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Ira Harmon piloted boats down the Coosa to the Alabama River during the Civil War

COAL BARGING IN ALABAMA IN WAR TIMES

1861-65

By DR. W. H. BLAKE

Sheffield, Ala.

During the War of Session (sic) coal from mines in Saint Clair County, Alabama, was supplied to the Confederate arsenal at Selma. Most of this coal was mined by Ragland and Sims at a place now called Ragland, two miles west of Coosa river.


Part of it was mined by Crandle and Anderson at a place one mile west of Ragland. From these mines, the coal was hauled to the river on wagons and there loaded on flat boats. Some of these boats were floated down the river to Yellow Leaf, now Wilsonville, and there the coal was transferred to railroad cars and shipped over the Selma, Rome and Dalton railroad to Selma.

The greater number of the boats were floated down the Coosa river to the Alabama river, and thence by Montgomery to Selma. Ira Harmon, who acted as pilot for these boats, is still living. The writer recently visited him at his home one mile south of Easonville in St. Clair County. The statements set forth in this article were made by Mr. Harmon on this visit. He is an intelligent old man, now feeble with the infirmities of age, but his straightforward, blunt statements bear evidence of the energy and courage of his earlier years.

Floated down a flat boat to the Tennessee River

Ira Harmon was born among the western foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in Greene County, Tennessee. When a child of six years his father moved to Talladega County, Alabama. Pioneer methods of travel are illustrated by a description of this move. The elder Harmon placed his family on a flat boat on the Nolichucky river, floated down this stream to the Holston river, and, continued down the Holston to the Tennessee river. The latter stream was followed to a point near Chattanooga. From this point the family was carried overland across the “divide” to the headwaters of the Oostonaula river.

Tennessee River

Another boat was here built, and they floated down to Rome, Ga., and thence down the Coosa river to Talladega County, where the elder Harmon settled and where Ira Harmon was reared.

Talladega County was rich in agricultural products before the days of railroads in that section. Ira Harmon gained his experience as a pilot while floating these products down the Coosa river to market.

Coosa River near Wetumpka

When “Devil’s Stair Case” made its appearance

When asked the date of his first trip, he could not remember, but stated that on this trip, when his boat was twelve miles north of Wetumpka at the “Devil’s Stair Case,” a comet made its appearance, causing alarm among the crew; and on reaching Wetumpka the next day, the town was in commotion and excitement, caused by the appearance of the comet.

To those who have seen the Coosa river above Wetumpka it is evident that no small degree of courage and judgment were required to conduct loaded boats with safety over these shoals. Higher up the river are other rapids, where the fall is greater, the current swifter, and the passage more difficult to make. There are jutting cliffs projecting into the channel at many of the abrupt bends in the river, and if the boats were not steered clear of these menacing rocks it meant destruction to craft and freight, and, perhaps, the crew. These same projecting rocks produced giant whirlpools whose circling vortexes swallowed up everything that entered them. What was most dangerous of all were the hidden rocks in the channel of the stream whose location must be known to be avoided.

Supplied coal to Confederate arsenal at Selma

It was in the face of such difficulties as these that Ira Harmon supplied coal to the Confederate arsenal at Selma. He states that the mine operated by Ragland and Sims from 1861 to 1865 was not under the control of the Confederate government, but that their coal was sold at Montgomery and Selma.

During the latter part of the war, Crandle and Anderson operated their mine under the supervision and control of the Confederate government. The labor at both mines was done chiefly by negro slaves, many of whom had been recently brought to that section as refugees from Kentucky and Tennessee. Negroes also constituted the crews for the boats which were made of sawed lumber and were fifty feet long, eighteen feet wide and thirty inches in depth. The largest boat built was seventy-eight feet long, twenty-two feet wide and thirty inches in depth. The amount of coal carried on each boat was from twenty to fifty-two tons.

Trip on river only made when stream was swollen

The trip down the river could be made only when the stream was swollen. Sometimes the loaded boats would have to wait for months until there was water enough in the river to enable them to pass over the shoals. During this time of waiting the boat’s crew was employed in building new boats. They would go into the forest, cut down trees, split them, and hew the halves into shape for the sides of the boats. Since tall, large trees, free from knots, were required, such timber was not always easily found. Some of the trees were hauled six to eight miles. Pine and poplar, chiefly pine, were used to make the

Since tall, large trees, free from knots, were required, such timber was not always easily found. Some of the trees were hauled six to eight miles. Pine and poplar, chiefly pine, were used to make the gunnels. The bottoms of the boats were made of sawed lumber fastened to the gunnels with wooden pegs. On a trip down the river from two to eight boats were carried at the same time—usually about five. Five men were required for each boat.

