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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Joyska Nunez-Medina
(Read the first part here if you haven’t already.)
Steamboats at the Nashville Dock Downtown, 1863, Photo courtesy of the Tennessee State Museum.
Tennessee became a state in 1796. During that time, the world was experiencing big changes. Today we call this time of change the Industrial Revolution. It lasted from the 1700s to the early 1900s. New technologies changed how people lived and worked. Different ways of making items helped people make money. New types of transportation allowed people to move around and travel to new places faster. Below are a few things that were important to the growth of Tennessee during the Industrial Revolution.
For hundreds of years, travelling by river was the fastest way to get around in Tennessee. Before there were any highways or interstates, there were many large and smaller rivers across the state. People built wooden boats to travel and carry their goods along those rivers.
In the 1700s, inventors were experimenting on a new type of engine. This engine used steam to create energy. By the late 1700s, inventors attached the steam engine to boats and trains. The first successful steamboat, the Clermont, launched in 1807 in New York. After that, steamboats spread to the rest of the United States.
In Tennessee, with its many rivers, steamboats made it faster and easier to get around. They worked better than flatboats, which were more common. Steamboats could travel quickly, at up to five miles per hour, and could go against the flow of the river. Farmers quickly sent goods like cotton and corn to other places.
The Navy used many kinds of steamboats during the Civil War. They used the boats for battle, to offer medical help, and to transport people and goods. One of those boats was the Sultana. It carried people and goods up and down the Mississippi River during the war. When the war ended, the U.S. government paid the Sultana to take over 2,000 Union soldiers up the river and back home. Those soldiers had been prisoners of war kept in camps on the Confederate side. The problem was that it was only safe for 376 people to be on the Sultana while travelling! This led to a disaster. Four days into their journey, the ship left from their stop at Memphis in the early morning of April 27, 1865. The Sultana only made it a few miles north before the steam boilers blew up. The ship was destroyed and over 1,500 people died. Around 400 of the dead were soldiers from East Tennessee. In 1915, survivors of the Sultana disaster living near Knoxville created a memorial for the people who died. You can visit the marble memorial in Mount Olive Cemetery off Maryville Pike in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The Sultana disaster memorial in Mount Olive Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of the Knoxville Mercury.
Inventors and engineers worked on steamboat and train technology around the same time. They took the same steam process used for steamboats and adapted it to be used on trains. Many cities in Tennessee wanted railroads to reach them. But, creating train tracks was expensive and took a long time. That is why most of the rail lines built before the Civil War were not very long. Tennesseans mostly used steamboats to travel or transport goods. However, things soon changed.
The first completed railroad in the state was the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad Company (N&C) in 1854. The company chose Chattanooga because other railroad companies passed through the city. This connected the capitol to other important cities in the east. All the railroads coming through the city made it a very important railroad city in the south. Rail line construction spread across the state from 1850 to 1860. By 1860, there were nearly 1,200 miles of tracks! People could travel and transport goods even faster than they could on a steamboat. In the south, trains could go up to 25 miles per hour!
Picture of a Nashville and Chattanoogs train named "V.K. Stevenson" after the first president of the company. Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Rail lines became important during the Civil War too. Union troops captured the N&C and three other rail lines in 1862 when they took control of the city of Nashville and the capitol building. The Union used these lines to help them move soldiers and goods around the state. Both the Union and the Confederacy attacked rail lines owned by their rivals. The railroads in Tennessee saw a lot of damage. However, the N&C was the only railroad company in the state to stay in business after the war ended. Later on, the N&C combined with other companies and changed its name. Though the N&C Railroad Company no longer exists, trains today still follow the same paths it once used.
Complementary ticket for the Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis Railway.
The company changed its name in 1873 to try to expand it. Tennessee State Museum Collection.
These changes in how people and goods moved around the state affected people in many ways. Farmers and businesses could reach new customers for the first time. People could visit new places that had been too far away before. They even changed the way armies fought wars. The Industrial Revolution allowed Tennessee to become the state that we know today.
Industrial Revolution - A time of change from the late 1700s to the early 1900s when new technologies and ideas changed how people lived and worked.
Steamboat - A type of boat that gained popularity in the early 1800s in Tennessee. The ship got its power from a steam engine.
Flatboat - A type of boat that was made by hand using wood.
Mississippi River - A major river that runs up the middle of the United States and passes through many states. The river was an important route for the trading of goods and for travelling. It is on the western border of Tennessee.
Prisoner of War - A person captured by enemy troops and kept as prisoner.
Adapt - To change an object so that it works in a different situation.
Rail line - The path a train takes, usually referring to a specific railroad company’s path.
How were steamboats used during the Civil War?
What was the first completed railroad in Tennessee?
Take a look at this map of Tennessee rivers? What is one thing you notice about the location of all the large cities in Tennessee? What do they have in common? Why do you think that is?
In the 1863 photo of the Nashville docks, you can see many steamboats loading and unloading goods. How did the closeness to a river help the people living in cities like Nashville?
Why do you think both the Union and Confederacy attacked enemy rail lines?
About the Sultana disaster
How do steam trains work?
Railroad Map of the United States (1851)
Map of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad (1889)
Joyska Nunez-Medina is an educator at the Tennessee State Museum.