The Noah of the Oconee River
"No one in the State of Georgia," the old timers said, "built a better light draught river boat steamer than John Graham." In his twenty-five plus years as a builder of river boats, John M. Graham built more than forty boats and rebuilt at least half that number. John Graham never built an ark. But, if had he received such a mission, one could be comfortable that it would have been as good an ark as had ever been built, with all apologies to Noah himself.
John M. Graham was born in northeastern Laurens County, Georgia on January 31, 1844. His father, John Graham, married Nancy Daniell, daughter of George W. Daniell. His great, great-grandfather was General Robert Howe, the commanding general of the Colonial Army in the South during the American Revolution.
Just after his eighteenth birthday in the mid-spring of 1862, John joined Company C of the 57th Georgia Infantry. Before going off to war, the company trained on muster grounds across the road from Boiling Springs Methodist Church, which was built when John was eight years old. The 57th was assigned to the Army of the Tennessee, which was stationed in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
On May 16, 1863, the 57th Georgia became heavily engaged in battle with Union forces east of Vicksburg in the Battle of Champion's Hill, called Baker's Creek by the victorious Union army. A substantial part of the company was killed and wounded during the fighting before the survivors withdrew back to the last line of defense along the Mississippi River at Vicksburg. After a seven-week long siege, the Confederate Army surrendered to Gen. U.S. Grant on July 4, 1863. The capture of Vicksburg gave the Union Army control of the Mighty Mississippi and signaled the beginning of the end of the war in the lower southern states.
John Graham, along with every other prisoner, was forced to sign an oath of allegiance not to take up arms against the United States. And like most of the other prisoners, John broke his oath and rejoined the 57th, which returned to the Savannah area for coastal duty. When too many of its soldiers felt the urge to return to their homes too frequently, the regiment was assigned to guard duty at Andersonville Prison. Just as it was about to leave for duty in Virginia, the regiment was sent to rejoin the Army of the Tennessee in North Georgia. John fought in one battle after another in the defense of Atlanta.
John's fellow soldiers considered him to be "the bravest of the brave." They remembered a man who "was afraid of nothing except not doing his duty." Graham was acknowledged as being "the life of the camp" by those who fought with and survived him. His comrades recalled that he was a soldier who "was ready at all times to endure any hardship, storm any breastwork, and was as uncomplaining as any soldier in the army."
Two and one half weeks after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Gen. Joseph Johnston surrendered his Army of the Tennessee in North Carolina.
John Graham walked back to Laurens County, returning to a decimated county, where money, and even food, was a luxury. He married Mary Linder Moorman on January 16, 1868. Although it was said that he accepted the outcome of the war, Graham was an active participant in veterans' organizations and was deemed an "unreconstructed rebel."
When he was a child, John rarely saw river boats on the Oconee River. River traffic had all but died away before his birth. It rejuvenation was temporarily tolled during the war. It was in the late 1870s when Col. John M. Stubbs and Capt. R.C. Henry rejuvenated the use of river boats to transport agricultural products up to the Central of Georgia railroad's depot in Oconee and down to the ocean port of Darien. It was about that time when Graham built a home on the northeast corner of West Gaines Street and North Church Street.
John Graham's involvement in river boats first occurred in June 1887 while serving as the engineer of the steamer Laurens. The Laurens, owned by Capt. Henry, sunk in the Oconee river. Although the boat was a total loss, its pilot, the Rev. Norman McCall - a future minister of First African Baptist Church and a man of great size and strength - was able to save 150 of the 185 barrels of rosin on board.
Just six weeks later, while Graham was sitting on the edge of the Laurens, he inexplicably fell into the water. Capt. Henry desperately tried, but failed, to stop the paddle wheel from swallowing Graham. Graham was pulled from the river in an unconscious state. He survived mostly due to intense efforts on the parts of doctors Melton and Currie.
Among the boats Graham constructed were the Laurens, Gypsy, Annie Garbutt, R.C. Henry, City of Dublin, R.C. Henry No. 2, New Dublin, Katie C., City of Macon, City of Hawkinsville, City of Columbus, Ocmulgee, C.D. Owens, L. McNeil, G.T. Melton, Graham, Two States, Dixie, and R.C. Wilcox. The first nine boats were built in Dublin and the rest were built in other southern states. Capt. Graham also rebuilt, the Annie G., Southland, Oceola, City of Augusta, Nan Elizabeth, and Louisa. Graham also built a new flat boat for Blackshear's Ferry in the summer of 1905.
John Graham formed a partnership with his son-in-law, Capt. W.W. Ward, who was a river boat captain of equal footing in the eastern part of Georgia.
River transportation lived and died on the depths of the water levels of the ever-changing rivers. Rocks and snags presented frequent dangers requiring better buoyancy and maneuverability in the designs by Graham and others.
Most experts of the day considered John M. Graham, a natural mechanic and machinist, as the most talented boat builder in Georgia. It was said that Graham "possessed a bright, analytical mind and rarely made a mistake." All of his talents were self taught and many speculated that he would have gone down in the annals of American boat building history had he received the benefits of a technical education.
John Graham's later life was inextricably tied to the rivers and river boats. He escaped many an accident during his career. It is indeed ironic that his life ended as a result of his work. While working on his last boat in Savannah, John Graham was severely injured. At the age of sixty-five, John Graham never seemed to have recovered from his injuries. Graham died at his home on December 14, 1909. His body is buried in the old City Cemetery at the rear of First United Methodist Church. With his old rebel comrades standing by, the "Noah of the Oconee," was finally laid to rest.