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Bulloch History with Roger Allen: Altamaha River proves difficult to navigate for boats
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Roger Allen

Note: The following is part of a series of columns exploring use of rivers in the early history of Georgia and Bulloch County.

The "Executive Documents" (1888) reported that most of the improvements made on the Altamaha up until this time had been done at the "Doboy Bar," which lay at the "mouth of Darien River ... the northerly main branch of the delta portion of the Altamaha."

D.C. Kingman's "Survey of the Altamaha" (1911) revealed that "there is on hand (now) for clearing of the river ... a snag boat, a 10-inch pumping dredge, with pipe line and pontoons, a steam hoister, a pile driver, and sundry small boats and barges."

Kingman estimated that the work to improve the Altamaha and its tributaries to a depth of 4 feet in the channel would take five years. He declared there were 415,483 people living in 24 counties stretched out on the river.

The "Department of Commerce and Labor's Forty-First Annual List of Vessels of the United States" (1909) listed the U.S. Army vessels stationed at this time on the Altamaha and its tributaries.

They were the 110-foot-long stern-wheel snag boat Oconee, the stationery hoister and pile driver Sapelo and the self-propelling quarter-boat Skidaway. Their job was to keep the rivers clear.

Records show that in 1910, there were three steamboats operating on the Altamaha River, four on the Oconee River and three on the Ocmulgee River.

The "Report on the Altamaha River of Assistant Engineer E.R. Conant" (1911) listed the railroad bridges that now spanned the Altamaha, Oconee and Altamaha rivers.

On the Altamaha River, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and the Georgia and Florida Railroad had erected bridges. On the Oconee River, the Macon, Dublin and Savannah Railroad; the Central of Georgia Railroad; and the Wrightsville and Tennille Railroad had erected bridges.

On the Ocmulgee River, there were seven railroad crossings. They were those of the Southern Railroad; the Seaboard Air Line Railroad; the Wrightsville and Tennille Railroad; the Macon, Dublin and Savannah Railroad; and the Central of Georgia Railroad.

In 1912, D.W. Phillips, one of the owners of the Wilcox and Phillips Boat Line of Lumber City, Georgia, listed the freight depots his company maintained on the Altamaha River. They were those at Ocmulgee, Abbeville and Hawkinsville.

The Altamaha's tributary, the Oconee River

According to the "Annual Report of the Committee on Commerce of the United States Senate" (1892), "the Oconee River is about 300 miles in length, and drains an area of about 5,400 square miles, of which 2,790 lie above Milledgeville."

The report continued that the river "rises above Gainesville, and flows in a southeasterly direction, joining the Ocmulgee to form the Altamaha."

In 1805, the Georgia Legislature chartered the Oconee Navigation Company, which attempted to open up the river to navigation for steamboats but failed.

Ten years later, in 1815, the Legislature appropriated $10,000 for the improvement of the Oconee River below Milledgeville.

Some sources say the first steamboat came up the Oconee in 1817, and others say 1819. They also disagree over whether it was the steamboat Williamson or the steamboat Georgia.

What is known for sure is that in 1819, the steamboat Altamaha made its first trip up the Altamaha and Oconee rivers, and by 1830, it had sailed up the Ocmulgee River.

The Augusta Chronicle wrote, "The Altamaha is intended for the navigation of the river whose name she bears. ... She (sailed up the Savannah River first) to ascertain how she will act in shallow water."

The steamboat Sam Howard then headed upriver from Darien for Milledgeville. Encountering many snags and areas with insufficient water to pass, it took 40 days to arrive in Milledgeville.

Therefore, when the steamboat Georgia and its Freight Boat No. 9 made the trip up to Hughes Ferry on the Oconee in 1819, the freight boat was "poled" further upriver to Milledgeville.

The steamboat Wave, according to several sources, went into service on the Oconee almost 20 years later, in 1837. At this time, R.J. Nichols and G.L. Denning formed the Oconee and Atlantic Steamboat Company.

A number of boats were running on the Oconee River before the Civil War. These included the George M. Troup, the Charles Hardee, the Two Boys, the Clyde and the Halcyon.

The most common stops for these steamboats while traveling on the Ocmulgee were Old Lake, Jordan's Bluff, Abbeville, Hendley's Landing, Indian Bluff and Bowen's Mill (or House Creek.)

Roger Allen is a local lover of history. Allen provides a brief look each week at the area's past. Email Roger at



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