During the age of steamboating on the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, over 200 vessels plied these waters, transporting passengers, mail, merchandise, produce, cotton, farm supplies, and more. This era lasted from approximately the 1830s to the 1920s.
One well-known paddlewheeler was the John W. Callahan. While many of the steamboats used here were built in other places, this sternwheeler was built by Apalachicola steamboat builder Sam Johnson.
The boat's namesake, John W. Callahan, was a prominent businessman operating in Bainbridge, a southwest Georgia city on the Flint River. Beginning in the early 1900s, he used riverboats to ship farm products such as cotton, hay, watermelons, and corn. These vessels ran three times a week between Bainbridge and Apalachicola. Callahan enlisted Sam Johnson to build the steamboat which would bear his name in 1907. The vessel would incorporate salvaged machinery from the sunken steamboat Gertrude into a fully modern vessel offering "first class passenger and freight service."
The new paddlewheeler was 153 feet long, 34.6 feet wide, and weighed just over 200 tons. Though not the largest steamboat on the river (some were over 200 feet long), this vessel would carry large quantities of merchandise and guano fertilizer, as well as naval stores from the area's turpentine industry. Such cargo was carried on the lower deck, while the upper level contained cabins and a dining room to accommodate passengers heading to Apalachicola and fisherman heading to the popular Dead Lakes. Tickets on the steamer included meals and berths. With electric lights and hot baths, the vessel was quite popular with travelers.
Like all paddlewheelers of the day, the Callahan made regular stops at the landings along the rivers, picking up and off-loading passengers, mail, and cargo at Bainbridge, River Junction, Blountstown, Bristol, Iola, Estiffanulga, Wewahitchka and Apalachicola. Before rail lines and roads connected these destinations, the river was the highway of travel and trade. The trip from Bainbridge to Apalachicola took just under 24 hours. It departed Bainbridge twice a week, on Sundays and Thursdays at 10 a.m., and arrived in Apalachicola on Mondays and Fridays at 8 a.m.
One of the Callahan's captains for a time was Billy Russell, who later died in the 1913 sinking of the Tarpon near Panama City. The Tarpon connected passengers between Apalachicola and other destinations on the gulf.
The John W. Callahan finally sank in March of 1923, about 40 miles north of Apalachicola. Since such vessels represented a significant investment, they were hauled out and repaired whenever possible. But the Callahan, resting in 45 feet of fast moving water, reportedly still rests on the bottom of the river in its watery grave.
Apalachicola Maritime Museum founder George Floyd's grandfather, Albert Floyd, was a boiler engineer on the Callahan. It was on this vessel that he met his future wife, Margaret Thomas, in 1917. She was travelling to visit her sister. Albert's father, Theodore Archibald Floyd, was the pilot at the time. The return of a paddlewheeler to the Apalachicola River is thus part of a long family tradition.
Augusta R. West is the director of research and education at the Apalachicola Maritime Museum.