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U.S. Snagboat Montgomery Logo U.S. Snagboat Montgomery Logo U.S. Snagboat Montgomery Logo U.S. Snagboat Montgomery Logo
U.S. Snagboat Montgomery Logo

Introduction

The Department of the Interior designated the U.S. Snagboat Montgomery a National Historic Landmark in June of 1989. Serving as one of the last steam-powered sternwheelers to ply the inland waterways of the South, the Montgomery's impressive history involved seven of the South's navigable rivers. Beginning on the Coosa and the Alabama rivers from 1926 to 1933, crews used her derrick and grapple to remove snags and debris from the river channels. In 1933, she was transferred to the Black Warrior and Tombigbee rivers. Her final work stations were the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint rivers in Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, where she served until her retirement in 1982.

Snagboats removed snags, underwater trees, stumps, or branches that created obstructions to river navigation. A large grapple or clamshell on the snagboat's boom pulled these obstacles from the river. Daily operations removed approximately 120-170 snags per day!

The years following the Revolutionary War were years of expansion and growth in the Southeastern United States. At the heart of this growth were the southern waterways and the boats that navigated them. Keelboats, then paddlewheel steamboats navigated rivers like the Coosa and Alabama, transporting both goods and people. Although steamboats revolutionized river transportation, they also created unique problems. In particular, steamboats were susceptible to hitting river snags and sinking. To solve this problem, the United States Army Corps of Engineers constructed specialized vessels called snagboats, whose job was to patrol rivers for snags and remove them. For years, the snagboats worked the waters of the Southeast keeping them safe and open for commerce. The U.S. Snagboat Montgomery, one of two snagboats still in existence, was built to work the waters of the Coosa and Alabama Rivers. Snagboats like the Montgomery played an integral role in the westward expansion and economic growth of the fledgling United States.

A Brief History of Steam-Powered Transportation in the South

The westward movement led to the creation in 1798 of the Mississippi Territory, including what is now Alabama and Mississippi. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 not only gave the newly united states the port city of New Orleans, but the vast Louisiana Territory. The Mississippi River and the many other rivers flowing through Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana were crucial to the economic growth of these three states. The rivers provided conduits for new settlers and promoted the growth of cities along the rivers for trade and access to plantations. By 1810, flat bottomed keelboats were carrying goods along the Coosa, Alabama, Black Warrior, and Tombigbee Rivers in Alabama and the Mississippi River in Mississippi. These keelboats brought goods to and from towns and to the port cities of Mobile and New Orleans. Keelboats dominated the waterways until the mid-nineteenth century when the quicker and more powerful steamboats gained popularity.

Steamboats used either sidewheels or sternwheels powered by steam for propulsion, giving them an advantage over the man-powered keelboats. Sidewheel designs were popular in the 1820s and 1830s, but sternwheel designs were the norm by the 1840s. While steamboats were more powerful than keelboats, their river passages were fraught with dangers. Early steamboats were especially susceptible to boiler explosions, fires, and sinkings caused by hitting snags. Most steamboats in the 1840s and 1850s were lucky to last five years. Snags or submerged trees and stumps, boat wrecks and other hazards, were especially problematic. These snags made river travel hazardous and could even block navigation completely. Many states made attempts to clear waterways and make them navigable; but it wasn't until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was given responsibility for river improvement around 1900 that river clearing activities could take place on a large scale. The Corps built a large fleet of vessels using the most modern designs available to fulfill their mandate. Snagboats were the Corps' principle tools in keeping rivers navigable.

Henry Shreve designed the first steam-powered snagboat in 1829. The Heliopolis featured two hulls that were connected side-by-side and which held a derrick to lift the snags from the river bottom. This double-hull design remained the standard until the early twentieth century with the development of high-strength steel hulls.

By the mid-twentieth century, the Corps of Engineers' snagboats operated according to an annual cycle. Snagging operations would commence in May, and continue through the end of the year, the time of peak river traffic. Snagboats generally operated in tandem with barges and tug boats. A barge would be tethered to the snagboat, which would drop the snags from the river onto the barge. Once the barge was full, a tug boat would take the barge away and leave an empty barge with the snagboat. In addition to snagging operations, snagboats also worked on the repair and construction of the river system's locks and dams and performed dredging work. From January through May of each year, the boat would go back to dry dock for repairs.

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U.S. Snagboat Montgomery

The Montgomery was one of the hardest-working snagboats in the Southeast. She was commissioned by the Montgomery District COE and built in 1926 by the Charleston Dry Dock and Machine Company of Charleston, South Carolina. The boat was based in Montgomery until 1933, when the Montgomery District became part of the Mobile District, and the boat was moved to her new home port of Tuscaloosa. However, she continued to work the waters of the Coosa River system, adding the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Rivers to her responsibilities. The Montgomery pulled snags from these river systems until 1959, when she was transferred to Panama City, Florida. She worked on the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint rivers from 1959 for the rest of her career, though her home port was transferred from Panama City to White City, Florida in 1979.

