Last days of real steamboating on the Cumberland

[From "The colorful eighties in Nashville," a 12-part series of reminiscences published in 1930 by M. B. Morton, managing editor of the Nashville Banner]

[Nashville Banner, October 19, 1930. Spelling and punctuation maintained from original.]

The eighties saw the last of real, sure-enough steamboating on the Cumberland. The railroads had come and were reaching out, they were swifter than the boats and finally gained the victory. Before the advent of the railroads Nashville was the receiving and distributing point of a large steamboat territory. Great side-wheelers ran on the rivers to New Orleans, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and intervening points. An immense amount of cotton was shipped from Nashville by boat. Decatur, Ala., sent cotton to Nashville by wagon, because on account of the Muscle Shoals it could not be shipped on the Tennessee River.

A great wagon yard for the teams and wagons occupied an open space in South Nashville. Many of the buildings still standing in the business section, were then cotton warehouses. In the eighties, though the river trade was not what it had been, it was still great. The wharf was a busy place, piled with products and merchandise of every description. The steamboats had become stern-wheelers, so that they could navigate the shallow stream, but they were doing business. The picturesque Negro deckhands, and roustabouts, in charge of a profane mate, lent color to the scene at the landing, as they hurried back and forth, singing and laughing, and paying little or no attention to the mate's voluble oaths and threats. The latter swore by note, and the mate seemed to think it a necessary part of the routine.

All day and all night the hoarse whistle of the boats could be heard. Before they left they whistled to noti­fy belated passengers and deckhands they were about to start; and when they arrived they whistled to let the "night-hawk" hacks know they were coming with passengers; and to let the local roustabouts know they were coming with freight to be unloaded. When a boat reached the landing, the "night-hawks" and the roustabouts would be there.


It was the custom for all the Negro hands to gather on the swinging gangplank as the boats backed out and started on their journey, and sing boat songs and spirituels, while a leader gestulated and led the sing­ing. No one, who has stood on the Woodland Street Bridge as a steamboat passed down stream, and has witnessed the scene described and heard the wonderful chanting of these natural-born musicians, will ever forget the thrill of it.

The steamboat season opened about the middle of November and lasted until about August 1. During the low-water period between these dates the boats went to the Ohio River and took the place of boats of deeper draft, until the fall rise came.

The main steamboat lines dur­ing this time were the Cincinnati and Nashville Packet Co., the Cin­cinnati and Pittsburgh, the Nashville and Burnside Packet Co., and the famous Ryman Line. The principal products handled were corn, tobacco, wheat, all kinds, of merchandise, pig iron and iron manufactures from Pittsburgh. Coal by twoboats was brought from Pittsburgh for the Nashville Gas Co. Coal was also brought to Nashville from the Poplar Moun­tain Mines, thirty miles west of Burnside, Ky., and from the Cum­berland Coal Co., at Burnside. It was brought in broad-horn barges. The Cumberland Coal was much like that from Pittsburgh.

Merchandise from Eastern cities was picked up by the boats at Ohio River points. Livestock was brought to Nashville from up and down the Cumberland and mules were shipped from Nashville to New Orleans and other Southern markets.

Passenger business on the river was also of large dimensions. An enormous emigration went from Ken­tucky and Tennessee to Texas. Through tickets would be sold to them, and the last part of the trip would be by rail.

Travel by boat was fascinating. There were good bands and bars; and in the evening dancing, card playing and other forms of amusement were engaged in. The captain and chief clerk were the masters of ceremony. They saw that the pas­sengers were introduced to one another, that those who wished to dance had partners. They looked after the comfort of all and saw that everything was properly conducted. These men were Chesterfieldian in their manners; they had known many and varied experiences and were generally fine conversation­alists.

Among the well known steamboat captains of the eighties were: T. G. Ryman, T. M. Gallagher, W. S. Bowman, Shepherd Greene, William Strong, Thomas Armstrong, A. T. Armstrong, Ben Goad, John S. Tyrner, William Gracey, John Crouch, W. W. Parminter, Doc Lovell, Jim Level and Fred Wyatt. William Litterer who became a wealthy citizen and who served one term as Mayor of Nashville, was once a Cumberland River pilot.


