“I spent a lot of nights on that boat,” said Simkins, 78, whose father owned and operated river vessels from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Built in Charleston and brought to Augusta to pull timber barges from remote landings, it was powered by a diesel engine with a distinct, soothing sound.
“It would go, ‘chung-a-lung, chung-a-lung’ all night long,” he said. “She was about 60 feet long with a stern wheel and three cabins.”
Today, river commerce on the Savannah is long gone, but the scattered remnants of a once-proud fleet can still be found.
The Kathryn S., wrecked in the early 1960s, is little more than an overgrown mass of timbers and sits on private property. Its paddlewheel, with trees growing through it, is still visible, but vandals have long since looted everything else.
Another famous boat, whose remains lie on the river’s South Carolina side near the Audubon Society’s Silver Bluff sanctuary near Jackson, was the Robert E. Lee — a steamboat brought to Augusta around 1947 from Natchez, Miss.
“My father bought that boat after the end of the war, boarded up the sides and towed it across the Gulf to the inland waterway and up to Savannah,” Simkins recalled.
Its original name was the Warren Johnson. After it emerged from a drydock renovation, it became the Robert E. Lee and became a fixture on Augusta’s riverfront.
“It ran excursions on the river, but it was really before its time and I don’t think it was very profitable here,” Simkins said.
Later, when the state of Georgia bought Jekyll Island, the state contracted with Simkins’ father to use the paddlewheeler to ferry people from Brunswick to Jekyll Island.
After bridges and causeways were completed at Jekyll, the aging vessel was returned to Augusta, where it eventually became mired in mud near Silver Bluff.
Initially, the Army Corps of Engineers wanted it removed, but later agreed to allow it to remain — in hopes that its hull would help prevent shoreline erosion.
Other wrecked vessels include an old barge below New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam and there are numerous others, including a shipwreck at Little Hell Landing.
Among the exhibits along Augusta’s Riverwalk is a replica of the paddlewheel that once powered the Kathryn S. It has a plaque, dated 1986, naming her as the Savannah’s last paddlewheeler.
River advocates like Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus hope more can be done in the future to help people remember the importance of commerce along the dark and mysterious waterway that winds 200 river miles to the sea.
“A lot of people today don’t understand the importance of all the commercial navigation,” she said. “It’s a big part of what connects the river to our existence.”