The stern paddle wheel steamer Tarboro on the Tar River, probably during her maiden voyage in 1898. She is coming into the town of Tarboro, in Edgecombe County, N.C., and a crowd waits at the town’s public dock to celebrate her launching. After calling at Tarboro, she will proceed on to Old Sparta, Greenville and, finally, Washington, N.C., a seaport 45 miles downriver. She is heavy with freight, almost certainly cotton or cottonseed.
Today I’m going to look more closely at this photograph and several other photographs of steamers on the Tar River in the late 19th century. I found the images in the Lena Martin Photograph Collection at the Edgecombe County Memorial Library when I was there a few weeks ago.
Born in 1877, Lena Pennington Martin was a native of Tarboro, the seat of Edgecombe County. I don’t know a whole lot about her, but from her photograph albums she seems to have been a remarkably curious, lighthearted and adventurous young woman.
From those photographs, I can also tell that she took her photography seriously, and she certainly had an artist’s eye.
She married a local shopkeeper, J. Frank Martin, in 1900. He died, however, only 13 years later. After his death, Mrs. Martin worked at the town’s post office and raised their 3 children on her own.
After her death in 1950, her family donated four albums of her photographs to the Edgecombe County Historical Society, which later gave them to the county library for safekeeping.
Lena Martin’s photographs include images of the town’s streets, factories, a circus, musicians, courting lovers, children roaming the town, a barbecue and many other scenes of daily life.
I can date most of the photographs to the last decade of the 19th century: she took quite a few photographs of the great freeze of 1893, for instance.
Several photographs also show the construction of the Tarboro. From other sources, we know the Tarboro was built in 1898.
Another photograph shows a young soldier at the local train station. He is headed to the Spanish-American War, so we know that she took the photograph in 1898.
Lena Martin’s albums include approximately 300 photographs, and a large proportion of them depict scenes of the Tar River—steamers, bridges, log rafts, flooding, freezes and others.
That is not surprising. Founded in the mid-1700s, Tarboro is located where it is because of the river. The town’s location was the farthermost point of navigation on the Tar River for vessels coming from Washington, N.C.
In Lena Martin’s childhood, the river had still been the town of Tarboro’s lifeblood, but its importance was fading by the time that she took these photographs at the turn of the 20th century.
From her photographs we can tell that Lena Martin nonetheless felt a great fascination for the river and its boats. She often wrote brief inscriptions beneath the photographs in her albums.
In their poetic bent, they reveal that the Tar River occupied a special place in her imagination if, unfortunately for a historian, few dates, names or places.
Dates, names and places were not Lena Martin’s first concerns, however. She saw the river as a source of mystery, romance and beauty—and as an exciting path to a wider world.
No wonder a young woman like her would be drawn again and again to its shores.
The Tar River is a 215-mile-long stream that arises in Person County, north of Durham, N.C. It passes through a large swath of eastern North Carolina and flows into the estuarine waters of the Pamlico Sound (where it’s renamed the Pamlico River).
In recent years, the Tar has been best known for its floods. During hurricane Floyd in 1999, the river rose as much as 30 feet above flood stage. The floodwaters devastated Princeville, Tarboro, Greenville, Old Sparta and other communities located on the river’s banks.
Flooding due to hurricane Michael in 2018 was no less calamitous in some of those communities.
In the last half of the 19th century, the Tarboro and other steamers played a central role in carrying freight and passengers on the Tar. To an important degree, they took the place of the flatboats and rafts that ran the river in the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century.
Those flatboats and rafts were very shallow draft and carried large quantities of cotton, naval stores, tobacco and other freight to Washington, N.C. They floated downriver with the current. In many cases, enslaved boatmen steered them with long stern oars.
The first steamers began operating on the Tar in the 1830s. However, the heyday of steam travel on the river was from the 1870s to the 1890s, after the Army Corps of Engineers undertook significant dredging, snag clearing and other navigational improvements.
According to a very interesting MA thesis written by Elizabeth Wyllie at ECU’s Program in Maritime Studies, local boat builders referred to steam-powered vessels such as the Tarboro as “upriver steamers.”
That term “upriver steamers” meant that builders designed them specifically for hauling freight and passengers on the relatively shallow and often narrow, winding upper parts of rivers and creeks.
