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James Lee: 1900

James Lee: 1900

On the Mississippi circa 1900. "The levee at Memphis. Sidewheeler James Lee." 8x10 inch dry plate glass negative, Detroit Publishing Company. View full size.


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This is a conflagration just waiting to happen, and it did with horrifying frequency on river boats such as these. The boats themselves are almost completely made of wood, and are driven by spark-spewing coal-fired steam engines - adding bales of hay, cotton, wooden crates, carts, and the inevitable careless smoking patrons only adds to the danger.

Same day as this picture

The James Lee is in the left background. Also the bridge can be seen in both pictures.

Miraculous curves

Very graceful. Looks like there wasn't a straight piece of lumber in any of the horizontal sections of these boats, in spite of their design for use on flat water. Compared to them, the industrial-looking tows of today look like boxcars.

Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel

I've often thought about how interesting it would be for all of our current modes of transportation to be replaced instantaneously with the transports of 100 or more years ago. I have to laugh when I think of the I-465 loop in Indianapolis loaded with a ton of horses and buggies hurrying to workplaces in the morning. The idea sounds like a lot of fun to me, though I do think that it would cost a lot more to feed a horse than it did 100 years ago. Think of all the farm ground formerly used to grow feed for horses that is now suburban housing developments. I'm scared to think what it costs to keep a horse fed these days with all our agricultural cutbacks across the country.

Here's a stanza, though, from a late '20s song "Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel," by Grand Ole Opry pioneer Uncle Dave Macon. Uncle Dave was a mule train driver before he become a country music star and always swore by mule and horse-pulled transportation:

"I don't know, but I b'lieve I'm right,
The auto's ruined the country;
Let's go back to the horse and buggy,
And try to save some money."

Hay is for Horses

Owning a horse was an expensive proposition. Not only did you have to feed the thing copious amounts of oats and hay, you had to pay for shoeing, vet costs, stable fees, etc. Most city folks didn't own their own horses but rather went to local livery stables to hire a horse and buggy/wagon when they needed one, much as modern big city dwellers frequently don't own their own cars but rent one when really needed.

As far back as October 9, 1910, the New York Times ran an article titled "Auto Vs. Horse" comparing the costs of a horse and buggy to those associated with an automobile (a Maxwell Model Q to be specific). The results: it cost 1.5 cents per passenger mile for the auto versus 1.8 cents for the horse and buggy. The auto was 15 percent cheaper.

Steamer James Lee

Commercial and Statistical Review of the City of Memphis, Tenn., 1883.

Lee Line Steamers

When the Lee Line of steamers was first started from Friars Point to Memphis, in 1867, by Capt. Jas. Lee, Sr., it was predicted by many that the enterprise would prove a failure. That such a prediction was at fault, is evidenced by the fact that to-day the trade brought to the city is of far more value and has done more to promote the general welfare and prosperity of the community than that of any other steamboat line that enters this port. …

The first boat entered in this trade was the Natoma; since then the line has bought and chartered many boats, until in 1879 they built the famous steamer James Lee. They now own and run, three boats, named as follows: The James Lee, Coahoma and Dean Adams. These boats are all very fast and are kept in good order, and the very best of repair. … Over $200,000 per annum is expended by this line for fuel, wages, repairs and supplies. We give below, the following description of the boats now owned and run by the line:

The steamer James Lee is 241 feet long, 35 feet beam and 32 feet floor, depth of hold 7 ½ feet. She has two cylinders 22 inches in diameter, with a 7 foot stroke; 4 steel boilers, 28 feet long and 44 inches in diameter. She is particularly noted for her speed, has very large and elegant staterooms and is a superior packet in every particular. …

Update: There were two James Lee steamboats operated by the Lee Line. The first, described above, operated 1879-1894 while the second, pictured in the original Shorpy post, was launched in 1898. She was crushed by ice floes on the Mississippi River at Memphis in January 1918.


Seems like James Lee is equipped for Roll on/ Roll off operation. Both similarites and differences compared to modern times are notable. Just like today, the "intermodal" tractors deliver their trailers to the dock, where the trailers only are rolled onto the ship. Note the carts ranged along the starboard side forward on the main deck. The "Tractors" (in this case they seem to be mules) stay on shore. We don't get to see the loading, which must have been interesting to say the least.

An engineering peculiarity of the ship is the side paddle wheels far aft. Is it to make room for vehicle access on the main deck, or is it to take advantage of the higher value of the wake fraction (a source of hydrodynamic efficiency) to be expected where the boundary layer is thickest? Or is there a fancier explanation (shape of the wake at cruising speed, say?) It's anyone's guess because those who knew for sure are definitely dead now.

Miles Per Oat

I wonder, in terms of 1900 income versus 2011 income, how much it cost to feed and care for a horse? Is our gas cheaper, compared to what we typically earn, or were those "eats like a horse" creatures less expensive? For sure, there was not a choice of compact models that ate less, though that white one in the middle of the social circle, seems to have been fed less than his peers.

[The benchmark measurement, going back to the days of the Spanish Armada, was Mules Per Galleon. - Dave]

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