One of the Last River Boats
For centuries men have named their ships for their wives and their girlfriends, and even their daughters. Such was the case with the Oconee River's newest steamer which was christened one hundred and ten years ago last week. Many years ago, I picked up a copy of Thought You Might Be Interested in Knowing. I was. So, I started reading. On page four of the memoirs of D.T. Cowart, he states that the wrecked remains of The Clyde S. could be seen on the eastern bank of the Oconee River several hundred yards north of the river bridge.
I kept asking myself who was Clyde S.? I thought he may be one of the city's business leaders or perhaps one of the owners of the steamboat company to which the boat belonged. I soon learned that The Clyde S. was named for Clyde Smith, the daughter, and not the son, of Joseph E. "Banjo" Smith, Jr. and Caroline Isabella Blackshear Smith. Her father was one of the top three business leaders during the Golden Age of the Emerald City with ownership in dozens of businesses, houses, and commercial establishments in Dublin.
As one of The Emerald City's leading entrepreneurs, J.E. Smith hoped to enhance his own business interests by establishing his own river boat company, which he named the "Oconee Navigation Company." In the late summer of 1910, Smith hired William W. Ward, a veteran river boat captain and boat builder, to build the company's flag ship. Assisting Ward was D.W. Wyatt, who, with Ward, learned their craft from the recently deceased master boat builder of Oconee River steamers, Capt. John M. Graham. Graham built The Katie C., which would work in tandem with The Clyde S.
The Clyde S. was a flat-bottomed river boat, twenty-four feet in width and ninety-six feet in length. With its 140-ton capacity, Smith and his captain and general manager, J.F. Fitchett, hoped that the new boat would rejuvenate river boat traffic, despite the dominance of the multitude of railroads which cris-crossed the mid-Oconee River region and the emergence of the automobile.
On January 5, 1911, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, along with their son Eldridge and their daughter Clyde, went down to the company's wharf on the river to launch The Clyde S. It was a relatively cold day, but the weather was improving. Instead of the obligatory bottle of champagne, Clyde, just seven weeks shy of her tenth birthday, took a bottle of grape juice and smashed it across the prow of the boat near the top of the bow. After all, the Smiths were very good Methodists and a bottle of alcohol to christen their boat was simply out of the question.
After christening The Clyde S., Smith's workers set out to put the finishing touches on the light draught boat, which would run the entire navigable portion of the river with Dublin as its base. After her final inspection by Captains E.B. Fitzgerald and W.G. Lee, The Clyde S. set out on her maiden voyage on the morning of February 16, 1911. With a hundred tons of freight aboard, the light draught steamer headed south down the Oconee. Captains Fitzgerald and Lee, who have been coming to Dublin for nearly two decades, commented on the astonishing growth of the city and predicted the growth would continue for some time to come.
Accidents on the river were inevitable. Especially on the Oconee River, which despite the funding by state and national governments to clear the river of obstructions, was not as safe and reliable as river boat captains hoped that it would be. Within two months, The Clyde S. was rounding a bend as it approached Diamond Landing in the southern part of Laurens County. The boat hit a snag. A large gaping hole in her hull caused the boat to take on water. Captain Marcus M. Mobley acted quickly, ordering his hands to throw off all the cargo they could. A few hands jumped off and swam to the river bank to tie a rope to secure the sinking vessel. Captain Mobley ingeniously ordered his crew to take several mattresses which were aboard the boat and stuff them into the puncture to keep The Clyde S. from sinking. His plan worked. The ship was repaired in short order. After securing some of the cargo, the boat was underway toward its scheduled destination.
On July 19, 1911, the Milledgeville News reported that The Clyde S. was the first steamer to arrive in the port of Milledgeville. State officials, in selecting Milledgeville as the state capital just more than a century earlier, had figured that the city would be at the head of navigation of the Oconee. Their estimates were a bit short and river traffic never succeeded, a failure which led to the eventual removal of the capital to Atlanta, forty something years before The Clyde S. made it to Milledgeville.
Captain Mobley's crew unloaded two train car loads of barrel staves from the boat powered by a 50-horsepower engine. Milledgeville officials were ecstatic and hopeful that the arrival of the first steam powered engine to their city would mark a new prosperity for the Old Capital.
In 1915, The Clyde S. was rebuilt by Captain Mobley as the first Oconee River boat to be built for both passengers and freight. The practice of using freight boats to carry passengers had been suspended following the sinking of the HMS Titanic in 1912.
Eventually, The Clyde S. sank or was scuttled and her remains deposited on the Sand Bar, a name given to it a century earlier by the first settlers of northwestern Montgomery County and the first settlers of what would become Dublin.
The practice of using river boats virtually ended by the end of World War I. Although it appeared the use of freight boats on the Oconee was all but dead, the second Oconee River Bridge was designed in 1920 to contain a revolving pivot in the middle to allow river boats to pass through. But alas, river steamers would eventually disappear for ever.
Clyde Smith, the woman, went on to graduate at the top of her class at Wesleyan and to become one of the most beloved librarians in the history of the capital of North Carolina. I'll tell you more about her soon, so keep on reading and learn about more interesting pieces of our past.
P.S. If you have a story you are interested in, especially if I have not written about it. Let me know. I am always looking for rare, unusual and interesting clippings, letters, books, and oral stories which relate to our local history. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.