden ‘arks’ plied the river carrying ladies, servants, cattle, horses, dogs, poultry and produce, while oarsmen used long ‘sweeps’ to steer clear of rocks, snags and submerged trees. Flatboats had sturdy wood bottoms designed for heavy loads, and whatever superstructure best suited the needs of passengers and cargo. Usually the owner broke them up at the end of the trip and sold the lumber. An average flatboat cost about $20 to build. It required several months to build the boat, float it to New Orleans, and sell the cargo and return.

“The Little Tennessee River was deep enough for flatboats as far as the mouth of Abrams Creek (located in the present-day Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee just southwest of Fontana Dam). Rafts could be used as far up as Tallassee, four miles farther.

Upriver traffic (beyond that point) required a different craft and technique.  Brawny boatmen walked planks along gunwales and pushed with long poles to propel the big keelboats against the current. Sometimes men walked towpaths along the bank pulling the vessel by rope, or used a method called ‘warping’ (fastening the tow rope to a tree upstream and pulling the boat toward the tree). If they were able to move the boat against the current by holding on to trees or bushes on the bank, it was called ‘bushwacking.’

“Old-timers even recalled ‘mule boats’ powered by a mule walking on top of a broad slatted wheel turned by the mule’s weight as its legs made steps that went nowhere.”    

The whaling boat story was related by John Preston Arthur in a delightful account that appeared in his Western North Carolina: A History  — 1730-1913 (Asheville, 1914) under the heading “A Thrilling Boat Ride.”

“A large whale boat had been built at Robbinsville and hauled to a place on Snowbird creek just below Ab. Moody’s, where it was put into the creek, and it was floated down that creek to Cheoah River and thence to Johnson’s post-office, where Pat Jenkins then lived. It was hauled from there by wagon to Rocky Point, where, in April, 1893, Calvin Lord, Mike Crise and Sam MeFalls, lumbermen working for the Belding Lumber Company, got into it and started down the Little Tennessee on a ‘tide’ or freshet.

“No one ever expected to see them alive again. But they survived. By catching the overhanging branches when swept toward the northern bank at the mouth of the Cheoah River, the crew managed to effect a landing, where they spent the night. They started the next morning at daylight and got to Rabbit Branch, where the men who had been sent to hunt them. They spent three days there till the tide subsided, then they went on to the Harden farm, which they reached just one week after leaving Rocky Point. No one has ever attempted this feat since, even when the water was not high. The boat was afterwards taken on to Lenoir City, Tenn.”

The story about the fabulous steamboat named “Vivian” is related in by the Brewers and by Lance Holland in Fontana: A Pocket History of Appalachia (Robbinsville: Appalachian History Series, 2001).

John, James and Charles Kitchen arrived in WNC during the early part of the 20th century and established a lumber company on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. They had acquired 20,000 or so acres of land in the Twenty Mile Creek watershed and cleared Little Tennessee River area below what is now Fontana Dam so as to establish Cheoah Lake.  After the lake was flooded in 1919, the only access to their timber holdings along Twenty Mile Creek was by foot or small boat.  

But how in the world do you get the logs out to the sawmill? No problem You simply build a steamboat; after all, the brothers did have prior maritime experience.

The “Vivian” (named after Charlie’s wife) was homemade ... a 50-foot long stern-paddlewheeler —  crafted from white oak with four four-foot sidings and powered by an upright boiler steam engine — it was the pride of  the Kitchen Lumber Company ... a sight to behold as it towed a string of large barges loaded to the gunwales with logs across the lake to the awaiting locomotive, Big Junaluska ... and  furthermore “its whistle could not  be ignored,” note the Brewers, “as it let out ear-splitting whistles to seal the transaction and set the mountains trembling for miles.”   

Stories about the Vivian proliferated in Graham County, of course; after all, a steamboat built and navigated along a man-made lake in the Great Smoky Mountains  was something worth talking about and remembering. The one I like best is told by Holland: “Joseph P. Sluder, whose mother Julie ran a logging camp boardinghouse on Twenty Mile Creek, recounted ... that Luther Anthony, Captain of the Vivian, learned to play its steam whistle to imitate the call of the whippoorwill, that was a beautiful sound — more beautiful every time we heard it.”

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in a December 2001 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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