Another view of the stern paddle wheeler Tarboro, ca. 1898-1900. Laden with what looks like cotton bales, she is coming into Tarboro. The town’s railroad trestle bridge has just opened for her. She probably took on her cargo at Shiloh Landing, which was located 2 miles upriver and was the furthest inland that steam vessels could travel on the Tar due to the river’s shoals.
Note that the steamer’s builder has moved its pilothouse forward, so that it is now over the house for the boiler—it was over the steamer’s engine room in the aft part of the steamer in our first photograph. The engine room housed the two pistons that powered the paddle wheel.
The Tarboro was 77 ft., 5-inches long, 23.8 ft. in width and had a burthen of 73 tons, with a depth of hold of 5 ft., 10 inches.
A legendary boat builder/shipbuilder named Alpheus Whitehurst Styron built the Tarboro directly across the river from Tarboro. She was the only Tar River steamer ever built in the town’s vicinity.
Capt. Styron was the most important steamboat builder, owner and captain on the Tar River in the last part of the 19th century.
Born at Portsmouth Island, N.C., in 1848, he gained much of his knowledge of the Tar and other coastal rivers while he was assisting Confederate forces during the Civil War.
At the age of 16, he had served as a courier for the Confederate army. In that capacity, he traveled frequently on the Tar and other eastern North Carolina rivers to deliver messages. Because of the Union army’s occupation of the N.C. coast, his duties required a great deal of stealth and he apparently often traveled at night in order to avoid Union army patrols.
After the war, Styron settled in Washington, N.C., and used his knowledge of coastal rivers to design and build steamers for the Tar and other coastal rivers
He became a steamboat captain, and he eventually opened a boatyard in Washington. He built his first steamer, a 73-ft. long, screw-propelled upriver steamer called the Edgecombe, in 1877.
He also built a number of other steamers for use on the Tar River, including another stern paddle wheeler that was also called the Tarboro in 1881. (She hit a snag and sank near Old Sparta in 1885).
Upriver steamers such as the Edgecombe and the two Tarboros carried bales of cotton and barrels of cottonseed oil downriver to Washington, as well as truck vegetables, fertilizer, naval stores, marl (from the mines at Old Sparta) and a variety of manufactured goods.
Capt. Styron, by the way, was the grandfather of the writer William Styron, author of Lie Down in Darkness, Sophie’s Choice and other acclaimed novels.
In our next photograph, we can once again see the Tarboro on the Tar River at Tarboro, ca. 1898. As we can see here, Capt. Styron did not design the stern paddle wheeler to carry passengers, but to haul freight.
A little earlier, Tar River steamers often had passenger decks, sometimes with saloons and galleys. By the last years of the 19th century, those days had largely passed.
The Tarboro’s test run, prior to her maiden voyage, had not gone so well. Apparently the captain, R. A. Zoeller, discovered that she had a defective rudder. The steamer ran into shallow water, hit a snag and sank in 3 or 4 feet of water. She was quickly salvaged, however, and was soon back on the river.
When Capt. Styron’s first Tarboro was in service—from 1881 to 1885– three or maybe even four steamboat lines still operated on the Tar River.
By 1898, however, that had begun to change. The Tarboro was one of the last steamers built on the river, and she would become one of the last upriver steamers to carry freight on the river.
By the early 1900s, railroads and gasoline-powered boats had supplanted the river’s steamers in almost every capacity.
By the time the Tarboro’s career ended in 1922, she was one of only two steamers still working on the Tar. In those first decades of the 20th century, local people seemed to find the Tarboro and its co-worker the Shiloh either endlessly romantic or somewhat feckless relics of another age.
Capt. Styron built the Tarboro for a cottonseed milling company located at Shiloh, 2 miles upriver of Tarboro. The company was called the Tar River Oil Co. and went by a variety of other names over the years as well (Farmers’ Cooperative Manufacturing Co., Farmer’s Oil Mills, etc.)
Cottonseed was the basis for one of the most valuable manufacturing industries in the southern states between 1890 and 1930.
The industry relied on crushing surplus cottonseed—the seed that was leftover after ginning and not needed for planting the next year’s crop.
Mills pressed the seed into a crude oil. Manufacturers processed that crude oil to make soaps, cooking oils, fertilizers, ice cream, margarine, explosives, stock feed, mattresses and much else.
Commercial brands as famous as Ivory Soap, Wesson Oil and Crisco were all originally cottonseed oil products.
