Genealogy Trails

Jackson County, Illinois

Navigation of the Big Muddy a Century Ago

Transcribed and submitted by Darrel Dexter


In 1810, Wm. Boone built a keel boat for use on the Big Muddy river.  That is the first boat known to have floated on the Big Muddy, but in 1814 one Byars built a boat and floated it down to the Mississippi.  For several years thereafter what little commerce that was carried on between the scattered population of the Big Muddy valley and the outside world was by keel boat.

The first steamboat that appeared on the river was the Omega in 1843.  That was the year of the founding of Murphysboro and the Omega made the trip up to this city.  The Walk-in-the-Water was the next to venture up the Big Muddy.  She came up in 1851 and took a tow of coal from the Jackson County Coal Co.. mines at Murphysboro.  The boat and two barges were loaded and preceded to St. Louis, where the coal was pronounced to be the best west of Pittsburg.  The coal company then bought the boat and used it transport the coal from its mines down to the Mississippi, a distance of 58 miles by river, 15 miles by land.  Owing to the shoals the boat could get to the mines only when the Mississippi was high.  The boat would come up stream one day and descend the next, and made regular trips this way until the Grand Tower & Carbondale railroad was built.

In 1852 the Jonesboro entered the Big Muddy trade and a Chester man put an engine on a flatboat and joined in the business.  The Big Muddy is celebrated for its short turns and is a swift stream when the water is deep, and the Chester boat was put out of business by being carried against a tree by the current one night.  A dead limb on the tree poked into the cabin and lifted a passenger out of his bunk.  It also swept away the cabin boiler and paddle wheel and sent the unwieldy craft to the bottom of the river.  No one was hurt..

When the Illinois Central was built down to Carbondale in 1858 many small steamboats were used in carrying machinery, men, material, and supplies up to DeSoto from the Mississippi and the first two engines used on this part of the I.C. were taken up the Big Muddy on steamboats and landed at the railroad by means of track built out to the boats.  After that year, Walk-in-the Water had the Big Muddy to herself for a number of years.

Steamboats have plied the Big Muddy occasionally since that time, but the railroad and wagon bridges keep them out in high water and the shoals in low water.  In the last three years many gasoline launches have been built at Murphysboro and used on the Big Muddy, some being commodious cabin launches, but steamboating on the little river is a thing of the past.

Along the lower Big Muddy is some of the finest scenery in the world, and the recreation and pleasure gained by trips down the stream are coming to be appreciated by Murphysboro people more and more.  A camping trip to any point below Swallow Rock, or just a one day run down stream and back is worth a week at any health resort.

The William Boone who built the first boat, was a brother to Daniel Boone, the noted frontiersman, and a grandfather to Daniel Boone of Murphysboro.  He was one of the first settlers in Jackson county.  He cleared a tract of timber on the Big Muddy a few miles above its junction with the Mississippi and lived there a number of years.?Murphysboro Independent.

(Jonesboro Gazette, Jonesboro, Illinois, Saturday, 6 Dec 1907)

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