Steamboat Days Here

Walter Hitesman
The Gazette
October 5, 1939

Interesting Story About Steamboat Days Here Is Told By Old-Timer

The heyday of the steamboat era in Farmerville, the day when cotton ruled and the Bayous D’Arbonne and Cornie flowed southward with river steamers riding upon their crests, the days when a constant commerce of cotton streamed through Farmerville on to these steamers — these days are no more.

Instead fast, modern trains whip through the section, their puffing, straining locomotives dragging car load after car load of the fleecy staple, baled and on the way to clothe the world. The days of the steamboat — slow, plodding, romantic, adventurous, dangerous — have been superseded by modern transportation.

Where once heavy, sullen oxen doggedly strained haunches to drag the loads of heavy bales, modern trucks with fast, sure and accurate precision transfer the cotton to the gins, from the gins into the towns and cities or to the box cars.

But, despite the advantages of this modern transportation, despite the cheapness and convenience it offers, despite the savings in time and worry, the days when oxen and steamboats served this section bring glows of nostalgia to some of the “old timers”.

“Those Were the Days”

“Those were the days,” to repeat the oft-used phrase. “Yes, living was a job and a job that kept you on your toes ready and willing to enjoy whatever lot was thrown your way”.

Probably the best person in these parts to recall those days is M. W. (“Uncle Mark”) Rabun, whose father captained many a one of those “bayou boats” and who, himself, has worked many a day on the boats and streams.

“Uncle Mark” remembers well the days when boats used to ply the Bayou D’Arbonne as far as Stein’s Bluff and Killgore’s and Cobb’s landings on the Cornie and up Little D’Arbonne into Lincoln Parish. In fact, his father, Capt. J. M. Rabun, had the “Little D’Arbonne” cleared for navigation and “Uncle Mark,” as a young man, supervised the negro gang that did the work.

The first boat to make the trip up the Cornie was the “Friendly”, built and owned by Capt. Rabun.

Made First Trip

“I made the first trip,” “Uncle Mark” said, “and there were people lined up on both sides of the bank. They cheered and hollered as we passed. We loaded 300 bales of cotton on the boat, all we dared to put on it, and filled up the rest of the space with passengers. We went as far as Colvin’s store in Lincoln Parish (now Dubach). It was a great day.”

Steamboating on the D’Arbonne started during the Civil War. Old settlers recall that the first river boat ever to come up the bayous was one that steamed up as far as fork ferry during the Civil War to take on soldiers. It was not until several years after the war that regular commerce was installed on the waters.

Keel, Horse Boats

The old keel boats used to ply back and forth as did the horse boats. The horse boats were the first to be put in. The first one to run in this section was the “Fox”.

They were driven by horses that were kept in the boats and who used their weight and strength to force the boat along by walking on a treadmill. The keel boats were propelled by hand power, being dragged along by power furnished by leverage supplied by passing a rope around a tree 50 or 60 feet up the stream and then walking down toward the boat.

First Steamboat

The first steamboat on the Bayou D’Arbonne was the “Pioneer”, with other early boats being the “Economist” and the “Alice”.

The boats ran between Monroe and Stein’s Bluff, going to New Orleans about once a year, or oftener, if needed, for repairs. “Uncle Mark” said that he has seen at least three boats at Stein’s Bluff at one time, loading cotton night and day until completely filled. These boats would carry between 1,000 and 1,000 bales of cotton, he stated.

The boats made usually two runs a week. They would leave Stein’s Bluff and travel 80 miles to Monroe where they would transfer their cotton to the larger river packets and then service Bayou Bartholomew and Bayou Saline settlements the same as they did in this section.

Boats were about the only way that supplies and foodstuffs were transported into this section in those days, except by the slow oxen. It was by water, too, that people got out of the section. Passenger travel on boats was tremendous in those early days.

Disasters

Disaster struck in those days as it does today. “Uncle Mark” recalls several mishaps that happened on and to the boats. One boat, the “Fairplay,” that ran into this section, burned while tied up at Monroe after just completing a run from the D’Arbonne. His father was on the boat and just escaped being burned as fire swept the craft. There was one passenger, a printer named Ed Hancock, whose stateroom was locked and who burned to death.

