Freight transport before the train

How did goods reach consumers deep in the American South before the railroad? Though some freight came overland on pack animals or wagons, most goods arrived in the fledgling state of Alabama by steamboat and keelboat. But, as Donald Davidson so aptly noted about the Tennessee River before it was neutered by the TVA, is that "of all the great tivers east of the Mississippi, it [the Tennessee] has been least friendly to civilization...It could be used, but only at great hazard and on terms forbidding to commerce and industry." (Vol 1, p. 6)

Even after the Trail of Tears removed the threat of attack by the Cherokees in 1837, navigational obstacles like Muscle Shoals, the Suck, and the Skillet promised that any ride down the Tennessee would be rough and memorable. Davidson noted that "there are no fine romantic songs about the Tennessee," no lines describing old man river rolling majestically toward its destination. Travellers on the Tenneesse could expect a challenge.

So, if you were determined to travel or ship freight on the Tennessee in the early 1830s, how did you do it? Donald Davidson explains how a traveller would have made the journey:

If you started, say, from St. Louis or Cairo, intending to reach Knoxville by way of the Tennessee River, you might board a Mississippi steamboat and go upriver as far as Waterloo without undue delay. If there was high water, and if that steamboat had a clever captain and a good pilot, you might go all the way to Tuscumbia Landing or Florence without having to transfer. But if the Tennessee was at low stage, or was falling, the Mississippi boat stopped at Waterloo (or in later years at Eastport), and passengers and freight were transshipped to keelboats or to a light-draft steamboat, probably accompanied by keels, which took you to the foot of Muscle Shoals. Then, if you proceeded by river, you took a keelboat—of one of the keelboat “lines” operating in this region—and ascended Muscle Shoals to reach Decatur. If you went overland, you could go by stagecoach or by the Tuscumbia, Courtland, and Decatur Railroad to the same transfer point. At Decatur you waited, probably, for the packet to arrive from Knoxville or the Suck. You might wait a long while if river conditions were not favorable. If you were impatient, and gave up hope of seeing the Knoxville packet, you could go by stagecoach to Nashville, and thence overland to your destination.

When the Upper Tennessee packet at last arrived, it might take you as far as Knoxville, and it might not. If the river was low above Ross's Landing, you might have to transfer (at Suck Creek or Ross's Landing) to a keelboat for further passage. Or the Upper Tennessee packet might carry you upriver as far, say, as Kingston, where you could either transfer to a keelboat or take the stagecoach for Knoxville.

Coming downriver, you would go through a similar series of transfers and waits, although the waits, for down-river traffic, might not be quite as long as for the upriver journey. The Mississippi steamboats that called at Florence and Tuscumbia advertised handsomely in- the Knoxville newspapers, and, if you started in good time, you could be fairly sure of making downstream connections. But much depended on the season. The Knoxville-Decatur packets kept their schedule fairly well for six months out of the year; the other six months were uncertain.
(Donald Davidson, The Tennessee: Frontier to Succession, pp. 252-253)

Certainly the biggest navigational challenge before the Tenneessee could be harnessed to become a workhorse for delivering freight was Muscle Shoals. Small keelboat and light-draft steambooks could pass over the shoals on the Tenneesse, but big steamboats often had to be towed, causing expensive delays. The first canal built around this swift and rocky stretch of river was built in the 1830s but the citizens of Tuscumbia looked for some more effective way to circumvent Muscle Shoals and improve the connection to the upper Tennessee. Davidson described what the solution:

They built a railroad. It was a "dinky" railroad, by modern standards, but it was a railroad—the first one west of the Appalachians. In 1832, they ran a line over the short distance between Tuscumbia and the river. In 1834, they carried it east to Decatur, a distance of forty miles. This, the Tuscumbia, Courtland, and Decatur Railroad, was a very primitive affair, built of "string pieces of wood scantlings on which flat bars of iron, a half an inch by two and a half inches, were laid." But it served a great need, since it provided an easy portage around Muscle Shoals, and it predicted more railroads and better railroads to come. (p. 252)

The Tuscumbia, Courtland, and Decatur Railroad, in fact, was in direct competition with the Muscle Shoals Canal. Although it was inefficient by modern standards, the little railroad could do its hauling regardless of whether the river was up or down. The untying of the knot of Muscle Shoals could be achieved, it was apparent, by building railroads to go where steamboats could not go.
So the railroads, which were afterwards to prove the great rivals and enemies of river transport, entered the scene, but, at this stage, as friendly assistants and complements of the steamboat lines. Steamboat advertisements proudly began to tell how conveniently their schedules connected with railroad schedules. The owners of the News, for example, boasted that passengers taking their boat at Decatur would reach Charleston in only seventy-two hours. To a considerable degree, indeed, the early railroad lines were projected to deal with a transport problem that had its origin in disappointments encountered on the Tennessee River. In the thinking of the people, the Tennessee remained a principal artery of commerce and travel. But it was strangulated, and railroads came in to relieve the strangulation.
(Davidson, page 288)

By 1850 rails linked Chattanooga to the east coast. Traversing Jackson County was necessary for many westerners seeking trade with Atlantic seaboard markets. The Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, completed through the county in 1854, linked its namesake cities and included 24 miles of mainline track in the county.

Stevenson was created by land speculators anticipating the iron horse. In 1857 the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, building from Memphis, linked with the N&C at Stevenson. The M&C had to pay the N&C to use their rails from Stevenson to Chattanooga. This business deal survives to this day.

Bellefonte Station, later Hollywood, was created when the 271-mile M&C Railroad was built. County seat Bellefonte declined to have the railroad, making Bellefonte Station the nearest point on the line. Bellefonte's refusal was Hollywood's gain. Years later Bellefonte would be linked to the main line via a spur line to TVA's nuclear plant.

The advent of the railroad sounded the death knell for Jackson County's river towns--Bridgeport, Bellefonte, and Langston. They were replaced with by railroad towns born to serve the needs of a new kind of traveller and provide a more efficient conduit for freight. To accommodate that need, the Scottsboro Freight Depot was built in 1861.