Thursday, April 30, 2020

The End of the Road

Are you familiar with "The Fall Line?"

When Europeans came to America, they used the rivers of the eastern seaboard as highways and lines of communication for people and goods. Moving overland was difficult and dangerous. There were few roads until the early 1900s, and what roads there were became muddy slogs when it rained. Most often, any cargo was limited to what a pack-horse could carry. Boats, on the other hand, could float tons of cargo with relative ease, even upriver as long as the downstream current wasn't too extreme.

By Unknown author - - originally Pittsburgh History & Landmarks, Public Domain,

The picture above shows two types of riverboats using three different forms of propulsion. In the foreground, we have a Flatboat or "flat." These were built upriver to carry many tons of cargo and a crew. Flats used the current for primary propulsion, with sweeps and a long rudder for maintaining position. They were built to float downriver to a port city like Savannah, where their cargo would be trans-loaded to oceangoing ships. Having served its purpose, this Flat would be sold for its lumber. There are probably some old wooden structures in Savannah incorporating planks that floated down the river in the form of a flat; carrying cotton, rice, or lumber.

Next to the Flat is a Keelboat or Poleboat. These boats were designed to go upriver against the current. This was hard work and required strong men wielding long poles and searching for a bottom to push against. When the rearmost man reached the stern, he lifted his pole and walked back toward the bow to repeat the push. The gent sitting on top of the cabin appears to be playing the fiddle, for entertainment perhaps, or to keep a rhythm to the work being done.These boats were narrower than Flats, so as to present less drag against the current. When poles could find no bottom, the boat could be pulled by the men on the bank hauling on lines. Hard, slow, work. Cargo pushed or pulled upriver would be much more expensive than that floated down. In the distance, a Keelboat with a square-rigged sail is shown.

So that's how cargo got moved on the water highway, but the highway had its limit. Up each river, there is a spot where the Atlantic coastal plain rises up and becomes the piedmont (literally "foot of the mountain"). At that place, there are waterfalls, and the river is no longer navigable by larger vessels like the ones pictured above.

On all the big rivers, a city sprang up at this "end of the road." In the case of the Savannah, that city is Augusta.

So-called Petersburg Boat, a pole boat of ten tons carrying capacity used on the upper Savannah River between Augusta and Petersburg, Georgia. From Harper's Weekly, February 26, 1887, 159. (accessed at Wikipedia)

River travel beyond Augusta was possible in purpose-built boats from Petersburg, a town situated at the confluence of the Savannah and the Broad rivers. These were called "Petersburg Boats" and their width was determined by a narrow gap in the rocks upstream. They transported a tremendous amount of cargo in their time. Petersburg is now underwater.
Do you know any other Fall Line cities? Do you know the number of the US highway that joined them together in a line, north to south, almost a century ago?

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