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Loading Cotton on the Alabama River

The Illustrated London News, vol. 38, no. 1087, p. 424.

May 4, 1861


Our Number of April 13 contained some Illustrations of the methods of conveying cotton in India to the ports of shipment; and we follow up the subject—of special interest at the present time—by giving this week two companion Engravings illustrating the singular manner in which cotton-bales are sometimes taken on board steam-boats in the Alabama River, in Alabama, one of the seven Southern Confederate States of America. On the Mississippi the bales are merely dragged and trundled over a plank on board ship. But on the Alabama, the banks of which are frequently high and steep, a more dashing style of embarkation is adopted. Of our two Engravings the first represents the "shoot" in extenso, the other the mouth, whence the cotton-bales are projected on board the steam-boat. Mr. F. Bellew, the gentleman to whom we are indebted for our illustrations, supplies the following particulars of the manner in which cotton is taken on board the steam-boats that ply on the Alabama:—"It was on a dark night in February that I jumped off the top of a high bank at Montgomery on to the Magnolia steam-boat, then lying on the turgid bosom of the Alabama River, waiting for passengers going to Mobile. There were many passengers, and plenty of negroes about, but apparently no officers. The superb cabins were brilliantly lighted, and huge volumes of smoke were careering out of the double funnels. Having collected our luggage and seen an elderly clergyman break his collarbone in attempting to leap on board, I went to bed, slept, and awoke next morning to find myself eighty miles down the river. Going on deck, I was not a little surprised to observe our vessel in the act of violating all preconceived notions of aquatic law, by going head first into a partially-submerged forest, crashing and breaking through the young trees with high-pressure indifference: she was merely going to the bank to ship a few bales of cotton, which being done, she backed out and went on her way snorting, every now and then repeating the operation, like a big duck seeking food among the sedges. Sometimes the Magnolia would extract a feed of the staple from the most unpromising jungle; at another time an open clearing decorated with a pineshed and a few sleepy niggers would afford a meal. But the grand repast of our panting vessel was to come. In a certain part of the river, banked by wood-clad mountains, we suddenly slackened our speed opposite a long shed running from the water's edge to the hill's summit. The planter, in order to get his produce from the height above to the means of transport below, had constructed an extensive slide, about three hundred and fifty feet in length, and about four feet six inches wide, made of longitudinal planks, with a raised guard on each side to preserve the bales from slipping off in their descent. Parallel to the slide ran a flight of steps, with whole being covered over. Our vessel ran its nose boldly into the shore; a wide gangboard was thrown to the foot of the shoot, making a complete connection with our lower deck, where the busy hands had already constructed a species of barricade of cotton-bales to receive the shock of their coming brother bale. And now the process of loading commenced. At a given signal from below a thousand-pound package of the staple was started at the top of the slide, two hundred and fifty feet perpendicular above the level of the water. Slowly it moved at first, but, gaining momentum as it proceeded, the pace quickened—quicker, quicker, quicker—till at last it fell like a thunderbolt on the deck, knocking the bales of the barricade in every direction. In one moment a dozen black fellows were upon the new arrival, dragging it out of the way with instruments resembling boothooks, or busying themselves with reconstructing the barricade. The sable workmen having scrambled to places of safety, and the signal "All right!" given, another thousand-pounder came thundering on deck, shaking our big ship from stem to stern, till every beam and rafter trembled to the uttermost end of its two hundred and fifty feet of length. The effect was absolutely terrific, and required some nerve merely to contemplate. If a man gets in the way, as sometimes happens, he is crushed like a fly under the hand of a coalheaver. However, no accident happened on the present occasion. The Magnolia received her fifty shocks, packed her cargo neatly round the boiler, and steamed onward."

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