The dominating figure on the river for many years was Capt. Thomas G. Ryman. He had little education but a good mind. He was a man of strong personality and marked peculiarities. He was tall, an­gular, raw-boned and powerful. He amassed a comfortable fortune, though primarily not a money seeker. He had physical and moral courage and his energy knew no bounds. When he started to do a thing it was as good as an accomplished fact. The Ryman Auditorium is a monument to his persistence and untiring religious zeal, for which he was noted during the last half of his life. He wanted a great auditorium where Sam Jones and other great preachers could hold services without cost. He made a liberal donation himself, and then entered into a canvass that knew no let-up until the building was finished.

The night before the auditorium was to be dedicated he visited the of­fices of The Nashville Banner and the American, and told each of the reporters and editors who had aided him in his undertaking to go around to Rowen's tailoring establishment, order a fifty-dollar suit and charge it to him. A fifty-dollar suit in those days was considered rather extrava­gant.

He had professed religion, while Sam Jones was conducting a tent meeting on the southwest corner of Broadway and Eighth Avenue, where Davis' Drug Store now stands. Prior to that time he had taken little in­terest In religion, having concentrated his energies on steamboats and poli­tics. After his conversion he led an exemplary life, and the contrast was so great that it gave rise to many apocryphal stories as to the wild, hilarious life Captain Ryman lived in his younger days. He was, however, always honest and always charitable. He was not a heavy drinker nor a gambler, though it is a fact that he won $12,000 on Cleveland during his first race for the Presidency. He was an enthusiastic Democrat and actively interested, heart and soul, in this race.

It has often been said that after his conversion he destroyed all the bars on his steamboats and poured the liquor into the river. This is a good story, but unfortunately is not sustained by the facts. Captain Ryman did not own the barrooms on his boats. They were leased to the men who conducted them. He did, however, notify these men that he would lease no more barroom privi­leges; and in this way the Ryman Line became dry.


Many of the captains mentioned in the foregoing list were men of marked personality. Capt. W. S. Bowman and Capt. Shep Greene were wonder­ful raconteurs. They could mimic anyone they ever heard talk, and could entertain the company in the cabin by the hour. Both were skillful in handling a boat.

Captain Bowman and Captain Ryman owned several boats together. One of these boats burned, and a friend was sympathizing with Bowman. "It's all right," said the captain. "You know Captain Ryman is now insuring his boats with the Lord; but my half of that boat was insured in an ordinary insurance company."

This was the second boat owned jointly by Ryman and Bowman which had burned; and afterwards Captain Ryman would have no more of Bowman as a partner. He did not censure him, but told him "You seem to be unlucky."

Captain W. W. Parminter was financially interested in steamboats for many years, but had other lines of investments, among them a saloon on the northeast corner of Broadway and Second Avenue. The mosaics on the floor being interspersed with silver dollars.

The last of the well-known steamboat-men of the eighties is Capt. Thomas M. Gallagher, who is enjoying his old age at his home on the Kirkman Road. He knew "Old Man River" and all the old men of the river when steamboating was in its prime. He has been over all the waterways of the Mississippi Valley, and was for twenty-seven years with the Ryman Line. His father was a seafaring man who finally became identified with the steamboat business. Captain Gallagher was born in Louisville, Ky., seventy-four years ago, and was brought to Nashville when a child by his mother. When ten years old he became a messenger in the steamboat office of Corbett and Boyd. When he was old enough he was appointed second clerk on the Ella Hughes, which ran between Nashville and Point Isabelle, Ky. (now Burnside). He then went with Captain Ryman on the B. S. Rhea and was made chief clerk. Then he became captain and part owner, with Captain Ryman, of the J. H. Hillman. When George Patterson became incapacitated by reason of illness, Captain Gallagher was made traffic manager of the Ryman Line, which position he held until steamboating was relegated into the vistas of memory. He is the last of the old guard.