History of the City of Hawkinsonville

City of Hawkinsonville

City of Hawkinsville is a surprisingly intact survivor of late 19th-century coastal steamboat technology. She was the largest and the last steamboat to be stationed on the Suwannee River, serving a route that included Branford, Clay’s Landing, Old Town, and Cedar Key. Originally built at Abbeville, Georgia, in 1896 for the Hawkinsville (Georgia) Deepwater Boat Lines, she was sold in June 1900 to the Gulf Transportation Company of Tampa for use on the Suwannee River. City of Hawkinsville was 141 feet long, with two decks, a single smoke stack, a square stern, and a molded bow. She was a post- hurricane newcomer, brought into the river to assist a booming lumber industry. Local accounts contend that Hawkinsville also was instrumental in the construction of the rail bridge at Old Town. In doing so, she quickened her own demise, since the moving of people and goods by rail eventually rendered steamboats obsolete. Although accounts of her last days vary, official registry records indicate that she was in service until May 19, 1922, when her last captain, Mr. Currie, abandoned the vessel and the occupation that could no longer support him. Thus the steamboating era of the Suwannee River came to an end.

hawkinsonville location

Location of the sunken City of Hawkinsonville in the Suwannee River

Steamboating on the Suwannee River

From the 17th century, the Suwannee River played an important role in the development of central Florida. Waterborne transport helped to supply the needs of Spanish, British, and Americans. By 1834, an unnamed steamboat was said to be stationed at St. Mark’s “for Suwaney” trade.

During the Second Seminole War, the steamer American unsuccessfully attempted to chase down a canoe full of Seminoles; the race ended only after the canoe overturned in the swift water of a rocky shoal. Traffic on the river during the war years, 1835-1843, centered along the lower river, mostly below present- day Branford. After the Second Seminole War, the need to navigate much farther up river was created by cotton growers around settlements such as the town of Columbus (near present Suwannee River State Park). The typical Suwannee River route included a stop at Cedar Key to allow the shallow draft coastal and river-going craft to dock alongside oceangoing vessels and exchange cargos.

At first the Suwannee settlements mainly were serviced by small sailing vessels but by October 25, 1845, the St. Augustine News reported that “it has been in contemplation for some time past to establish a mail route, by steamer, upon the Suwannee from Cedar Key to Fort White, to be connected thence with the St. Johns by stage… The steamboat Orpheus has arrived and taken her station on the route. We learned that she is a most beautiful vessel, 136 ft. in length, and is fitted up in fine style with 18 state-rooms. She will carry the U.S. Mail from Cedar Key up the Suwannee to the flourishing town of Columbus.”

The remains of City of HawkinsviZZe are located in shallow water on the western (Dixie County) bank of the Suwan- nee River, about 100 yards south of the railroad trestle at Old Town. Access to the site is by boat only. The wreck is marked by a series of buoys on her starboard side, and by two mooring buoys approximately 50 feet down- stream from her stern. To an area of the river today known for swift water canoeing. In 1847, Orpheus was lost at an unspecified location in the river, possibly due to a navigational error on rock shoals. By the 1850s, however, Captain Tucker, owner of the steamer Madison, went farther upriver to White Springs, in a successful attempt to have the Suwannee River declared navigable above Columbus.

During the Civil War, the port at Cedar Key fell into Union hands, forcing blockade runners to come into the shallow water approaches of coastal rivers including the Suwannee. As the war dragged on, Madison was scuttled in Troy Spring to keep her from falling into Yankee hands and at least two Confederate oceangoing steamers were lost near the mouth of the Suwannee. After the war, there were no known steamboats on the river until the spring of 1872, when the steamer Wawenock began running from New Troy (near Troy Spring) to Cedar Key.

For the next two decades, steamboating flourished; tourist writer George Barbour noted in 1882 that “the Suwannee is navigable for small steamboats to the crossing of the Jacksonville, Pensacola and Mobile Railroad (at present-day Suwannee River State Park), and for large steamers to Rowland’s Bluff.” In the mid-1880s, Captain Bob Ivey moved to Rowland’s Bluff, renamed it Branford, and established a steamboat landing adjacent to a new rail line which ran along the river’s bank. By 1888, Ivey also had established a boatyard for the construction of a variety of watercraft, including steamboats, the most famous of which was Belle of Suwannee, a popular honeymoon cruise boat.

The hurricane of 1896 damaged shipping at Cedar Key, causing the Suwannee steamboat tourist trade to decline. Commercial trade continued to flourish with the growing export of local lumber for general construction, and especially cedar for pencil-making. Gradually, railroads began to replace waterborne transport; but, for almost a hundred years, from 1834 until the 1920s, more than 50 steamboats ran the Suwannee River. Today, the remains of perhaps a dozen steamboats can be found along the river’s bottom.

Sunken City of Hawkinsonville Steamboat

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