According to Lynette Boney Wrenn’s informative study on the history of the cottonseed industry in the U.S., the oil mill at Shiloh paid $45,000 to $60,000 a year for cottonseed between 1888 and 1903. During that time, the company crushed a minimum of 2,500 tons of seed a year.
That cottonseed came from cotton gins located along the river. The Tarboro or the Shiloh collected bags of seed at landings along the river and carried them upriver to the mill at Shiloh Landing.
After the mill crushed the seed, the steamers carried the cottonseed oil and other by-products back down the Tar to Washington, N.C.
From there, railroads or larger vessels transported the oil to other parts of the U.S.
North Carolina and other cotton-growing states in the South produced most of the country’s crude cottonseed oil. However, factories in other parts of the U.S. did most of the processing into consumer and farm products.
By the mid-1910s, the Tarboro and the Shiloh were the last two steam vessels on the Tar River.
At that time, a number of river transports still plied the Tar, but they were gasoline-powered boats, not steamers, and generally towed rafts of logs and bulk cargos, such as coal, oil and fertilizer.
The cottonseed oil mill in Shiloh continued to employ the Tarboro to transport cottonseed and cottonseed oil until 1922.
In this next series of photographs, we can see the stern paddle wheeler Tarboro in various stages of construction on the banks of the Tar River. As I mentioned above, Capt. A. W. Styron built the Tarboro for the Tar River Oil Co., a producer of crude cottonseed oil, in 1898.
In our first photograph above, we can see the Tarboro on the ways at its construction site across the river from Tarboro, directly opposite the foot of Trade Street.
My friend Mike Alford, the retired curator of traditional workboats at the N. C. Maritime Museum, examined these photographs with me. When he studied this photograph, he was impressed by the Tarboro’s builders.
Eyeing the symmetry of the plank lining and the beading on the upper whale strakes, Mike observed that the job was clearly in the hands of a first-class builder, a man with a gift for art and form.
The boat’s design is representative of the upriver steamers on the Tar River. They were shallow draft vessels with wooden hulls, spoon bows and flaring sides. Some, like the Tarboro, were round bilged; others, such as the perhaps more typical Shiloh, were more flat bottomed.
Some were stern paddle wheelers such as the Tarboro, and some had screw propellers. Side paddle wheelers were less common.
With the spoon bows, their captains could ease the boats onto shore at cotton plantations and other landings that did not have wharves.
The Tar River steamers were always shallow draft boats. The builders typically built them with drafts of 2–3 feet, and certainly never much more. Even then, groundings occurred frequently. Snags and overhangs always posed a danger, too.
Seasonal spells of low water made navigation even more challenging. Some steamers remained at the docks in Washington and did not run to Tarboro for 3 or 4 months a year during the dry season. Others got stuck on a muddy bottom and sometimes had to wait weeks for rain and the coming of higher water.
In our next several photographs, we see the Tarboro in a later stage of construction. After launching the boat onto the river, the builders have lashed the hull to the bank in order to install her engine, paddlewheel, stacks, trusses and other metalwork, as well as to build her superstructure.
On the deck we can see what looks a bilge pump, a cylinder for the paddle wheel driver, the axle of the paddle wheel and three hubs on the axle for the wheel and paddleboards.
The heavy post in the middle will probably anchor the boat’s hogging chains.
Steamer builders often installed a system of metal rods and wire trusses—known as “hogging chains”—to relieve stress on a boat’s hull and prevent hogging and sagging—basically a buckling of the boat’s hull.
Here we can see the carpenters at work on the Tarboro’s pilothouse while she rests on the banks of the Tar River.
In the late 19th century, upriver steamers such as those on the Tar River could also be found on other, similar coastal waterways in North Carolina.
Those bodies of water included the Black, South, White Oak, Meherrin, Waccamaw and other rivers; Fishing Creek (a tributary of the Tar) and Contentnea Creek (a tributary of the Neuse); as well as the upper parts of larger rivers, such as the Neuse and the Cape Fear.
This unidentified man was presumably one of the Tarboro’s builders. Judging by the man’s age, he may have been Capt. Styron’s superintendent, but he was at least a master carpenter or skilled mechanic.
Tarboro had a long history of skilled African American builders. When the Tarboro was launched in December 1898, however, the status of black tradesmen and other professionals was ebbing in Tarboro and the rest of Edgecombe County.
The town of Tarboro, in fact, had become an important center of black political power after the Civil War. It was the unofficial capital of the “Black Second,” the majority-black 2nd Congressional District, and the town had an African American mayor as early as the 1880s.
