The Vagabond: Mary Elizabeth Counselman Vinyard and The Leota steamboat

October 23, 2018 chris
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By Danny Crownover

The Vagabond recently was standing on the Coosa River boardwalk by where the Alabama Princess riverboat was once moored. The boat is no longer owned locally or docked at the location. But The Vagabond’s thoughts were about all the old riverboats that once plied the river. One of these original paddle-wheel boats, known as The Leota, lies underwater nearby.

Mary Elizabeth Counselman Vinyard, who was the owner of The Leota when it sank, was an acclaimed world-wide writer and a regular contributor to the Saturday Evening Post. Her best-known story, The Three Marked Pennies, has been published seven times and translated into five languages.

In 1941, Mary married Horace Vinyard, the great-grandson of Daniel Boone’s brother. A mutual love of river life had drawn them together. The couple immediately became caretakers of The Leota and started their life together.

The Leota was built in 1888 by the Coosa River Iron Company and featured a stern paddlewheel. The boar was first used to push barges loaded with wood to be burned into charcoal. It was called The Annie M. Crawford at that time but most folks then called it the Annie M.

Around 1894, the riverboat was taken over by government engineers and re-named The Leota. George T. Angle, the father of the late Mrs. Leslie C. King, was the boat’s captain. The Leota. was used for dredging, construction work and building locks on the Coosa River. It later it was used for shipping cotton and meat supplies down the river from Rome, Ga.

At one time, Hugh E. Green of Rome owned The Leota and took passengers on sightseeing trips up and down the river. Later, “Slowdrag” Wilson and “Square” Deal, also of Rome, came into possession of the boat. The owners anchored the boat at Gilbert’s Ferry, which is now the location of the Alabama Hwy. 77 Bridge at Southside. Wilson and Deal operated The Leota as a beer and barbecue cafe with dancing in the ballroom, which had formerly been the engine room until the diesels were removed. 

When Gadsden became a dry town in the 1920s and 30s, all beer joints, red-light houses and gambling casinos were closed down. By then, The Leota’s new owner, Hosea Pruitt, had moved the boat to a “free dockage” off Moragne Park and had electricity and water piped aboard.

In 1942, more than a year after Mary Elizabeth and Horace became caretakers of The Leota, Mr. Pruitt decided to sell the boat. The Leota was put up for private auction in an “as is” condition. Mary purchased the boat for cash, bidding against three men who had property but no cash or credit. Mary and Horace continued to live on the old riverboat.

During World War II, Ho-race was drafted and sent to the war, and Mary was left to care for the boat. U.S. Army chaplains from Camp Sibert used the ballroom for parties, since the USO facilities were overcrowded in Gadsden.

Mary’s son, William (Bill) Sander Vinyard, was born in 1943 and became a mascot of the lonely soldiers, who began to call Mary by the name of “Mommy.” The Leota eventually was placed off-limits to the soldiers because the boat supposedly was deemed unsafe.

Mary’s next venture was to use The Leota as a marina for hunting and fishing boats. She acquired a fleet of 14 small boats as rental boats.

The Leota sank after minor damage during a storm and currently sits at the bottom of the Coosa River.  Salvaged from the wreckage were the old pilothouse bells, a 300-pound anchor, an eight-foot pilot wheel and a brass capstan (windlass) cover.

Mary Elizabeth Counselman Vinyard passed away in 1995, but her work as a famous writer from Gadsden and fame as being the last owner of The Leota lives on. Perhaps someday Gadsden will honor this famous American.