Tedious on the Mud

Getting into or out of antebellum Mobile by sea wasn’t easy. No one involved with maritime traffic then was completely happy with the port. The river was to blame. The Mobile’s current is powerful and helps maintain impressive depths throughout the stream’s length. Even off the ends of the downtown wharves, brigs and schooners could safely anchor in 9 to 22 feet of water. But at the river mouth, the water fans into the Bay, losing considerable force. This allows tons of mud, silt and sand to cease tumbling and scouring along the bottom and to gently settle into a thick ridge known as the Choctaw Bar. The average depth over the bar at high tide stood at about 7 feet, not enough for ocean-going vessels, even during those years.

After Congress appropriated funds to improve Mobile’s maritime access in 1826, a ponderous “dredging machine” began work off Choctaw Point. The record doesn’t indicate the design, but in all likelihood it was either a bucket-ladder dredge or a grapple dredge, both of which were steam powered. The former consisted of a series of scoops positioned along a swinging conveyor mounted on one side or through the center of the vessel. Once over the desired location, the crew swung the ladder down and started it so that the scoops bit into the bottom and brought the spoil topside. From there, it was dumped onto flats and later emptied out in the Bay. The grapple dredge consisted of a wooden barge surmounted by a dipper that took large bites out of the river bottom and lifted them into the sunlight. Both kinds of machines were cranky and subject to frequent breakdowns, but by 1831, a 10-foot-deep channel had been cut through the formidable ridge that constituted the bar.

This early cut was only about 200 feet wide, and officials recognized that vessels needed help steering into and out of the river mouth. In an effort to improve navigation, a 43-foot conical brick lighthouse, opposite, was erected in 1831 amid the driftwood and logs on Choctaw Point. A keeper was hired and lived in a little frame one-and-a-half-story house close to the tower. Unfortunately, the handsome new lighthouse was almost useless either by night or by day. The British traveler John W. Oldmixon’s experience was not untypical. He bought passage out of town aboard “a beautiful schooner” commanded by a “gay, good-looking, fast young fellow” who wore “a most fanciful velvet cap.” They departed on a calm day, the water’s surface brushed by catspaws, and slowly moved south. “The glassy surface of the bay was like a mirror, ” Oldmixon later wrote, “as we crept along among the innumerable drift logs by the lighthouse, and — got aground! for it was low water, and we drew eight feet, an unheard of depth for any vessel under 300 tons; but she had been built for a revenue cruiser.” Anxious to be on his way, Oldmixon instead was stranded on the Choctaw Bar. “It was very tedious in the bay on the mud, ” he groused. The dashing captain managed to distract his passenger with some unappetizing “beefsteaks and dough-boys.” At last, a “breeze and a thunder-gust brought us down the bay, and we anchored in a fog among the town of cotton ships.”

The Choctaw Point Lighthouse was built in 1831 in an attempt to make the Mobile River easier to navigate. It was built amid the driftwood of Choctaw Point.

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From Ballou's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, June 16, 1857.

The Lower Fleet

While the Dog River and Choctaw Point bars restricted deep-draft access into town, the lower reaches of the Bay, just inside the sheltering land spit tipped by Mobile Point, presented no such difficulties. Here, larger ships rode at anchor, attended by dozens of smaller vessels, or lighters as they were generally called, offloading cargo and running it up to town, or bringing down cotton from the wharves to be screwed into the big ships’ holds. Brigs and schooners were easily loaded in town, and they could and did make coastal and transatlantic voyages, but without the Lower Fleet, Mobile’s viability as a cotton port would have been severely compromised. Where the river failed, the Bay provided a solution, though businessmen still chafed at the inconvenience and delay that resulted. 

Oldmixon was taken with the spectacle. “This is a curious sight, ” he wrote, “it is quite a town of ships; a little floating community; thirty miles from Mobile and four or five miles from the nearest shores and pine forests.” Sometimes these ships remained anchored for weeks, or even months, until they could acquire a full cargo. During this time, the captains and sailors could attend religious services at a nearby floating bethel, and they frequently took steamers into town for rest and recreation.

In the winter of 1857, a 17-year-old shipboard nanny named Sarah Jane Girdler found her clipper ship moored among the Lower Fleet at night and was completely charmed at the prospect. “I have just been on deck to take a look round before going to bed, ” she wrote in her journal. “It is a splendid night almost as light as day. It is very damp, all the ship is covered with heavy dew. There is not a soul to be seen except one man pacing up and down the deck. There are between forty and fifty vessels anchored around us in every direction.” On the eve of the Civil War, an Episcopal priest and novelist from up East named Joseph Holt Ingraham journeyed to Mobile and hove into the Bay “just at sunrise.” There, spread out before him, was the Lower Fleet with its forest of masts tipped by the rosy dawn light. “This fleet consisted of nearly a hundred ships and barks, ” he wrote, “and had a fine appearance, extending for a mile or two in length. To and from its anchorage plied the smoking Bay steamers, and among them sailed a graceful cutter, the vigilant watcher of the coast.” The stretch of Bay up to Mobile, Ingraham marveled, was “lively with vessels of all kinds, moving on every possible course.”

At Choctaw Point, town came into view and “did not strike me as interesting. Its approach is disfigured by marsh land, covered with old logs, and the forests crowd close upon the city.” Once into the harbor, however, “there was a good display of shipping at the wharves, vessels of light draughts, and a fine view of steamers, taking in and discharging cotton, the great staple.”

John S. Sledge is the author of “The Mobile River, ” to be published in 2015 by the University of South Carolina Press.

Text by John S. Sledge

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