By Danny “The Vagabond” Crownover
The first steamboat to ply the waters of the Coosa River was appropriately named The Coosa.
On July 4, 1845, that gallant little steamer, came around the bend below what is now Gadsden. Captain James Lafferty commanded the boat.
Large proportions and un-heard-of-profits were said to have been derived from the boat’s operation. Some of the early boats returned to their owners net profits equaling two or three times their costs in one year.
Huge earnings continued up to the outbreak of the Civil War. Since freight rate regulations were unknown, boat operators were free to make their own rates, and the planters were glad to pay the price. The days of the slow and expensive method of handling freight by raft and flatboat was at an end. In 1873, six boats plied the Coosa River, bringing 30,000 bales of cotton to Rome, Ga., in a single season.
By the mid-1880s, however, the rates became unbearable. The White Star Line Steamboat Company had a complete monopoly on the Coosa River and was charging enormous sums. This situation was such a concern that both buyers and sellers decided to put a stop to it.
Around September of 1885, a large and enthusiastic meeting was held by the merchants of the town of Centre at the Cherokee County Courthouse. The merchants issued a statement that read, “The patrons of the Coosa River have risen in their majesty and demanded once for all, that they be slaves to the coffers of warehouses no longer. Equity is all that is demanded from Gadsden to within a few miles of Rome. Alabama merchants and shippers can no longer pay the double rate of freight and are determined to return to the old rates.”
It was moved that a committee be appointed to confer with shippers along the river as to the best method of securing cheap rates and to see how much support would be given to another line of steamers now in pro-spect.
The statement further said that, “The people are thoroughly aroused to the question, and they propose to see with their money if Capt. Seay owns [the] Coosa River or if it is a public thoroughfare designed by the God of nature to bless the section through which it passes. Rome has gone too far in oppressing this people with unjust tariff discriminations.”
A citizens’ meeting was also held at the courthouse in the City of Gadsden on the 30th of September in 1885. A large majority of the area’s merchants and businessmen were present. It was explained the object of the meeting was to be the protection of Gadsden and the citizens of Cherokee, Etowah and St. Clair counties against discrimination in the ways of freights on cotton and other products coming to Gadsden for a market.
A statement was issued and read,” We pledge our entire river patronage to any party who will put a boat in this trade and run it in this interest, carrying cotton and other produce from all landings in the counties named to Gadsden at fair rates, and giving to passengers an opportunity to visit Gadsden with their produce on one fare for round trip.”
The answer was a new steamer, the Willie C. Wagnon, which was being built by Peter Wagnon around January1898. The ship was built in Gadsden by the Coosa River Transportation Company, of which Mr. Wagnon was the president and general manager. The completed ship cost $8,000. The boat was named after Mr. Wagnon’s only daughter, Miss Willie C. Wagnon.
The boat was 175 feet long and 34 feet wide, one of the largest boats that ever plied the Coosa River. It was very substantially built with nine comfortable staterooms.
The ship’s first cargo consisted of 25,000 feet of plow beams and handles consigned to the Towers & Sullivan Manufacturing Company. Captain George H. Gould was captain and superintendent and known as an old river man. The boat was said to carry 650 to 700 bales of cotton and could make 10 miles per hour up stream and 18 down.
When the cotton season opened up, a struggle began for this line of business and continued with great intensity. As a result, the White Star Line Steamboat Company announced a cut on freight to five cents per 100 pounds from Rome to Gadsden and vice versa, as well as all landings on the river.
The river war commenced in earnest. The Willie C. Wagnon and the Coo-sa River Transportation Company immediately met the cut. The steamer Resaca came down with 35 bales of cotton and a good deal of merchandise.
White Star finally had its opposition in the river traffic, but another competition soon appeared. In February of 1898, the Southern Railway’s line (Rome & Decatur) also reduced its freight rates to Gadsden.
Both the Resaca and the Wagnon hauled cotton from Gadsden and intermediate points to Rome. The Wagnon hauled between 350 and 400 bales a trip, and the Resaca between 200 and 300. The boats made two trips per week.
Around 1899, White Star changed hands when Capt. J.D. Kirkpatrick became sole owner and proprietor. After several months of a bitter war, the two steamboat companies operating on the Coosa River decided in January of 1899 to quit fighting and consolidate. Also, passing into the hands of the new owner was The Conesauga.
Wagon was elected as president, J.J. Seay of Rome as general manager and John T. Warlick as superintendent.
When the companies merged, they operated under the name of the White Star Steamboat Line. Cotton was hauled from Gadsden to Rome for as low as two and one-half cents a bale, and other freight was as low-priced.
Of course, the two lines lost a lot of money. Just before their own intense battle, they combined to give the Southern Railroad a rate fight, which was costly to all concerned. Much freight was still being handled on the Coosa River during that period, but slowly and gradually, the handwriting on the wall became clearer and clearer. The boats did not go anywhere. They could handle business between Rome, Ga., and Greensport, Ala., but that was all.