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Steam Boat on a Gamble: The Waukesha of Fulton, Arkansas

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

Boat and people and cotton
The Waukesha held both passengers and cotton. It was a shallow-botton stern wheeler, designed to use on western rivers (AHS).

The Waukesha, a steam boat, was won on a gamble at Fulton, Arkansas.

Named by W.H. McWhorter for a town in his home state of Wisconsin, the Waukesha was one of a half-handful of stern-wheelers that plied the Red River around the Great Bend in southwestern Arkansas at the turn of the 20th century. McWhorter utilized the sternwheeler as both a freighter, that moved cotton to New Orleans, and an excursion boat for locals. Sometimes, he invited his friends for exclusive midnight cruises on the boat that included dinner, dancing, drinking, and gambling (all in the quiet, as much of this was not permitted by local laws).

In 1894, someone took a daguerreotype of the Waukesha, one of the few photographic records of Red River steamboats. It was in the possession of E. Harley Cox of Pine Bluff, Jefferson County, Arkansas. But why did Mr. Cox have a photo of the Waukesha?

One night, McWhorter, who lived in Fulton, Hempstead County, Arkansas, played a poker game "in the ship's luxurious bar"* with his friend, Henry Cox, who also lived in the town (and was E. Harley Cox's father). McWhorter's poker hand wasn't the best, though, as he lost a plantation, $2,200 in cash, AND the Waukesha to Cox!

At the turn of the century, winning an old steamboat wasn't the bonanza that one would assume. So many of the paddle- and stern wheelers had left the trade, owing to the lack of river-improvement funding and the proliferation of freight trains traffic. By 1904, the "Red River Line" of steamboats, which "plied between New Orleans and points on the upper Red River for sixty years," was sold at auction.** The last of the boats from the Red River Company were named the W.T. Scovell, the Gem, the Electra, and the appropriately named Red River. The new owners of these boats put them to use elsewhere. Thereafter, only three steamboats remained afloat on the Red River: the Waukesha, the Ellen, and the Kingfisher, the last two owned by Dan Harkness.

Apparently, there were no hard feelings between McWhorter and Cox after the historic win --- Cox even named one of his sons after McWhorter, who then bequeathed $1,000 to the young man in his will. The Cox family continued to invite guests on their newly-acquired boat, but by the 1920s, the Waukesha had sunk to the bottom of the Red River after hitting a snag. What with the shifting river, it is most likely lying under sand in someone's corn field.

Interestingly, in October of 1900, the Arkansas Democrat reported that McWhorter sold the Waukesha to A.P. Seaman, who promised to keep it operational along the Red River. However, either the sale didn't happen, or McWhorter played a more fortuitous game of poker, because he was able to lose it a few years later to Henry Cox. In any case, the Waukesha was one sought-after boat!

*The Hope Star, February 9 1959

**Daily Arkansas Gazette, December 18 1904

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