The Rise and Fall of River and Rail transportation in Madison, Indiana.

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Madison Dry Docks Company

For a time Madison could boast having two steamboat building concerns in the little town. The Madison Marine Railway and Boat Yards had been well established since its first boat “Golden Gate” slid into the Ohio River in 1852, but to some it seemed the town and the steam boating business could support another yard. To that end, in January, 1860 the firm of Louis H. Vance, Henry Thompson, Joseph Brashear, Thomas McClelland, Samuel Beatty and William McClelland organized a new company and called it the Madison Dry Dock Company. The first boat to be built by them was a ferryboat for Joseph Abbott for use between Madison and Milton, Kentucky. The frame for it was laid before the dry dock had been constructed. The keel was laid between the old pork house and the railroad track, which runs to the riverbank, below the ruins of the Palmetto Mills. The ferryboat raised steam for the first time and moved into the current on May 29th, 1860 and a new boat and a new boat yard were launched.

Immediately following the completion of the ferryboat, the dry docks were built. Its dimensions were, “192 feet in length, 52 feet in width and 11 feet in depth.” (footnote 1) It was finished in the summer of 1860 and shortly thereafter the first boat was placed on the docks for repair. The boat was the “Ida May” and she was one of many to be repaired there. The local newspaper mentions many boats being repaired, reconstructed or reconfigured at both the Madison Dry Docks and the Madison Marine Railways and Boat Yards. The riverfront at Madison during the early 1860’s must have been a center of activity and, with the coming of the Civil War, even more business would be centered on the boats yards.

On May 22, 1863 the Madison Evening Courier noted,

“The following steamboats are now being constructed by the Madison Dry Dock Company:

The “Caroline”, Capt. Tally. This boat is so nearly finished that she will be prepared to receive freight in a few days. We give her dimensions: 155 feet in length, 32 feet beam, and 5 feet hold. She has two engines, with 16 inch cylinder, and 4 ½ feet stroke. Two boilers, 22 feet in length; and 44 in. diameter, with five flus.

A boat for Capt. F. Burnett: 160 feet in length, 34 feet beam, and five feet hold. Two engines, with 16 inch cylinders and 4 ½ feet stroke. Two boilers, 22 feet in length, and 44 inches in diameter, with five flus. She will be ready to launch in about three weeks.

A stern-wheel boat for Capt. W. H. Keyt: 126 feet in length, 20 feet beam, and 4 feet hold. Two engines, with 10 inch cylinders, and 3 feet stroke. Two boilers, 16 feet in length, and 42 inches in diameter, with two flues. Will be launched in about ten days.

Also, a side-wheel boat for Capt. Crane: 180 feet in length, 32 feet beam, and 4 ½ feet hold. Two engines with 18 inch cylinders, and 5 feet stroke. Two boilers, 26 feet in length, 48 inches in diameter, with four flues.

The hulls for all of them are being built by the Dry Dock Company. The cabin for the Caroline is being constructed by A. F. Temple, under the superintendence of Mr. George Spangler.

Messrs. Crawford & Davidson, of the Indiana Foundry, are building the engines for the whole of them, and in order to finish up their contracts in time they have been compelled to enlarge their Machine Shop and employ an additional number of hands. They are obliged to run a portion of the time night and day.

Messrs. Campbell, Speigle & Co. have the contract for making the boilers, and are progressing finely with them. The sheet-iron and steam-pipe work is being done by Mr. H. H. Armstrong.

In addition to the above, Messrs. Crawford & Davidson have built the machinery for a new boat made at Louisville, which was towed to the city yesterday to receive her machinery.
The Marine Railway Company have also some two or three steamboats in process of erection, but we have been unable to get their dimensions.”

This level of activity seems to have continued through the war but with its conclusion the yard was sold. Whether this was due to decreased demand or the partners broke up and moved on to other pursuits is not stated. They may have, being keen businessmen, seen the downturn in boat building coming. In any event, one of the partners, Mr. Joseph Brashear states the yard was sold in the spring of 1865 to Captain Henry C. Watts and others and in October of 1865 John A. Porter, Nickolas Gratz and J. Hummel are noted in the local paper as part owners.

Joseph Brashear states that, “They erected a roof over the entire dock and loaded the dock with hay. They put 1,650 tons on her. She was taken in tow by the steamer Hazell Dell and taken to New Orleans. After disposing of the hay, Watts & Co. sold her to some New Orleans parties who used her for docking small crafts.” (footnote 2) Just when this was done is unknown but it must have been sometime in late 1865 as the “Hazel Dell”, according to Way’s Packet Directory, was snagged and lost at Demopolis, Alabama on January 5, 1866.

If these calculations are correct, the Madison Dry Dock Company was in business for only about five years. Those five years were perhaps the most turbulent in steamboat history on the rivers of the United States. It was when the steamboat was at the peak of its popularity and the “art of war” had come into its own on the river.

The following is a list of boats built at the Madison Dry Dock Company as remembered by Joseph Brashear, part owner. It is, no doubt, a partial list and will be added to as information becomes available.

NameYear & TypeOriginally Constructed for, Captain in Charge or Destination
UnionFerryboatCaptain John Abbott for use on the Ohio River between Madison and Milton, Kentucky
Leslie Combs1860-Stw pCincinnati & Kentucky River trade- Captain Stivers
O’ConnerFerryboatNew Albany, Indiana
Fannie Brandeis1864-Stw pCaptain Thomas Boles-Evansville
Mattie Cook1860-Stw pCaptain Adam Liter-Green River
UnknownTwo bargesMemphis Packet Co.
Carolina (Caroline)1860-Stw pCaptain Isaac Talley, F. L. Dubach & Pearl Starch Co.Madison to Cincinnati Trade
Fantom (Phantom)1864-Stw pCaptain Charles Irwin of Madison
LucyFerryboatCaptain Taylor, Hamilton, MO
Indiana1864-SW pCaptain R. E. Neal
Calumet1865-Stw pCaptain Phil Anshutz
Mollie GratzStw pLouisville & Evansville trade
Nannie Byars (Byers)1863-Stw pW. H. Keyt

Footnote 1: Biographical and Historical Souvenir, John M. Gresham & Company, Chicago, 1889
Footnote 2: Ibid.



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