A trip upriver on the Flora Swann

Mona B. SmithFarragut, Our Town Stories

“Up a lazy river by the old mill stream … throw away your troubles, dream a dream with me.”

Join me. It is May 1, 1896, when the Flora Swann, a steamboat owned by Knoxville, Sevier and Jefferson Steamboat Company, was launched in Knoxville. The steamer was initially built for the purpose of running weekly jaunts between Loudon and Knoxville, and it made regular stops at Calloway’s landing in Concord where Mrs. Calloway fed the passengers and crew.

The Flora Swann became a popular mode of transportation for pleasure seekers and also carried large loads of merchandise for businesses in Knoxville, Sevierville, Dandridge and Newport. Typical merchandise, carried on large barges that were hauled behind the vessel, consisted of grain, hay, straw, lumber, cattle, sheep, poultry, produce, canned goods and even large quantities of salt.

An excursion on May 24, 1897, and documented in the Knoxville Sentinel, recounts a trip to Seven Islands for the purpose of decoration of graves at Seven Islands Church for Memorial Day. The trip involved both the Flora Swann and another boat named the Lucille Borden. [The writer notes that there are two places on the Tennessee River denoted as Seven Islands. One site is near Kingston, Tennessee, and the other close to Sevierville. One can assume the destination was the latter because of the location of a Seven Islands church that sits on a hill overlooking the south bank of the French Broad River in Knox County.]

Flora Swann Pen and Ink: The Journal and Tribune, Knoxville, TN, 16 Aug 1896

The news article relates that the Flora Swann and Lucile Borden took on a “pleasant rivalry” as to which boat would arrive at the destination first. It noted that “a better class of people never left the city on an excursion.” The Flora Swann managed to arrive 30 minutes ahead of its competition but not without some excitement. As reported, the canvas cover was ignited from sparks from the smoke stack and the men stayed busy extinguishing little blazes. Upon arriving at the cemetery, the passengers disembarked with large baskets of flowers for the graves and had dinner on the grounds before returning to Knoxville. Strawberries, ice cream and lemonade were available for passengers to purchase for a nominal cost. The Lucile Borden won the race on the return trip, and the article concluded that “not a rough character was found on either boat.”

The Flora Swann made news again in September 1897 when it announced it was leaving for the longest voyage ever attempted by any boat leaving the Knoxville wharf. The voyage included a round trip to the mouth of the Tennessee River at Paducah, Kentucky, up the Ohio to the mouth of the Cumberland, then to Nashville where the passengers stayed for four days in order to see Centennial sights and points of interest in and around the Tennessee capital. One hundred fifty guests had accommodations on a barge fitted for sleeping apartments or state rooms on board the steamer for a “reasonable rate.”

Travel on the river wasn’t always pleasant as there are accounts of accidents. One cold February day in 1900, one of the barges being towed collided with a bridge pier. Pilot Newton Huffacker reported that the “wheels were foul,” but the final conclusion was attributed to carelessness. The overall damage was $225 with one barge totaled beyond use, another badly damaged, and 22,700 feet of lumber which sank in shallow water. Another account told of being stuck in ice around Sevierville hampering delivery of goods as had been scheduled.

By 1903, the Flora Swann was condemned and considered no longer safe to use. The ship’s machinery, rated the best ever installed on a steamboat, was transferred to a new boat named the Jane Austin.

But for a brief moment in time, the Flora Swann served both sightseers seeking a fun getaway and businesses seeking to transport their merchandise, and the little town of Concord was an important link in the boat’s journey.  As Hoagy Carmichael penned, “Blue skies up above, everyone’s in love,” is a memory of the carefree times in the past. Perhaps this trip up a lazy river has provided a momentary diversion from serious concerns of today.

Mona Isbell Smith is a retired computer systems analyst who enjoys freelancing.

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