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Page history last edited by Shamella Cromartie 14 years, 4 months ago

Steamboat lore:

One toot of the whistle, steamboat’s coming;

Two toots of the whistle, freight’s aboard;

Three toots of the whistle, a lady coming ashore;

Four toots of the whistle, a corpse aboard.




    My grandmother, Ella Melvin Robeson, used to get on the A P Hurt with her friends for a little outing much as we would go to parties or dances when we were young. 

     According to the story she told me when I was a little girl, she got on the boat one Friday night on the way to Wilmington.  With her were three of her aunts (nearly her age) and two brothers who were both interested in courting her.

      She had dated Sam first but he had to go off to work for a month or two.  When he left he said to his brother Jim, "Take good care of my girl while I am gone."

     Jim took very good care of her, and by the time Sam returned, she didn't know which of them she liked best.  According to Ella's story, they got her  on the boat and told her she would have to make up her mind on that very cruise.  She said she almost had to say "Eeny meenny miney mo," but she chose Sam who became my grandfather.

     Sam died in 1941; Ella in 1955, and Jim lived until 1970. 


contributed by Laurie Smith






The photo above is of the Thelma.  The wreck of the Thelma can still be seen when the river is low at

 Tory Hole.                                                            






                                    A sideboard recovered from a wrecked steamer.


To see a list of the steamers and their captains click here




(By Rev, Nash A. Odom, Pastor of the First Baptist Church, Dublin, N.C. and President of the Bladen County Historical Society.)

Lawson’s history of 1709 tells of perhaps the first transportation on the Upper Cape Fear. A party of explorers, from the Barbados, entered the mouth Of the Cape Fear in 1663 and ease up it about fourteen leagues, the party then took to their long boat and pushed up the river and continued for a distance of 50 leagues, from its mouth. If this estimated distance is correct, the explorer’s came up to and beyond Fayetteville.

The period from the time of the first settlers along the upper river to the steamboat days, was undoubtedly one of transportation by barge and lighters which were propelled by the use of long poles up the river and the downward trip was dependent upon the current for propulsion. Some of the early lighters were owned by Paris I. Tillinghast, Alex Campbell and Thomas Moody, and the "Yankee Co." The first boats were called The Yankee, the Old Commodore and William James.

We now come to the steamboat days on the Cape Fear, which followed closely the proof of steam boating by its inventor Robert Fulton.

The first steamboat was the "Prometheus" which plied between Wilmington and Smithville (Southport). It was never known to come into the upper Cape Fear.

In Wilmington a joint stock company was formed for the purpose of having a steamer built to ply between Wilmington and Smithville or Wilmington and Fayetteville. Captain Otway Burns of the Privateer Snap Dragon of the War of 1812, was the contractor. The boat was built at Beaufort where he resided.

In 1817, James Seawell commenced building the first Fayetteville steamboat at his plantation on the east bank of the Cape Fear river, three miles above Campbellton. She was completed in 1818 and a large concourse of people were present at the launching. She was called "Henrietta" after his daughter. The draft of the "Henrietta" was 7.5 feet and was captained by Captain Charles Taws, a short time later by Capt. Benjamin Rush.

With establishment ©f steamboats on the upper Cape Fear, the transportation increased by leaps and bounds. Following the "building of the "Henrietta", James Seawell built the "North Carolina", the "Cotton Plant" was next. Then came the "John Walker" followed by the "Evergreen”, "Magnolia", "Governor Graham", "Chatham", "Sun", "Kate McLaurin", "Fannie Latterloh", "Flora McDonald", "A. P. Hurt", "Governor Worth*, "D. Murchison”, "North State" and the "Cape Fear".             

The last boat to make trips was called "The City of Fayetteville. This ran from 1903 until 1914.

In the book, THE STORY OP FAYETTEVILLE, by John A. Dates, page 435, we are told about the human elevator at Elizabethtown. Around 1900 Mr. Oates says there was a large amount of traffic—-both freight and passenger—on the Cape Fear Hiver.  The usual schedule was to leave Fayetteville in the morning as soon as the steamer from Wilmington had arrived and unloaded. Its approach to Fayetteville was announced

by repeated blows of the steamer whistle, beginning several miles down the river.

  As soon as the first blast was heard, buggies, hacks, and drays began to move toward the river for customers. It was a scramble when the gangplank was thrown out. Oncein a while a careless passenger would miss footing and go down into ten feet or moreof muddy water. After flood waters had receded the banks were muddy and slippery.  At Fayetteville the way down to the landing was graded and it was not so difficultto get up and down.

At Elizabethtown, it was not quite so easy. At Elizabethtown a well-built Negro was always on hand to meet the steamers after a flood had gone down. His profession was catching catfish and carrying passengers up the muddy hill on his back. On this occasion, a beautiful passenger got off at Elizabethtown, the whistle had blown to leave and she stood on the lower deck in great confusion. The Captain told her that she would have to go up on the human elevator or go forty miles to Fayetteville and come back in a public hack. She decided to take the elevator and up she went, greatly embarrassed and furnishing amusement to the usual crowd. Safely at the top and on her feet, she asked the charge. Theman was a gentleman. With his cap in one hand he replied "There ain’t no charge miss, it was wuth it.*1

There were a great number of stops on the Cape Fear River between Wilmington and Fayetteville which were served by the river steamers. Some of the stops were about 1/4 mile apart. Those still living who traveled on the river steamers will recall the frequent stops to take on or put off passengers or to take on produce and put off merchandise, fertilizer and other things,  There were no built-up landings. The access to the steamer was by a gang plank from the bank to the first deck. The passengers walked and the deck hands moved the produce and merchandise. Sometimes there was a slip and passengers or pieces of freight would go into the river to be quickly recovered by the alert deck hands.

