A Tale of Boats and Builders



Crystal River Boat Builders (CRBB) main activity is building replicas of boats that traditionally sailed in the waters of the Gulf and the coast. Their newest project will of a much grander scale than their previous projects. Their newest project will build from scratch a sailing scow. A scow probably came from the Dutch word "schouw." There are no references to scows in the seventeenth century; however, but it may have been a type of vessel that was widely used in the Americas as early as 1725 (Chapelle 1951:33). Chapelle (1951) described scows as square-ended hulls that have a flat or nearly flat bottom. Sailing scows had design characteristics that provided stability in open waters and a shallow draft that made them excellent boats for sailing into the shallow waters of Florida's bays and rivers.

When finished the CRBB replica will be 36 ft long and 12 ft wide. We know that sailing scows were present in Florida by at least the Civil War and probably earlier. I hear you; you're asking me, how do we know this and how do we know what they looked like?

Surprisingly, the best way to figure this out has been from some of the Civil War records of the Union naval blockade during the war. The Union Navy documented the capture of at least two sailing scows in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The first was documented on May 30, 1863 when the U.S.S. Fort Henry captured a small sloop and a scow in Wacasassa Bay. The scow reportedly carried 56 bales of cotton. This was a substantial cargo for a relatively small coastal vessel. A Civil War era cotton bale weighed 500 pounds and was approximately 56 inches long, 48 inches tall and 30 inches wide. The 56 bales of cotton would have weighed roughly 14 tons and occupied almost 2600 cu. ft. of space. Much of this cargo would have occupied deck space rather than cargo holds.

The second sailing scow that was captured by the US Navy was documented in a report dated April 14, 1864. In this report Lt. Browne, commander of the U.S.S. Restless, described an attack on the Confederate salt works at White Bluffs on the Wetappo River. In addition to capturing the salt stored at the facility the attackers also captured a "barge" as a prize of war. Lt. Browne originally described the vessel as a barge but it other evidence indicates that she was a sloop rigged scow designed for shallow water work.

He stated:

She is nearly a new barge, 36 feet long, 3 feet deep, and 11 feet beam, built of 2-inch yellow-pine plank, and is perfectly tight, sloop rigged, and has an open hatch amidships 19 feet long, in which I have built a platform and laid a circle for our 12-pounder howitzer, which can be fired from almost any point of the compass. She has new lug main- sail, which I have altered to a boom mainsail, and have made a new mast and bowsprit and given her a jib. I have also built lee boards 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep, and think that she will work admirably (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies [ORUCN] Vol. 17, p. 678).

His addition of the 12-pounder howitzer indicates that he intended to use this boat for a specific type of work. The 12-pounder howitzer was a short-barreled weapon with a range of approximately 1,000 yards. This type of weapon was optimized for firing in a shell in a high arc which also made it ideal for attacking fortifications along the shoreline. The other elements that he added included leeboards. Leeboards were large, sometimes retractable boards that were fastened to the rail or sheer strake. Leeboards acted added stability in more exposed waters and sailing on the wind without leeway, or being driven sideways by the force of the wind. These additions indicate that Lt. Browne believed that this barge was ideal for use as a gun platform in supporting attacks against local Confederate forces that protected St. Andrews Bay and other targets along the Florida Gulf Coast.

On May 23, 1864, Lt. Browne wrote orders to Ensign Henry Eason who had been placed in command of the barge that was captured on the Wetappo River. The orders indicate that Eason's barge had been named Wartappo. This name was probably derived from the river on which she was originally captured. The orders gave Ensign Eason was given command the Wartappo and a cutter (probably from the USS Restless) during an attack on Goose Bayou near present day Panama City. On May 24th the men of the Wartappo landed the 2nd Florida (U.S.) Cavalry and destroyed 11 salt works and approximately 60 salt kettles (ORUCN Vol. 17, p. 706).

Three days later Eason reported that Confederate forces on shore began firing on his boats. In that report Eason described his boats as a scow and a cutter; although the commander of the U.S.S, Restless continued to describe the Wartappo as a barge (ORUCN Vol. 17, p. 719). On June 5, 1864 the barge was placed under the command of Ensign W.B. Rankin and on June 8th launched a raid with 40 soldiers to destroy 97 salt works and capture 600 rations of corn, and 320 rations of bacon which was loaded onto the Wartappo. In his report of the action Rankin also described his boat as a scow (ORUCN Vol. 17, p. 719).

So we now we know that there were sailing scows on the Gulf Coast and we know a little bit about their size and a little bit about their sailing characteristics. So next the Crystal River Boat builders take this limited information and combine it with several of the complete plans for scows from other regions to of a sailing scow. The builders will use those plans to develop the replica most likely represent the configuration of the Wartappo.

Building a replica the Wartappo is expected to take two years. All aspects of the boat will be constructed-masts, rigging, and hull. Some items such as sails and anchors will be purchased and installed.

During this period the boatshed will serve as an ongoing interpretive exhibit. The boat builders in partnership with the Florida Public Archaeology Network and the Florida Park Service will use the boat construction process to educate people about the history of boatbuilding in the region and the types of tools that were used during the period. This project will include hands-on opportunities for visitors to participate in the construction process.

Once the scow is completed it will be a mobile interactive museum which will continue to support education and outreach in Citrus County and other areas of Florida.

The CRBB will officially complete working on the Wartappo at the 5th Annual Boat Bash at Crystal River Preserve on April 26th, 2014. The Crystal River Boat Builders are all volunteers but they need some financial support to purchase wood and other items such as sails and anchors. If you are interested in supporting this project contact the CRBB through www.tsca.net/CRBB.

Steve Kingery....


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