Glenn Wagnon Fletcher of Dalton may not be able to stand at the wheel of a steamboat on the Coosa River, delivering his load of cotton to Alabama the way two of his ancestors did in the 1800s and 1900s.
But he can still honor Peter and William Wagnon with the bluegrass music he and his brothers have created as a tribute, including a CD last year called “Steamboat & River Songs.”
“Many readers are intrigued by life in the Deep South during the steamboat days of the 19th century,” Fletcher writes in the introduction to his book called “Steamboat and River Adventures of the Wagnons.” “I grew up hearing stories of this environment and the steamboats that were a part of the lives of my ancestors, a life that combined regular operations of the farm, the river, and other experiences of the Wagnons.”
Peter and William Wagnon were among the pilots navigating steamboats along “God’s Highway,” as the river that meanders through Whitfield and Murray counties is sometimes called since it dominated life in the upper Georgia and north Alabama area, much the way I-75 does today.
Beginning around the 1840s, steamboats carrying cotton bales were an important part of the local economy, carrying other freight and passengers, too. Later, Confederate soldiers even depended on the steamboat for transportation during the Civil War.
“Cotton and freight had a lot to do with growth and life along the river here,” Fletcher says. “By 1845, a 400-pound bale of cotton could be shipped by steamboat for $1 from any point to Rome, Georgia. There, it was loaded onto wagons to go 15 miles to Kingston, and trains carried it to Charleston, South Carolina, in just a few days for $3.85. The English mills took all the raw cotton Georgia and Alabama could ship (as well as mills in Dalton, Rome and Gadsden, Alabama).”
One of the first steamboats on “God’s Highway” was the Coosa, a small draft steamboat of 40 tons that had the potential to move through shallow water of two or three feet, depending on load, weight and current. A few other shallow draft steamers that could navigate the shallow rivers of North Georgia were the Conasauga, Coosawattee, Oostanaula and Resaca.
Peter Wagnon had come into North Alabama the first time around 1786, welcomed by the Turkey Town Cherokees. He eventually fought during the War of 1812 along with Gen. Andrew Jackson (the future president), young Sam Houston (the future governor of Tennessee and Texas), Davy Crockett and Cherokee leader John Ross. Indeed, these five came together in 1814 at the historic battle of Horseshoe Bend, just east of Montgomery, Alabama.
Peter ultimately had a farm on 2,700 acres of fertile acreage by the Coosa River in Alabama, which was later deeded to his son, William. Some of that land, 160 acres, even survives in the family today with Fletcher holding the deed.
Somewhere along the way, Peter decided to get in on the action on the river and became a steamboat owner/operator.
“I don’t know what his first boat was for sure, but he eventually had a little 40-ton boat called Resaca and another one called the Coosawattee,” Fletcher said. “He would haul logs out of Murray County on the Coosawattee River. I think they came all the way to Dalton, pulling logs with ropes behind the boat. They’d just cut the trees, roll ‘em off the river bank, tie ‘em up, and pull ‘em on down to the mill.”
“That was a lot better than pulling ‘em with an ox and wagon,” Fletcher said with a laugh.
Peter’s first large steamboat was the Willie C. Wagnon, and his next one was the Alabama II, eventually owned and operated by his son, William. Both were double-decker steam-wheelers of 200 tons, 150 feet long with plenty of room for cotton bales, freight, and an upper deck for passengers. These boats and others were so big that locks to raise water levels had to be built to allow them to navigate through shallow areas.
They also built wing dams to help the boats move through the shallow shoals, and one of Fletcher’s relatives, Alton Wagnon of Murray County, told him some of the wing dams are still visible today.
“To make a wing dam, they dumped rocks in from the banks on both sides,” Fletcher explained. “The rocks would build the water up maybe a foot or two so it would be deep enough for boats to go through.”
Eventually, though, the steamboats fell victim to progress, with the railroad stealing away many of their customers and eventually putting the steamers out of business by the middle of the 20th century. The last new boat on the river, the Cherokee, arrived in 1916, and the Alabama II was put out of business by the railroad around 1945-49.
Fletcher, now 81, remembers going on one of the steamboats with his grandfather as a child while it was docked at Gadsden, Alabama, still barely afloat in the 1940s.
“I don’t know which boat it was,” he says. “It wasn’t running at that time; it was just sitting there at the dock. It was probably even sinking by then. I went on board with my old Wagnon granddad. He walked me around, put me in the pilot house and I turned the wheel — I still remember that.”
While Fletcher never piloted a steamboat on the river the way Peter and William did, he did manage to follow in their footsteps in another way — with music.
“Square dances were important social events on the 200-ton boats when the lower freight deck was clear,” Fletcher says. “Peter and William both, at times, played fiddle there.”
Fast forward a few decades, and the Wagnon musical tradition has been carried forward by Fletcher and his three brothers.
Born in Ball Play, Alabama, Fletcher says the brothers grew up making music.
“My father learned to play harmonica in World War I and came back playing,” Glenn says. “My mother played piano, and I had three older brothers who all played different instruments.”
The brothers began playing bluegrass, gospel and mountain music together in the 1940s and eventually worked their way all the way into the Alabama Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame. Along the journey, Glenn earned a living as a teacher and football coach in Alabama and Georgia, eventually retiring from Northwest Whitfield High School in 1991.
Over the years, the Fletcher Brothers Band made several recordings, including two with a distinctly historical twist. The first CD, released in 2013, is a 19-tune tribute to the Great Locomotive Chase of the Civil War.
“I just got to thinking that there are a lot of songs about trains, but no one’s ever done anything about (the Great Locomotive Chase,” Glenn said. “I realized that was a great opportunity for us.”
The songs tell about the events more than 150 years ago when two dozen Union spies stepped aboard a train near present-day Kennesaw. Their mission was to steal the locomotive, the General, and drive it north to Chattanooga while doing as much damage to the railroad along the way as they could. They didn’t make it to Chattanooga, running out of fuel just north of Ringgold. They also didn’t do much damage to the railroad, and most were captured. But their daring won some of them the very first Medals of Honor.
Last year, Glenn and his brother, Barry, released another historical 15-song CD called “Steamboat & River Songs,” with song titles like “Full Steam Ahead,” “Muddy River,” “Willie Oh Willie,” “Sinking of the Willie C” and “Copper River Wreck.”
It’s all an effort to keep the steamboat memories alive for future generations.
Excerpts from the obituary of William L. Wagnon
William L. Wagnon, “Uncle Bill of Ball Play,” died at his home in the Ball Play country this morning at 4 o’clock, after a long illness of dropsy.
The announcement of the death of this noted character and pioneer citizen will occasion widespread sorrow throughout Etowah and Cherokee counties for he was known and loved by thousands. He typified the accepted idea of the hospitality of the Old South and was one of the finest of men. Owning three thousand acres of land about his old homestead and being a man of affluence in his community he was able to dispense unusual hospitality up to the last.
He was a great fox hunter and his pack of fox dogs was noted throughout the district. He believed in living at home. Up until a short time ago he maintained a flock of sheep and from their wool his women folk made the cloth they used. Literally his latchstring was always hanging on the outside. He loved children and it is a fact that when they went about him, he sent them home with whatever seemed to take their fancy, whether it was a pony, a calf, a puppy, a lamb, a cow, or what not. He gave such things away with utmost abandon when his affections were involved.
He was in truth an old-timer, one of a great breed that is passing away. As a member of a Confederate cavalry company he fought in the Civil War and his comrades give him credit for being a brave and gallant soldier.
(Relatives also tell how William enlisted in the war at age 16 and went through it without a scratch, though his left ear was shot off!)