Rowena, The Old Lady of the River
By Chris Tramel


She wasn't as grand or extravagant as her Mississippi cousins. She wasn't built as a floating gambling hall or as a posh passenger vessel. She was a workhorse, a packet boat, and supplied towns all along the Cumberland River for nearly 30 years.

Long before the advent of the airplane that made long distance travel possible in hours rather than days; before the first train tracks were laid that connected city to city and coast to coast; before the days of the automobile and the nation's highway system, America's rivers and waterways were the country's main routes of trade and transportation. Most of the nation's major cities were first settled along the coastal shoreline or the banks of a river, where the waterways were used to transport goods and people.

Steam powered riverboats first appeared on American rivers early in the 1800s, and for well over 100 years the boats would be vital to the nation's trade and commerce. The invention of the steam engine, added to river vessels of shallow drafts, made transportation of goods and travelers possible in days where the trip might take weeks overland. As the nation expanded west, it was the riverboats that supplied frontier towns and trade routes.


The packet boat Rowena was built at the end of the steamboat era, in 1904 at Burnside, KY, by the Burnside & Burkesville Packet Company, and was named for the nearby town of Rowena. Along with her sister, Celina, the boats were mainly used to move freight and passengers along the Cumberland River from Kentucky to all along Middle Tennessee. During times of low water levels she would sometimes move to the Ohio River, to the Louisville-Evansville trade route.

A sternwheeler, the Rowena's flat bottom 148 foot hull was built of oak and pine. Including her paddles, she had an overall length of just over 168 feet, and nearly 30 feet in width. She had two decks, not counting the pilot house, and had a carrying capacity of 250 tons. As with all riverboats, her hull had a shallow draft, just a five foot fully loaded, and just 30 inches with 50 tons of coal. Her flat bottom hull was designed to navigate the shallow sand bars of the Cumberland, and even featured a capstan, a steam powered winch, on her bow to help drag the boat across low water areas.

While her main purpose was to move freight up and down the river, she also could accommodate up to 60 passengers, with 20 state rooms, 56 berths, large unobstructed cabin, cook house and recess. Her cabins were not luxurious by any means. Most were only six foot by six foot rooms with bunks and a wash stand. The cabins adjoined the main hall, where dining and seating areas were set up. Usually the main hall would be separated midship with a curtain, marking off a women's seating area and a men's area.

While her amenities may have been lacking, Rowena did feature something new for her day. She was outfitted with a complete electric lighting system, which included two 1000-candle-power searchlights.

Rowena was a sternwheeler, which meant the paddles that propelled the boat were located at the rear, or stern of the boat. Other famous boats, such as the Civil War era Sultana, were side wheelers, where their paddle wheels were located on the sides of the boats. During her prime years Rowena featured three 18' boilers, located towards the front of the main deck, that powered two steam engines at the rear of the boat that produced 275 horsepower. She averaged 10 miles per hour, while burning 12 and a half bushels of coal per hour.

Because of the flat bottom and need for a shallow draft, the design of the riverboat was somewhat complicated. Due to the torque of her engines and the weight of her cargo, riverboats had to be engineered with a system of diagonal braces and a cable system, or hogties as they were called. Without the bracing the hulls would twist and flex. You might think of the steamboats as floating suspension bridges.

During her many years of service, the Rowena would stop at river port towns such as Granville, Carthage, and Gallatin, delivering supplies and taking on new cargo to their destinations. From the river ports, supplies would be sent to inland towns such as Alexandria and Temperance Hall, and agricultural products such as large barrels of tobacco, or hogsheads as they were known, would be sent to the ports to ship downstream.

Her cargo would have been nearly anything, from produce, dry goods, and furniture, to livestock and building materials. Packet boats of her day were floating mercantiles that supplied practically anything you might have found at a general store. The captain of the Rowena had even given the town of Granville the nickname "Banana Town," because the town ordered more bananas than any other town along her stops.

One thing that stands out about Rowena, and that of her sister, Celina, was their years of service. With the average life of a riverboat being only five years, both Rowena and Celina were old ladies of the river. Steamboats faced several dangers during their time, including fires and underwater obstacles. Snags, or sunken tree stumps and logs were one of the most dangerous, but unlike their seafaring cousins, sinking didn't mean the end to a riverboat. The steamboat I.T. Rhea sank and was raised 12 times during her service, before sinking a 13th and final time in 30 foot of water on the Cumberland.

The Rowena was no different and reportedly sank at least one time, in 1910 just nine miles from Burnside, KY. There she had struck an obstacle and was steered to a sandbar, where she sank in shallow water. She was soon raised and repaired but not before undergoing a major change. When she was first launched the boat was built with a traditional pointed "duck breast" bow, but in later photographs, after the sinking, she is shown with a straight, flat bottom bow. The whole bow of the boat had been replaced, and she would continued hauling freight into the 1930s.

Rowena's changing bow

The days of the packet boats have long since passed. In the end it was a combination of things that saw the end of an era. At its heyday, the Cumberland River had as many as 45 steamboats traveling up and downstream at one time. But, as the automobile became more popular, and new roads being built to accommodate, soon the boats were competing with emerging trucking companies. That, combined with the onset of the Great Depression almost certainly spelled doom for Rowena. By 1931 her travels along the Cumberland had come to an end, and in 1934, while trying to move her to Louisville, she sank at Greasy Creek on the Cumberland.

Not long after, while trying to pull itself out of the grips of the Great Depression, the United States implemented massive infrastructure projects to create jobs. New highways were built, low lying bridges constructed, and dams were created to control flooding and produce hydroelectric power. The result doomed the packet boat industry, especially on the smaller tributaries.

Today only a handful of the old paddle wheelers still exists, and they are only novelties, providing river cruises or gambling options. The days of the chugging steam engines, black smoke, and the rolling paddlewheels have faded into history. But if you listen close, you still might hear the faint sound of the steam whistle, that low howling sound announcing that the Rowena is coming around the bend.

6/16/2020 - Thanks for stopping by

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