From the Narrows to Devil’s Staircase to Popeye


  In 1540 Hernando De Soto and his entourage were the first Europeans to enter the Coosa Valley. The tribes they encountered during their travels were more like large organized kingdoms than small villages. De Soto utilized the natives’ food, resources and women to sustain his party as it traveled across the state of Alabama. 

Displeased with the above marauder, the Indian Chief Tascalooza staged an attack on De Soto at a location in south Alabama (its exact location is unknown). The ensuing fight was the bloodiest encoun-ter with Indians in the Western Hemisphere. The toll on the Indians was much worse than for the Spaniards, but De Soto left the state wounded and much more cautious of his dealings with the tribes.

After the Spaniards left the region, a century of disease carried by them decimated the tribes. By the time Europeans returned more than a century later, there were no signs of the once-vast kingdoms described by De Soto. The tribes had fragmented and reconstituted in smaller bands of villages across the state.

Early in the 17th century, the British established a practical monopoly of trade with the Indians. The French were desperate to compete with these savvy English traders for control of the region and believed that the forks of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers where the Alabama River was formed was the key to the country.

At that time, commerce depended upon control of waterways for the transport of goods. This critical juncture of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers was the gateway to the port of Mobile Bay, which in turn connected the region to the European homeland.

Further encouraging the French, the Alabama Indians (part of the newly formed lower Creeks) traveled to Mobile and invited the French to build a fort in their territory. In 1717, the French arrived to build Fort Toulouse overlooking the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers. This marked the first significant European presence in the region.

In the late 17th century, virtually all of the English traders and settlers fled the area as a result of Indian uprisings inspired by the Yamasee Indians in the Carolinas. The French and British struggled for the area until 1763, when the Treaty of Paris was signed and the French surrendered the area.

As encroachment upon their lands increased, the remaining tribes formed a confederacy called the Upper Creeks. This band was brutally defeated by General Andrew Jackson at Horseshoe Bend.

The resulting Treaty of Fort Jackson in 1814 gave Creeks the land between the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers, but white settlers almost immediately began moving into the area at the forks that, unfortunate for the Creeks, was not included in the nation.

The very first river town to form in the Coosa Basin began in the 1830’s, right at the base of the last falls on the Coosa, the Devil’s Staircase. The first post office was named “Falls of the Coosa” until a year later, when the name “Wetumpka” was adopted, a Native American word for ‘the falling stream.’ The fishing in these early years was purported to be excellent.

Steamboats on the Coosa River

The first steamboat on the Coosa River was appropriately named The Coosa, which was launched on the fourth of July in 1845. The steamer was built in Cincinnati, traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, then made it through inland passages of the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile and up the Alabama River to the Coosa. When the steamer arrived at Wetumpka – which was the head of navigation heading upstream – it stopped unable to navigate up the treacherous Devil’s Staircase.The boat was disassembled and carried by oxen drawn wa-gons to Greensport, where it was reassembled and launched.

The steamer immediately received a contract to carry mail from Greensport to Rome, Ga. After this historic launch, the ambitious city of Wetumpka was of lesser importance as a ri-ver trade center. Today, the town of Greensport is buried under the waters of Neely Henry Lake.

Gadsden originally was called Double Springs. It began as a lumber mill town as steamer’s used the Coosa to tow rafts of logs to be milled. At the end of the Civil War, the town of Gadsden claimed only 400 inhabitants.

Impassable Shoals of the Coosa

Shortly after the close of the Civil War, with miles of southern rail lines destroyed by Union troops, the rivers of Alabama once again became a vital artery of commerce throughout the region.

From Rome to Greensport on the Upper Coosa, the river was virtually clear for navigation, with few hidden rocks submerged below the surface. It began to dawn on residents that ferrying the goods of Alabama upstream to be bought and sold in Rome had little advantages to the long-term economic growth of the state.

With long impassable shoals separating Greensport and Riverside on the upper Coosa from Wetumpka on the lower Coosa, however, there was no downstream market alternative. The Lower Coosa, for all intents and purposes, ran smack into a rocky dead end. These treacherous shoals started downstream of Greensport with Embry Bend and Broken Arrow Shoals. But it was below where the bridge crossed the river connecting Talladega and Shelby counties that the wild water began. The names of these shoals accurately depicted their hazardous nature: The Narrows, Devil’s Race, Butting Ram Shoals, Hell’s Gap, Peckerwood Shoals, Closet, Moccasin’s Reefs, Devil’s Staircase and a racially insensitive name.

In 1867, Alabama legislators set out to resolve this dilemma by authorizing a survey of the Alabama-Coosa corridor, with the intention of making the waterway navigable for steamboat traffic. The bud-get for this survey was set at $3,000.

The first 200-plus miles of this survey found no obstacles too difficult to overcome, but the river dropped over 275 feet (over whitewater) in the last 60 miles before reaching Wetumpka. For survey leader Major Thomas Pearsall, all of his earlier optimism was dashed. He reported that no fewer than 18 locks and dams – each one 10 feet high, 210 feet long and 25 feet wide – would be required to na-vigate this section. The last of the falls, known as Devil’s Staircase, would require an additional seven locks and dams, unless of course, it was feasible to build a canal around this obstruction.

Though his estimated price tag of $2,500,000 was astronomical for the times, Pearsall believed it would be well worth it for the ability to send commerce south to Mobile, for the benefit of Alabama, rather than north to Rome for the benefit of Georgia. Pearsall’s recommendations were ignored, however, and the dream of a navigable Coosa River was not realized. As far as commerce was concerned, the Coosa and Alabama were two rivers that flowed in different directions.

As the future of steamboat commerce declined, the use of steamboats for pleasure and amusement soared. Historians often refer to this period as the “Golden Age of Alabama” and to the recreational steamboats as “Floating Palaces.” This era ended with the proliferation of railroads a decade after the Civil War, and life along the rivers never returned to its former splendor.

Origins of Popeye 

Back in 1913, the lock and dam at Mayo’s Bar in Georgia was completed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, making navigation over the Horse Leg Shoals of the Coosa River easier. The dam raised the water levels about 10 feet. Charged to keep the channel clear, the corps used the boat “Annie M,” later re-named “Leota.”

The boat’s captain was named Sims, who was a resident of Ohatchee. His son Tom became a comic strip artist when he inherited the strip “Thimble Theatre” from creator Elzie Segar, who died in 1938.

The strip’s story line dealt with the Oyl family that owned a shipping business. Commodore Oyl had a son, Castor, and a daughter, Olive. One of the sailors that worked for the commodore was a wise-cracking and spinach-eating chap named Popeye. Tom Sims took that character, spun him off and gave him his own strip, thus creating Popeye the Sailor Man.

Tom Sims is quoted as saying, “Fantastic as Popeye is, the whole story is based on facts. As a boy, I was raised on the Coosa River. When I began writing the script for Popeye, I put my characters back on the old Leota that I knew as a boy, transformed it into a ship and made the Coosa River a salty sea.”

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