Notable commanders in the history of Cape Fear navigation were Captains John P. Stedman, who lost his life by the explosion of the boiler of the "Fanny LutterlohM, Rush, A. P. Hurt, after whom a steamer was named. Phillips, Skinner, Green, Worth, Smith, and Garrason. The Captain's rule on board was autocratic but patriarchal. He sat at the head of the table and served the passengers as the father of a family would his children. The fare was plain but wholesome and abundant, and, with good weather and a fair depth of water, the trip between Fayetteville and Wilmington

was very pleasant. The river goes on its way to the sea with many a wind and bend, its banks steep and heavily wooded, the wild grape climbing the tall trees, and the wild jasmine and flowering honeysuckle giving forth their fragrance. Those veteran captains knew the river well and most of the people qh either bank clear to Wilmington; the pilots, many of whom were Negroes, knew every crook and eddy of the stream.

One of the problems the steamers faced was a frozen Cape Pear River. This seems hard for us to imagine today. We never see it frozen. THE WILMIEGTON STAB newspaper for February 13, 1886, tells us that in January, 1886, two of the steamers, the "Bladen" and the "Hurt" loaded at Fayetteville and headed down a frozen river toward Wilmington. After several days, more characterized by difficulties than by progress, the two skippers admitting defeat, tied up their ships at Tar Heel. Whereupon the passengers disembarked and walked twenty miles overland to Lumberton, where they were able to take a train for Wilmington.

And for those who simply refuse to believe it, the picture is enclosed in the paper. The picture was taken from THE STA9E MAGAZINE, Vol. 59, No. 18. Feb. 15, 1972 issue, Pg. 17. This picture was taken on the Cape Fear River, just above Elizabethtown, about 1917, and shows two of the river steamers on the Wilnington to Fayetteville run. The boats were stranded by ice on the river. You can notice men walking about mid-way the river on the ice.


There was always trouble facing the steamers. It was at White Hall landing above Elizabethtown that the old steamboat "Magnolia" blew up killing the entire crew and 18 persons.

The diary of Elizabeth Ellis Robeson of Tar Heel records many of the happenings on the steamboats in Bladen County for the period of 1847 to 1865. She always mentioned the steamboat as one of the major means of travel.

On November 16, 1849 she mentions "Mary and Raeford went to Fayetteville. She heard that David Olliphant was expected to die. He had his leg torn off on board the steamboat." On November 27th she mentions that David Oliphant was dead.

On June 21st, 1850, she writes, "The Evergreen Steamboat" met with an accident at our landing. Ferebe and myself went down to the boat.  Mr. Fennel and lady and Mrs. C. Wood came from the boat and staid with us until they got a conveyance to Fayetteville.”

On January 15, 1853, she records, "I hear today that C«main Prudence went on board the "Fanny” to go to see her daughter in Brunswick County.”

On August 13th 1853, she writes, "Saturday. The boiler of the Steamboat Chatham bursted, killed the fireman and badly wounded the Captain and another hand."

On August 18, 1853, she says, “Capt. Hurt came here from off the Steamboat, stays at night, returns in the morning to the boat. We are to send him his meals."

At the July 4, 1854, celebration she tells about the courtesy of the Captain

of the boat "Brothers” in providing rides for those attending the celebration at D. Callihan's Store in the Grove on the riverbank. "The steamboat "Brothers” was at the landing and Captain Williams very politely offered to take those who wished on excursion a few miles down the river. 90 persons went on board, ladies, gentlemen and children."

On October llt 1854, she writes, "Six men off the steamboat took supper here, give me $1.20.”

On October 13th, 1857, she tells us, "Raeford took the boat "Fanny" for New


On February I7th, 1858, she writes about the blowing up of the "Magnolia”.  ....After night we heard the sad news of the blowing up of the Steamer "Magnolia11.  The Capt. & a great many deck passengers were killed. All were saved that were in the cabin."

On August 27th, I860, she writes, "Mrs. Miles Allen left for home on board the N. Carolina”.

On September 19th 1861, she tells us, "Evander left this morning on the "Hurt” in company with Capt. Purdie for Confederate Point."

On May 12th 1862, she says, "J. S. Cain, Alexis, Coy & Cad Robeson got on the "Borth Carolina" at Council's Bluff & left for Wilmington to join Captain Patterson's Company. I & Cecelia & Mary M. & Lucy Cain went to the River at our landing & bid them goodbye not knowing that we will ever see them again."'

Thus a glamorous chapter in Cape Fear history comes to an end when the last of the old steamboats, "The City of Fayetteville", makes her last run in 1914.



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