The Snagboat Montgomery is a riveted steel sternwheel-propelled vessel with a steel hull and wood superstructure. The overall length, including the sternwheel, is approximately 54 meters (178 feet), while the maximum width is approximately 10 meters (34 feet). The depth of the hold is 1.8 meters (6 feet). The Montgomery has three decks. The propelling and snagging machinery, crew quarters, and the engine room are located on the main deck. The second deck contains the galley, officers' quarters, and an office; and the pilothouse at the top of the boat contains controls for the snagging boom and engine room. The boom is operated by two large steam winches; one turns the boom in an arc in front of the boat while the other lifts the snag. The Montgomery still has its original Scotch boiler, which created steam to power the boat. Water was heated inside a cylinder within the boiler. The steam produced by the boiler was extracted from the top of the boiler and passed through the main steam line overhead to the engine room in the stern. The boiler originally burned coal, but was converted to burn fuel after World War II. The engines are high-pressure, or non-condensing, joy valve engines; and the paddlewheel is constructed of steel and wood and is 5.5 meters (18 feet) in diameter and 6 meters (20 feet) long. One interesting feature of the Montgomery is the telegraph machine located in the engine room. The machine has a dial with a hand that points to different possible engine room actions and is the way the pilot originally communicated with the engineers; a similar telegraph is located in the pilot house.

In early November 1964, the Montgomery assisted in raising the remaining section of the Confederate Gunboat Chattahoochee from the channel of the Chattahoochee River. The activities are recorded in the Master Fleming's daily log: "Picking up stern section of Gunboat and Removing it from channel. While picking up Gunboat and trying to work it on the bank some of the upper sections of the boom were sprung." Today the Confederate Gunboat Chattahoochee can be seen at the Port Columbus National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia.

Steam-powered boats, like the Montgomery, dominated transportation and commerce for most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; however, river transportation began experiencing competition from railroads as early as the mid-nineteenth century. The continuing explosion of transportation technology in the twentieth century, including interstate highways, automobiles, trucks, and airplanes, eventually spelled the end of steam-powered boats. When the Corps of Engineers retired the Montgomery on 8 November 1982, she was one of only two snagboats remaining in the United States. On her final day of service, the Captain wrote of the Montgomery in his log: "Me and [the crew] are very sad this day!! This boat has been a workhorse of the tri-rivers."

In 1984, the Mobile District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded a contract for extensive restoration work on the Montgomery. This work included replacing old material with new, sandblasting the entire hull and coating it with five layers of paint, and draining and cleaning the diesel fuel bunkers. After her first restoration, the Montgomery was moored at the Tom Bevill Visitor Center, Pickensville, Alabama. Visitors could tour the boat, reliving her days on the South's rivers.

The Montgomery has another claim to fame. In 1984, the Montgomery was used as a set in the television movie Louisiana, which starred Margot Kidder, Ian Charleson, Victor Lanoux, and Andréa Ferréol. In the movie, the Montgomery is repainted and modified to resemble an ante-bellum passenger sternwheeler. However, the Montgomery has an unfortunate end in the movie; during a riverboat race, the sternwheeler explodes.

Beginning in the early 21st century, the Mobile District realized that exposure to river traffic and environmental factors were causing irreparable harm to this National Historic Landmark. They made the decision to remove her from the Tennessee - Tombigbee Waterway. On 2 October 2003, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District, with the assistance of two derrick barges lifted the Montgomery on a specially-designed cradle and placed her in a dry mooring basin beside the lovely Tom Bevill Visitor Center.

In late 2003, a maintenance plan was developed for restoration of the Montgomery. In early 2004, extensive restoration began. Contractors under the direction of USACE's Tennessee-Tombigbee Regional office, removed and replaced rotting decking, painted all exterior and interior surfaces, and replaced the pilot house windows and framing, along with numerous other tasks.

The History Workshop, a division of Brockington and Associates, Inc., developed a new interpretive plan that includes this website, new interpretive panels on the boat and the surrounding walkway, educational materials, a touch screen kiosk, video presentations, and two brochures.

All of this work culminated with a Grand Re-Opening and Restoration Celebration on 28 October 2004. After an early morning tour of the restored boat, Former Master Cleve Fleming cut the ribbon reopening the Montgomery to the public. That afternoon, sixth graders from Pickens County were among the first to tour this restored sternwheeler. Today, the U.S. Snagboat Montgomery, a National Historic Landmark, is one of two remaining steam-powered sternwheel snagboats in the United States. Please come to Pickensville and see her for yourself.


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U.S. Snagboat Montgomery
U.S. Dredge Collins
The Ben Campbell
Shreve's Heliopolis
U.S. Snagboat Montgomery on the Apalachicola River
The Snagboat Assists in raising the Confederate Gunboat Chattahoochee
2 October 2003, The Lift of the Montgomery