At the time of this photograph, the state’s only African American congressman, George Henry White, still lived in Tarboro.
A month before the Tarboro’s launching, however, all that had begun to change. A self-described “white supremacy campaign” had used violence, corruption and fraud to take power across N.C. It was the end of black voting rights, and the end of any possibility that this gentleman, no matter his skills or experience, might be a boatyard’s superintendent.
He is standing in front of planking for the steamer’s construction, as well as a riveted steel object that appears to be a boat’s boiler.
In our next photograph, we can see the Tarboro’s workmate, the steamer Shiloh, at a landing near Tarboro. Her crew has covered some of her freight with a tarp, and barrels of what is probably cottonseed oil lay on the deck. Two unidentified men, perhaps the boat’s captain and owner, stand on the deck on a snowy winter day.
Shipwright David S. Liddon, a Confederate veteran who was twice a POW during the Civil War, built the Shiloh for the Tar River Oil Co. in 1895.
She launched on Dec. 13 of that year. After her first few months on the river, R. A. Zoeller took the job as her captain and remained in the post for nearly 20 years. Eventually Tarboro’s residents came to see him, his cook and the boat’s deckhands practically as a part of the river.
The 84 gross-ton, screw-propelled Shiloh was 83 ft. long and a few inches more than 22 ft. wide. Unlike the Tarboro, she was designed to carry passengers as well as freight.
The Shiloh was built with two decks. The upper deck had crew space, a galley and two saloons divided in all likelihood (before the white supremacy campaigns of 1898-1900) into first class and second class, and later, after 1898, into one for white passengers and another for African American passengers.
The Shiloh was named for Shiloh Landing, the site of the Tar River Oil Co.’s cottonseed mill. As I mentioned previously, Shiloh Landing was located on a sharp bend in the river 2 miles above Tarboro
I was not able to determine if Shiloh Landing—and hence the Shiloh—was named for the ancient Samarian city of Shiloh that is mentioned several times in the Bible (“shiloh” is the Hebrew word for “place of peace”) or for the American Civil War’s Battle of Shiloh, which was the bloodiest battle in the nation’s history up to that time.
According to local historian Rudolph Knight, Shiloh Landing had a different symbolic meaning for African Americans in Edgecombe County.
Citing local oral traditions, Knight recalled that the landing was the site where antebellum cotton planters arranged with local agents to acquire enslaved laborers from the slave markets in Richmond, Va.
According to stories in the African American community (including those of Knight’s own family), the agents at Shiloh Landing would go to Richmond, purchase the enslaved laborers and return by river.
The Shiloh was the last steam vessel on the Tar River. Her companion steamer, the Tarboro, was taken off the river in 1922, and the Tar River Oil Co. sold her to a Virginia firm in 1924.
She was refit with a gasoline engine and ran on the Rappahannock River until she caught fire and burned in 1925. The era of steam on America’s rivers was over: the age of petroleum had arrived.
* * *
SPECIAL THANKS TO–
I especially want to thank my friend and colleague Mike Alford for his assistance with this story. I’ve never written a word about the history, design or building of North Carolina’s traditional boats that was not informed by his knowledge and experience. Any great insights into the boats in this story are totally his; any faults and errors, entirely mine.
I also want to express my deep gratitude to Pam Edmondson, the curator of the very fine collection of local history books and manuscripts at the Edgecombe County Memorial Library in Tarboro.
She not only guided me through the Lena Martin Photograph Collection, but she also graciously shared her knowledge of Tarboro’s history with me.
I also want to give a special shout out to a masters thesis and four very helpful books:
Elizabeth Wyllie’s MA thesis, “Defining Eastern North Carolina Upriver Steamboats Through Tar River Archaeology and History,” which she completed at ECU in 2012.
Henry Clark Bridgers, Jr., Steamboats on the Tar, ed. by Ronald Kemp (2013).
Monika S. Fleming, Edgecombe County: Along the Tar River (Charleston, S.C.,: Arcadia Pub., 2003).
Lynette Boney Wrenn, Cinderella of the New South: A History of the Cottonseed Industry, 1855-1995 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995).
C. Rudolph Knight and Lawrence Auld, African American Heritage Guide: Rocky Mount, Tarboro, Edgecombe County (2013).
Many thanks for helping me understand the history of the Tar River and its people better.