Then the “Rosa B.”, another famous boat that served this territory burned just above the mouth of the D’Arbonne with Capt. L. Brunner in command. One of the first steam propeller boats – the “Diersburg” – on its first trip, burned at Mosley’s Bluff.

Disaster struck at a boat owned by a Captain Williams also. The “Redbird” was the name of the boat and it had been built especially for travel on Cornie. The captain had “gone to a dance over at Patsy’s Field’s house and there was big bunch from Monroe there too. Well, sir, when Williams got back to the bayou he found that his boat had burned while he was a dancin, “Uncle Mark” recalled.

Largest Boat

The “Hannah Blanks” was the largest river steamer ever to come up in these waters, the old river man stated. It was a huge, glittering river “palace” and made a special trip up here.

Other boats that used to be here were the following: “Pioneer,” the “Economist,” the “Bertha Brunner,” the “Sallie,” the “Friendly,” the “Rosa B.,” the “Sterling White,” the “Belle of D’Arboone,” the “Daniel Boone,” the “Rosa Brown,” the “Rosie Butler,” the “Willie,” the “Clara S.,” the “Josie W.,” the “Parlor City,” the”Lake Washington,” the “Timmy Baker,” and the “Linny Grover.”

The late Capt. Oscar Baughman, for many years a steamboat captain on the Ouachita River and the bayous constituting its tributaries, commanded several of these boats. He was among the last of the Captains and ran his boats until the boat went out of business here, and passed into history.

Other men who used to own and run these boats or some of them were: Captains Rabun, Crier, Butler, Vaughan, Bearden, Wilson, White, Williams, Blanks and many others.

Stopping Points

The stopping points of the  boats from Monroe on up the D’Arbonne were in order of stops, White’s Ferry, Harland’s Bluff, Turkey Bluff, Ward’s Bluff, Rugg’s Bluff, Mosley’s Bluff, Farmerville Landing and Stein’s Bluff. Sometimes they would go further up Cornie than Stein’s Bluff, as high as Killgore’s Landing and Cobb’s. There was also a Shiloh Landing above Stein’s Bluff.

Since cotton constituted most of the outgoing freight in this section, great warehouses were constructed, the first one being built at fork ferry. It was an enormous building, two stories high. Another large structure was built by D. Stein at Stein’s Bluff. It was between this warehouse and Farmerville that the first telephone line in the South was constructed by Col. Daniel Stein.

The large river boats never got up this way, but “Uncle Mark” recalls one famous boat race. It was from New Orleans to Camden, Ark., and back. He saw boats coming up the Ouachita River and surmised that they were racing. The boats were the “Governor Allen” and the “Mayflower”. The “Mayflower” burned a boiler, however, so the supremacy between the two boats was never known. Both of these steamers are famous in Mississippi River steamer history.  

Working conditions in the streams were hard, the old steamer man recalls. Wages were good, however, with the men on the boats working six hours on and six hours off. On the big boats, one that never saw these waterways, there were usually four engineers and four pilots.

At one time one of the boats was loading cotton seed. The negroes who were doing the work were working in a trot from the bank to the boat’s deck. The steamer’s mate placed a barrel of ice water with three or four tin cups at the gang plank. He told the negroes not to drink much of it, however. Perspiring freely under the hot June sun, several of the negroes would grab a cup of the water about every other time they dropped a sack of the seed on the boat’s deck. Three died as a result of the excessive water.

At another time in the history of steamboats on the Union Parish streams, a steamboat war was on. Having no regulatory body, the commerce on the river was extremely competitive. At this one time, common labor jumped to $1.25 a day. Rates on transportation dropped to an all-time low. Captain Blanks was one of the important river men figuring in this “price war.”

The heyday of the boats passed with the coming of the railroad into this section in 1904. They declined sharply and before long began to pass from the scene.

Today the bayous that used to carry these boats are filling up and boats no longer ply between Union Parish and Monroe and other important points.

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