Sometimes took two weeks for trip

Under favorable conditions, the trip from Ragland to Montgomery could be made in three days. Mr. Harmon states that he had made the trip from Ragland to Wetumpka in a day and night. Sometimes it would require two weeks for the same trip.

If conditions were unfavorable the boats were tied up to the bank at night, and if there was wind or fog on the river it was sometimes necessary to remain tied up several days. Wind gave much trouble especially if the boats were loaded with cotton.

The time to go from Montgomery to Selma was two days and nights. On delivering the coal the boats were sold and the return trip made from Selma back to the Coosa river by railroad.

Price received for the coal

If the coal was sold at Montgomery, the crew went on down the river to Selma to return from there by railroad. The price received for coal in Montgomery from 1861 to 1865 was one hundred to one hundred and twenty-five dollars per ton. The price paid a pilot for his services on each trip during the war was one hundred dollars in Confederate money. The price paid before and after the war as much as fifty dollars. There were others boating on the Coosa during the war, and many boats with their freight were lost.

Interesting stories of trips

Mr. Harmon relates many interesting stories connected with these trips. On one occasion the coal on a boat was discovered to be on fire. In removing the coal to put out the fire, it was discovered that the negroes on the boat had stolen a hog before starting on the trip, and had hidden it beneath the coal, to be eaten as they went down the river.

About thirty miles below Wilsonville the country is mountainous and wild. The river here runs for some distance, close to the base of tall, almost perpendicular, rocky cliffs. For two years, on different trips, smoke had been seen rising from beneath an overhanging rock among the cliffs. On one occasion, the river being very high, Mr. Harmon was enabled to run his boat close up to this “smoking rock.” Then he saw a fire burning, arid, near by, were eight men lying on the ground with their faces downward. They had seen the boat approaching and did this to avoid recognition. They were bush-whackers—men who were in hiding to keep out of the Confederate army. This was their rendezvous. The overhanging rocks sheltered these wartime cave dwellers from the rain; the river cut off approach on one side and the cliffs made their retreat almost inaccessible on the other.

Several months afterward Mr. Harmon mentioned this discovery to a Confederate officer at the mines. “Why haven’t you told this before now?” said the officer. “And you had suspected all the time that this was a bushwhackers’ camp?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Harmon, “but had it ever occurred to you which was of more importance to the Confederate government, coal for its arsenal at Selma or these bushwhackers as soldiers? To disturb these men means to endanger the life of every man who passes these cliffs on a flat boat.”

“To disturb these men means to endanger the life of every man who passes these cliffs on a flat boat.”

“Perhaps, after all, you are right, Mr. Harmon,” said the officer, and the bushwhackers went unmolested.

SOURCE

(The article above by Dr. Blake was published in the Gulf States Historical Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 6, May, 1903, Pages 409-12, edited by the late Thomas M. Owen with the following notation It will be the policy of the Alabama Historical Quarterly to reproduce from time to time from other publications including the current press, valuable historical articles by students of Alabama history. Each generation of Alabamians is entitled to have presented to it the facts and legends about our history. Some of the State’s richest historical chapters are tucked away in forgotten publications long out of print. Since Dr. Blake’s article on coal barging was printed (1903) a new generation has arisen. The readers of this magazine are invited to call the Editor’s attention to any interesting and valuable historical articles in publications in their hands as well as unpublished manuscripts, old letters reflecting the customs and conditions of the time in which they were written, old diaries, Bible records, etc.—Editor.)

1For a sketch of Col. Woods see the Alabama Official and Statistical Register, 1903, pp. 18-19.—Em’rox.

History of Alabama, and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the Earliest Period

About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and www.daysgoneby.me All her books can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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5 comments

  1. Sara Love Rast

    Secession? I timidly ask?

    1. Ben Smith

      The Confederate states seceded from the Federal states

    2. Richard Haynes

      The South “Sessioned” lol….i caught that too Sara.

  2. Sara Love Rast

    Mr. Harmon tells own story. Is he kin to y’all?

    Frieda Harmon Polk

    Clark Harmon

  3. Vince Lord

    Any info on the Sims family?

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