(This story about the 22-mile river transfer of railroad cars from Guntersville to Hobbs Island appeared in the October 29, 1994, Advertiser-Gleam. A piece of track from that era has just gone on display at the Guntersville Museum.)
Back before there were cars, a town without a railroad just wasn’t going to be much of a town.
The town’s early leaders tried for years to get a railroad built here. They finally got one in 1891, but it was only a stub. It came from Gadsden but it dead-ended at the Tennessee River for lack of a bridge.
Huntsville, which was still a small town then, was in much the same situation. A railroad line ran from Nashville to Huntsville. But it had to stop at Hobbs Island below Huntsville because of the river.
Various schemes were tried to raise money for a bridge, but they didn't work out.
The railroad came up with the idea of a ferry boat to carry rail cars between Guntersville and Hobbs Island. It was described as the longest railroad transfer of that kind in the world.
Railroad cars - carrying passengers, freight and mail - would be backed onto the boat. The boat would carry them 20 miles up or down the river where they would be transferred to a waiting locomotive to continue their journey on land.
The ferry operated for over half a century, into the 1950's. People used to enjoy going down to where the harbor is now and watching the railroad cars being put on the ferry or taken off.
Some of the details are related in the book "Guntersville Remembered," published by the Guntersville Historical Society:
“Two steamboats were purchased by the railroad company to serve as its 'navy' and run the transfer. The Huntsville, an 89-ton craft, was constructed for the railroad in Jeffersonville, Indiana, in 1893 and put into operation the same year.
"The Hattie McDaniel, built in 1891 for the French Broad Transportation Company in East Tennessee, was purchased by the railroad in 1893 to work with the Huntsville.
"The Hattie McDaniel was listed as a 69-ton craft, yet drew only 2-1/2 feet of water.
"With traffic flourishing on the line, the N.C. & St. L. Railway purchased 2 new, larger stern wheelers in 1903. The 204-ton Guntersville was constructed at Jeffersonville, Indiana, while the Huntsville II of 172 tons was built at Guntersville, the only steamer to be made here.
“With wartime traffic taxing the 2 steamers in 1916, the company purchased a third boat, the C. E. James, which was in operation until 1921.
"Once regular train service was established, the depot became the center of activity for many years as passengers arrived and departed, and freight was delivered and shipped. It was also a popular place briefly for another reason. It had the town's first radio, a by-product of its wireless system....
"The railroad's wireless not only received the dot-dashes from Tullahoma, but KDKA in Pittsburgh as well, the nation's first commercial radio station. People would congregate around the depot, especially during World Series time, to get word of the games. One of the railroad employees would put on the earphones and announce the results of the game to the crowd...
"The coal-powered steam locomotives had a certain charm and mystique about them not found in today's diesel trains. With their great plumes of black smoke billowing overhead and white steam spewing on the tracks, the trains announced their arrival with shrill whistles and clanging bells. Engine number 388, the last of the old steam locomotives, made its final trip here in 1950, thus ending another chapter in the town’s history.”