The Steamboat Julien Gracey

Julien Gracey-Swain Collection, Montgomery Co., TN Archives

By the late 1870s the steamboat era was coming to an end. The days when two or three New Orleans, Louisville, or St. Louis packets stopped at Canton en route to or from Nashville every day were past. Railroads were taking over the freight and passenger trade. People who lived along the lower Cumberland between Nashville and Smithland remained reliant on river transportation, however. The most accessible railroad was the Louisville & Nashville at Clarksville. Goods shipped to merchants along the rivers came by railroad to Clarksville and were transferred to a steamboat for delivery to one of the many small landings along the river. Farmers relied on river transport to get their produce to market in Clarksville or Paducah. The easiest, cheapest way to get bulk cargo such as grain or tobacco from the western part of Trigg County to Hopkinsville or Princeton was to send it to Clarksville aboard a steamboat and then to its destination by rail. Five steamboats--J. P. Drouillard, W. H. Cherry, R. S. Rhea, J. H. Hillman, and Alf Stevens--were operating a waterborne shuttle service on the Cumberland between Paducah and Nashville. Although the boats were small compared to the ones that ran the Mississippi River, the smallest boat, the J. H. Hillman, was 149 feet long, could carry 282 tons of cargo, and required water 4 feet deep to run. The others needed 6 feet of water. In the dry summer months, when the river was low, the boats could not get over the shallows at Line Island above Linton. At such times commerce was seriously disrupted.

In 1879 the Clarksville Tobacco Board of Trade and businessmen approached Captain Frank P. Gracey, whose freight handling firm F. P. Gracey & Bro. owned and operated the Clarksville wharf boat, and proposed that he build a small steamboat with draft shallow enough that she could run the river at low water. The result was the steamboat Julien Gracey, which was named for Captain Gracey's young son. The wooden boat, built at Clarksville, was a stern wheeler 100 feet long, 22 feet wide, and with a draft of only 2 feet 8 inches at full load. The Julien Gracey required so little water that the Clarksville newspaper said, "She will make her regular trips all summer, if she has to keep a tub of water on deck to moisten the bed of the river." The boat had a carrying capacity of only 82 tons, less than a quarter of what the larger boats then operating on the Cumberland could carry, but she was equipped to push two shallow draft barges. One picture of the Julien Gracey survives. Julien Gracey had two tall stovepipe-like smoke stacks in echelon forward, a two level deckhouse with promenade decks that gave access to the cabin doors, and a small pilothouse. The deckhouse roof served as a lounging deck. The boat was painted a light color, probably white, and had the name in dark letters about 3 feet tall painted on both sides near the stern. The Clarksville Weekly Chronicle described the boat as "one of the neatest, trimmest little crafts afloat, looking as cool, pleasant and saucy as a sweet girl graduate in a new dress."

The Julien Gracey began operations in the spring of 1880 under command of Captain William D. "Bill" Colishaw, a veteran Cumberland River pilot. Advertisements for the boat in 1881 called her "The Clarksville, Canton, and Mouth of Harpeth Packet" and said, "Leaves Clarksville for Canton and 'way landings every Monday and Friday at 12 p.m. For mouth of Harpeth every Thursday at 6 a.m." The Clarksville newspaper commented, "The Gracey leaves on time, stops anywhere she is hailed, charges moderate prices, and is a Clarksville boat." In the spring of 1882 the Cadiz Telephone (reprinted in the Clarksville Weekly Chronicle of May 2, 1882) urged its readers, "See advertisement of the fast and elegant little Clarksville packet 'Julien Gracey.' She leaves Canton for Clarksville every Tuesday and Saturday at 9 o'clock in the morning. The Gracey is already a great favorite with our people, and will continue to grow in higher favor still. She has conferred a great favor on the businessmen of Cadiz, and the shippers generally by fixing a rate of freight so low as to leave no room for 'rebaits.' ... We hope to see the Gracey one of the permanent institutions of the times, and that she may 'live long and prosper'." The Julien Gracey lived up to those hopes and expectations for a decade.

Shortly after the boat began operations, F. P. Gracey & Bro. entered into an agreement with the Louisville & Nashville Railroad that greatly facilitated commerce on the river. Previously, storekeepers who ordered merchandise from distant suppliers had to have the goods delivered to Clarksville by railroad and make their own arrangements for steamboat transportation to the nearest landing. Under F. P. Gracey's contract with the L&N, the railroad agreed to charge shippers point-to-point freight to any landing on the Cumberland River and pay F. P. Gracey & Bro. 2 cents per 100 pounds to transport the goods from the Clarksville train depot to the consignee's steamboat landing. In April 1883 the Clarksville Weekly Chronicle reported, "The volume of business accomplished by this little craft is astonishing. No matter how much corn, tobacco, wheat, or merchandise offers for Clarksville she is equal to the occasion, and when her capacity is insufficient a deck barge is taken in tow and if one barge is insufficient another one is added. ... The Gracey is an institution."

The story will continue in next week's Cadiz Record.

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