Construction of historic flatboat planned in front of Netherland Inn

Matthew Lane • Jun 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

This artist's rendering shows the flatboat that is to be constructed in front of Netherland Inn. Contributed photo.


KINGSPORT — The Netherland Inn/Exchange Place Association plans to break ground Monday morning on its new flatboat construction project — an amenity illustrating the historical significance flatboats had with Kingsport and the city’s founding.

The event will be held at 10 a.m. Monday on the banks of the Holston River in front of the Netherland Inn.

Alex Looney, coordinator of the project, said plans call for a 14-foot-by-53-foot replica flatboat to be built in front of the inn, mounted on a concrete slab with a manifest and representations of products sailors used to ship down the Holston, including salt barrels, iron ingots and tobacco.

The flatboat will be dry-docked, not in the water, and people will be able to walk on it. Kingsport plans to provide full-time video surveillance of the flatboat to help prevent theft and vandalism, Looney said.

Work is expected to begin in the coming weeks and should be completed in late summer. Once complete, Looney said it would be the only flatboat in existence in the United States.

“They were built on the banks, upside down, and then they were turned over into the water and the cabins were built,” Looney said. “In this case it will be built the same way, upside down, but then flipped over on the bank and mounted on pavers.

“It will never be in the water unless we have another 100-year flood.”

Kingsport essentially started on the banks of the Holston River. From the 1760s, travelers came by wagon down the Island Road to the riverbank, where they built boats and migrated west.

William King (Kingsport’s namesake) built the Netherland Inn in 1802 and 1808. King also developed a boat yard at the inn to ship salt. In 1818, Richard Netherland bought the inn in a sheriff’s sale, and it was a stop on the Great Old Stage Road — the main route to Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee.

Looney said there were probably 100,000 flatboats built in the years between the late 1700s and middle 1800s. It was the principal way the country was settled from the East, and there were only three rivers where you could start — the Allegheny, the Ohio and the Tennessee — all of which ended up in the Mississippi, Looney said.

“The reason this is so significant for us is William King owned the salt industry in Saltville, Virginia, and he wanted to ship south and west, but it was too expensive to do it by wagon,” Looney said. “He wanted to ship them west by flatboats, and down the Holston River was the first place he found where he could launch them. He named it King’s Port.”

Local businessman Bill Taff agreed to underwrite the cost of the flatboat project and will likely be honored during Monday’s groundbreaking ceremony. Taff, 87, is a successful developer whose works include Willowbrook, Stonegate Shopping Center and the Tanglewood subdivision.

Two years ago, Taff donated $400,000 to create a state-of-the-art junior golfing program at the Kingsport Boys and Girls Club.

The flatboat project is the second of four projects identified as essential to the long-term growth of the Netherland Inn complex. The other projects are the rebuilding of the bank barn (currently under construction) and the building of a wharf and warehouse.

In February, the city named the bank barn in honor of longtime engineer Hal Spoden, who has been instrumental in pushing the rebuilding project forward.

The Hal Spoden Pioneer Transportation Museum, as the three-story barn will be known, should be completed by October at a cost of about $553,000. The Tennessee Department of Transportation is covering $421,370 of the cost through a grant.

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