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The Steamboat: Wooding Up

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In our automobile age, when the fuel gauge in our car gets toward “empty,” we look for a filling station where we can “gas up.” In the steamboat era, when his boat got low on firewood for the boiler, the captain looked for one of the many woodlots that dotted the banks. Pausing there, he could “wood up.”

Frederick Law Olmsted described the south to his northern readers

In the early 1850s, journalist Frederick Law Olmsted traveled extensively through the south filing reports back to the New York Daily Times (now the New York Times). He later published several collections of these reports, including “A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States.”

Frederick Law Olmsted
Frederick Law Olmsted

At the time, with tensions rising between north and south, Olmsted tried to give his paper’s northern audience some sense of what the south was really like. Communications and mobility being what they were at the time, the people of the north and south had little understanding of daily life in the other region. Olmsted’s first-person reporting helped bridge that gap, and today, those accounts are still valued as a detailed depiction of the antebellum south and its people.

Wooding up the steamboat

Included in Olmsted’s southern travels was a trip by steamboat from Fayetteville to Wilmington. His reporter’s eye caught the details of a commonplace occurrence when he described for his readers the process of “wooding-up” the boat. With the boat low on wood with which to feed the boiler’s firebox, the captain steered to shore at an unmanned wood lot.

Our boat was run to the bank, men jumped from her fore and aft, and fastened head and stern lines to the trees, and we commenced wooding.

The trees had been cut away so as to leave a clear space to the top of the bank, which was some fifty feet from the boat, and moderately steep. Wood, cut, split, and piled in ranks, stood at the top of it, and a shoot of plank, two feet wide and thirty long, conveyed it nearly to the water. The crew rushed to the wood-piles – master, passengers, and all, but the engineer and chambermaid, deserting the boat – and the wood was first passed down, as many as could, throwing into the shoot, and others forming a line, and tossing it, from one to another, down the bank. From the water’s edge it was passed, in the same way, to its place on board, with great rapidity – the crew exciting themselves with yells. They were all blacks, but one.

Payment was on the honor system.

With all hands – crew and passengers – completing the task of loading the firewood onto the steamer, Olmsted turned his eye to the business end of the transaction:

On a tree, near the top of the bank, a little box was nailed, on which a piece of paper was tacked, with this inscription:

to all persons takin wood from this landin pleas
to leav a ticket payable to the subscriber, at
$ 1.75 a cord as heretofore,

Amos Sikes.’

And the master – just before the wood was all on board – hastily filled a blank order (torn from a book, like a check-book, leaving a memorandum of the amount, etc.) on the owner of the boat for payment, to Mr. Sikes, for two cords of pine-wood, at $1.75, and two cords of light-wood, at $2.00 – and left it in the box. The wood used had been measured in the ranks with a rod, carried for the purpose, by the master, at the moment he reached the bank.

And with that, the wooded-up steamboat cast off its lines, nosed out into the river, and continued its journey.

You can read Frederick Law Olmsted’s book A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States online at the Library of Congress.

Featured illustration of a steamboat on the Cape Fear River is courtesy NC Archives & History [N_96_5_33].

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