Captain Lee Howell
Contributor: Evelyn Fay Leinbach, February 24, 2004
Captain Lee Howell is credited with developing the railroad and bringing railroad jobs to Evansville, Indiana. He was a born-and-bred Southerner from Lauderdale County, Alabama, whose father, Phillip, was a farmer. His mother, the former Mary “Polly” Wesson, and father married in Lauderdale County on September 15, 1825. Polly was born in South Carolina and Phillip was born in Tennessee, but both came to northwest Alabama before they married.
According to daughter, Emma, Captain Lee was born on May 18, 1840. Census sources put his birth around 1842. He was one of Phillip and Polly’s eight children and their youngest son. In the 1850 federal census schedule for Lauderdale County, Alabama, he was listed as 8-year-old Levi in the Phillip Howell household.
Captain Lee started his adult career as a 15-year-old clerk and bookkeeper in the country store owned by J. G. Witherspoon in Waterloo, Alabama. The 18-year-old Levi Howell appeared in the Witherspoon household on the 1860 federal census schedule for Lauderdale County. (Captain Lee’s older brother, Benjamin, eventually married one of the Witherspoon daughters, Sallie.) In 1862 after the Civil War broke out, Captain Lee joined Captain Dick Johnson’s Company of the 4th Alabama Cavalry. He was wounded in battle at Barton Station. Before he was fully recovered from his injuries, he was detailed as clerk to Captain Swope, Brigade Quartermaster. At the close of the war, Captain Lee was given Swope’s command.
After the Civil War ended, Captain Lee together with his oldest brother, David, and another man went into the mercantile business in Eastport, Mississippi. After a year, he started his career in the packet boat business on the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers at first as a clerk and then as a master. This would have been the beginning of his lifelong association with the transportation industry. His first position was as a clerk on the steamer Rapidan, a packet boat moving between Florence and Paducah, Kentucky. According to an announcement in the Thursday, July 25, 1867, issue of the Florence Journal, Captain Lee was by then the captain of the Rapidan. He was able to save money to build two packet boats, the Rapidan 2 and the Florence Lee, which he eventually captained. The far end of the route for the Rapidan 2 and the Florence Lee was Evansville. An Evansville Daily Journal entry on August 5, 1868, stated that “Captain Lee Howell is captain of the RAPIDAN NO. 2.” There are other similar mentions of Captain Lee in the same paper over the next few years.
Sources: Florence, Alabama, Times-Journal, Wednesday, March 12, 1873, p. 3.; History of Vanderburgh County, Indiana (1897), p. 451, p. 230 and p. 221; Evansville Courier, Saturday, May 4, 1912, p. 1.
Captain Lee Howell
Lee Howell, Jr.
217 Chestnut Street, Evansville, IN
A typical packet boat advertisement