Talkin’ Steamboats in a Railroad Town
It’s several months off yet, but I’m tentatively scheduled to speak on steamboats at the Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas on Saturday, September 12. This will be in conjunction with the traveling exhibition, Kings of the River: Steamboat Transportation in the American South from the Briscoe Center for American History at UT Austin. The exhibit centers on images of historic riverboats taken by Henry Norman, a photographer who worked in Natchez, Mississippi from 1870 until his death in 1913. Although they’re not from Texas, the Norman photographs are among the best available documenting steamboat technology, business and culture. This same collection of images, organized by Joan W. Gandy and Thomas W. Gandy, was featured in a really superb book published by Dover years ago. (I’ve just about worn out my second copy of the thing.)
I’ve given lots of talks based on my research for the steamboat book, but those have mostly been to local audiences who have some familiarity with Galveston and Houston, the 19th century rivalry between the cities, and their ties to maritime commerce. Temple, by contrast, is a railroad town, founded by the arrival of the by the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad in 1881. It’s upward of a hundred miles from the normal head of navigation on the Brazos River, at Hidalgo Falls. The trick may be to show how, even in the decades after the war, river navigation in Texas was tied to the expanding network of railroads, and how much of the material used in building the railroads came up Buffalo Bayou by steamboat. To cite just one statistic, in 1880, the year before the railroad came to Temple, the boats of the Houston Direct Navigation Company hauled sixty thousand tons of rails from Galveston to Houston, destined for railheads inland — over 600 miles’ worth of 56-pound rail, by my estimate. The mass of railroad iron going upstream that year was nearly double the amount of cotton coming down.
Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. Good thing I’ve got six months to get ready.
Image: Passenger on the boiler deck of the big packet J. M. White, Natchez, c. 1880.