Captain of the Oconee River
Capt. Robert C. Henry, a native of North Carolina, could rightly be called the father of river boating in Laurens County. Capt. Henry served in Company A of the Third North Carolina Cavalry during the Civil War. At the age of forty, Captain Henry, for some unknown reason, left his North Carolina home for Dublin in 1878.
He brought "The Colville" and fellow captain, Samuel Skinner, along with him. With the aid of Col. John Stubbs, Capt. Henry almost singlehandedly rejuvenated river transportation along the Oconee, albeit only for a quarter of a century.
River transportation lived and died with the rain. The wet season usually ran from mid-fall to mid-spring. The Colville, named for its builder John Colville, set out for Raoul Station in June of 1878. Its return depended on the amount of rainfall in the Oconee Basin. The owners of The Colville went to great expense in clearing the river upstream. The dangers of the river were never more apparent than on November 20, 1878. The Colville set out for Raoul Station on the Central of Georgia Railroad with a load of cotton. Three miles above Dublin the boat struck rocks which cut seven holes in her hull causing her to sink in five feet of water. The boat hands set the cotton off on the banks and worked three days to set the damaged boat afloat. Capt. Henry brought his boat back to Dublin to repair the remaining damage.
Captain Henry joined forces with Dublin lawyer and newspaper owner, Col. John M. Stubbs (left) to form the Oconee River Steamboat Company. The Company purchased a site for their wharf from Hayden Hughes for $35.00 on February 5, 1879. The one acre tract was located along the northern margin of Town Branch where it empties into the Oconee River. The company secured an ideal site within a few feet of the Dublin Ferry. Today the site is just a few hundred feet north of Riverwalk Park in Dublin. The Colville once again was grounded in the water with a cargo of 200 barrels of rosin in July of 1879. Captain Henry secured a flat boat, The Cyclone, to accompany his boat and to carry heavy loads of guano fertilizer.
Unfortunately the flat boat sunk on February 20, 1880 with twenty tons of T.H. Rowe's guano on board. Captain Henry took advantage of the lull in business and went back home to marry his sweetheart Louisa. The company was granted a charter to navigate along the Oconee River by the Georgia legislature on September 17, 1879. Other founders of the company were local merchants, William H. Tillery and William Burch. Captain Skinner remained with the company only a few years before returning to Wilmington.
With no railroad within 25 miles, river traffic was flourishing. Henry, much to the dismay of Dubliners, was banned by federal regulations from carrying kerosene on The Colville in 1882. With Dock Anderson at the wheel, a round trip to Raoul Station still took the better part of a day. Captain Henry began work on a new steamer in April of 1883. The 100-foot gunnel boat was powered by two Crockett engines built in Macon. A new flat was constructed to hold the bulk of the freight. Henry's company put its second boat, The Laurens, on the river in August of 1883.
R.L. Hicks, a Dublin school teacher, a partner in the firm of Hicks, Peacock, and Hicks, and rival newspaper editor, launched the William M. Wadley in August of 1883. The boat was named for the president of the Central of Georgia Railroad. The boat made only a few trips during its first six months of operation. The Wadley soon became the fastest boat on the river, easily beating the fast Cumberland in a 111-mile race from Gray's Landing to Doctortown. In March of 1884, The Wadley brought a 150-ton load of groceries, hardware, cloth, and supplies into Dublin. It was, at that time, the largest load ever brought here. In one year of service, The Wadley, after lying idle for three months, made 62 round trips covering twenty thousand miles. She carried twelve million pounds of freight without a single accident. Unlike many other boats, The Wadley only needed five dollars in repairs in her first year. The Dublin Times, edited by Mr. Hicks often made snide remarks about The Colville, calling her "that North Carolina Tub." Hicks cried foul about the Oconee River Steamboat Company's exclusive contract to haul freight to and from the Central Georgia Railroad. When The Colville sunk in shallow water on September 19, 1883, Hicks lamented her return and regretted that she failed to commit suicide. The sinking was a mystery which resulted in the loss of three to four hundred dollars to the freight and furniture on the boat. The Cyclone was tied to the Colville and soon met a similar fate.
Competition for the hauling of freight escalated. The Dublin and Wrightsville Railroad was being constructed from Wrightsville to Dublin. Capt. Henry built a 16 by 80 foot barge to haul 100 bales of cotton during low water. The railroad reached Dublin in September of 1886. The Dublin and Wrightsville Railroad, which later merged with the Wrightsville and Tennille Railroad, was owned by the Central of Georgia. The use of Raoul Station on the Central was no longer necessary. The railroad entered into an agreement with the Oconee River Steamboat Company that allowed the river boats to use the rail facilities in Dublin in exchange for agreeing to haul goods between Dublin and Mt. Vernon only. When the W&T built its railroad bridge and the county its passenger bridge, the bridges were built to turn their center spans to allow the steamers to pass through. Boat landings were established at the present site of Riverwalk Park, the railroad bridge, and a block below the railroad bridge.
Changes were being made in the Oconee River Steamboat Company. Captain Henry was succeeded by Jeff D. Roberson, who was followed by T.B. Hicks, George B. Pope and A.B. Jones. The Laurens sunk after a collision with a log raft at a double bend in the river on June 9, 1887. The company suffered a complete loss of $10,000.
Engineer John Graham and pilot Norman McCall were carrying 185 barrels of rosin. Norman McCall, minister of the First African Baptist Church, was known to be a giant of a man. McCall anchored a pole in the river and managed to save 150 barrels by retrieving the barrels and swimming to the surface while holding on to the pole. The company temporarily secured a new boat. But, with the sale of the Colville and her transfer to the Ocmulgee River, The Oconee River Steamboat Company went out of business, selling its wharf to Foster and McMillan, brick manufacturers, on July 15, 1887.
Captain Henry turned his interests to timber and banking in the late 1880s. In 1892, he became the founding president of Dublin's first bank, The Dublin Banking Company. Five years later he built an elegant two story building at 101 West Jackson Street in Dublin. The Henry Building became the home to the bank, when it received its state charter in 1898. Captain Henry and his wife, the former Miss Louisa Gibbs, were founding and faithful members of the Dublin Presbyterian Church. Captain Henry was chosen as a director of the Dublin Cotton Mill in 1897. Robert C. Henry died in 1900 and was buried in the old City Cemetery.
With the coming of the railroads and the automobile, river transportation eventually died. But for a quarter of a century, Captain Henry and his colleagues and competitors kept our local economy going as their boats chugged up and down the Oconee River.