From our early days of Rhea County history we find information relating to the importance of water in the lives of our early settlers. Water was the lifeline in those early days, as it still is today. Not only did our ancestors need this commodity for drinking and cooking, it was also very important for their daily activities, including travel, agriculture, tanning of hides, building, medicine, and many other social and business pursuits. During its early development, the Town of Washington began to emerge as an important river port, and the Washington Landing became a significant stop along the Tennessee River. An exact location is not known, but from early records it seemed to be approximately two miles from the town itself.
Since there were no steamboats on the upper Tennessee River, the merchants of Rhea County had to haul their commodities in wagons from Baltimore and other Northern cities. According to research, fleets of wagons which were the prairie schooner type, were drawn by horses or mules; these would leave for Baltimore during the early fall and not return for a period of six weeks up to two months. Another issue was that freight rates were extremely high, making the cost of manufactured items beyond the reach of most people; therefore, some buyers would only be able to afford smaller amounts of goods. Most of the clothing items were made at home, instead of being bought; other things such as shoes and hats were bought locally. (Note: the prairie schooner wagon was a large covered wagon which housed all of a family’s belongings, and was used by pioneers to cross the American prairies.)
Because of the above reasons, one of the most important developments affecting the history of Rhea County during the latter 1820’s was the steamboat. And it was during 1828 that the side-wheel steamer, Atlas came to Washington. The steamboat was the beginning of a new revolution in trade! Before this time, water trade had mostly been one-way for Washington. Flat boats were built in which the goods were floated down the Tennessee River to towns along the lower length to the Ohio and Mississippi, even to New Orleans. When these products reached their market, the boats were sold for the wood, or abandoned, because they could not be brought back upstream. (This was due to the Shoals and other dangerous areas indigenous to the waterways.) These flat boats were inadequate to meet the demands of trade; therefore, we can understand why the people of Washington were thrilled when the steamboat Atlas came to their landing.
Captain S. D. Conner was Master of the Atlas, and was able to navigate the steamboat over the obstacles in the Muscle Shoals, which was a pioneering trip. The area which the steamboat had to sail was upstream through the mountains, where the channel was narrowed down to the span of a stone’s throw, and the current was described as being as swift as “a pot of boiling water.” Another problem which the Captain incurred was getting fuel for the steamboat. Wood had to be cut in proper dimensions for stoking the boilers in order for the Atlas to run. Since there were no wood yards along the way, (there had not been a need for these before the steamboat) and the land was sparsely populated during that time, Captain Conner and his crew had to stop and chop wood when they would run out. Also, they probably had to obtain food for themselves from farmers along the way.
Instead of a bell or whistle to announce its arrival in a port, the Atlas, like other early boats, had a small cannon mounted on it, which was fired to inform people of its approach. Since there were still a number of Indians living along the Tennessee River, the gun may have also been used to warn them. Naturally, the cannon was very loud, and reverberated more because of the water. It was enough to scare people when they heard it. Since the cannon sounded when the Atlas was near the Washington landing, many people became frightened and ran away, while others ran to the dock with anticipation and great excitement about what was taking place.
It was due to the introduction of the steamboat that growth occurred along the Tennessee River. Merchants in Washington and other ports in the Tennessee Valley were then able to buy their goods in Cincinnati, New Orleans, Louisville, and other cities where water transportation could be used. Not only did the steamboat bring about easier trade, it also stimulated the population growth in these areas through more convenient travel. Not only were trade and monetary interests increased, but there was an excitement and exhilaration related to the operation of a steamboat.
From the dictionary we find that the word Atlas has the meaning of a giant compelled to support the heavens on his shoulders; this is from Greek legend. Therefore, this steamboat brought about such a change in our past, that it was a significant historical development in the growth of Rhea County’s Washington. This steamboat era included more than three generations of Washington’s colorful history. Naturally, it should be documented and studied so that we can learn from our past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.
Pat Guffey can be reached at email@example.com