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The Alabama River and the Riverboats with Tom McGehee


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The Alabama and Tombigbee rivers once provided the only reliable transportation between the rich cotton producing farms of the Black Belt and the Port of Mobile. Simple rafts gave way to steam driven craft in the early 1830’s. By the end of the 19th century these riverboats were floating palaces able to transport thousands of bales of cotton as well as passengers in comfort.

The colorful men who owned and operated these boats will be discussed as well as some horrific tragedies which took hundreds of lives. By the early 20th century new competition in the field of transportation would lead to the end of the colorful era of steamboats on Alabama’s rivers.

Tom McGehee has served as the Museum Director at Bellingrath Gardens and Home since 1994. For more than thirty years he has researched south Alabama history and his column, Ask McGehee, has been a regular feature of Mobile Bay Magazine for the last 15 years. He is married to the former Ceil Smith of Monroeville.