Ask Rufus: Ghosts of the Tombigbee
FFrom around 1823 to 1920, steamboats plied the Tombigbee between Columbus and Mobile. For many years, the river was Columbus’ main commercial artery. These times have brought many steamboat accidents and accidents involving people living and working along the river. As might be expected, stories quickly developed around these incidents, with many weird or scary stories being told.
Flatboats and keelboats traveled from Columbus to Mobile in 1819. It was in March 1823 that the Cotton Plant was the first steamboat to come to Columbus from Mobile. The first recorded loss of a Columbus merchant steamer was in 1825. In May 1825, the side wheeled ship Allegheny was on its way to Mobile from Hamilton when it struck an underwater hitch, known as a dead head, and sank near Columbus. In this first steamboat accident, no life was lost. Of the first seven commercial steamboats after 1823 Columbus-Mobile River, five had exploded or sunk in 1828.
In these Tombigbee steam accidents, the loss of life, if any, was generally low. Two people died when the Azile hit a snag and sank 10 Mile Shoals downstream from Columbus in 1856. The city of Columbus burned and sank at Columbus Wharf in 1911 with no deaths. The Vienna hit a problem and sank at Moore’s Bluff, below Columbus in 1906 without causing any deaths.
In 1878, the boilers of the steamer Fanny W, owned by two Black Columbus businessmen, Wesley and Eli Hodges, exploded between Columbus and Waverly. It was reported that 8-10 people were seriously injured and Wesley Rienhart, the ship’s firefighter, was killed. The boat drifted down the river and landed against the west bank just north of the present bridge to the island. Rienhart was buried on the shore of the Columbus River between what is now the mouth of Moore’s Creek and Ruben’s Catfish restaurant. Uncle Bunky once told me that when he was a child a flood uncovered the remains of an old riverboat behind Bob’s Place where the Fanny W rested.
However, sometimes there was a great loss of life. This was the case with the 150-foot-long paddle steamer WH Gardner that sailed to Mobile from Columbus with over 500 bales of cotton and a plethora of passengers. On March 1, 1887, it caught fire and burned down at Howard’s Bar just south of Gainesville, Alabama, killing 22 people.
Two of the steamboat disasters, which I have already discussed in more detail, have well-known ghost stories surrounding them. They are the fire of the Steamer Eliza Battle in 1858 and the explosion of the James T. Staples in 1913. The fire of the Eliza Battle in 1858 during an ice storm on a Tombigbee flooded by the gel has become an internationally renowned ghost story. She is even listed on Wikipedia as a “Legendary Ghost Ship” along with the “Flying Dutchman” and a few other famous ghost ships.
Few ghost stories compare in weird and supernatural associations with the 1913 loss of Steamer James T. Staples. Norman Staples in 1908 had decided to build the most lavish boat built on the Tombigbee since the Civil War and he named the boat the James T. Staples, after his father.
By the end of 1912 Norman Staples was in serious financial trouble and lost his steamboat to creditors in December. Staples could not accept the loss of his steamboat, and in early January 1913 he committed suicide with a shotgun. The new owner of the boat ordered his captain to ignore the funeral of the previous owner and move up the river from Mobile on the boat’s regular route. Rather than being disrespectful, the captain refused and resigned. After several unusual occurrences, including the ghost of Staples reported on board, most of the crew also resigned.
With a new captain and a new crew, the Staples left the Mobile Dock and headed for the Tombigbee.
Norman Staples had just been buried at Bladon Springs Cemetery near the river and when the James T. Staples reached the spot on the river closest to the grave of its former owners, his boilers exploded, killing 26 people. and sinking the boat. Those who were rescued were transported to Mobile by the John Quill, a Columbus-Mobile liner. Unlike most ghost stories, the unusual circumstances surrounding the loss of the Staples were picked up by the media and on January 13, 1913, Columbus Commercial had a front page account of the loss of the James T. Staples. The article actually commented on the strange circumstances surrounding the disaster.
The Eliza Battle was a lavish liner that left Columbus for Mobile on February 28, 1858. It was raining and the Tombigbee was inundated as the steamer left Columbus with about 45 crew and 60 passengers and 1,400 cotton bales. As she headed south, the temperature dropped 40 degrees in two hours and the rain turned to sleet and ice.
At 2 a.m. on March 1, the steamer was about 40 miles south of Demopolis when the stern was discovered to be on fire. As the alarm went off, passengers and crew encountered the stern on fire and the bow covered in icicles. The only choice was to freeze to death or burn to death. Out of control, the boat drifted into a flooded forest and many people were able to escape into the trees. Several freezing hours passed before help arrived. In the end, 15 passengers and 14 crew members died.
Fishermen from this part of the Tombigbee say that on cold winter nights a bank of fog sometimes drifts along the river where you can see a burning steamboat, and from where you can hear the passengers and crew of the Eliza Battle cry eternally for help. A fisherman told me he was on the river once near where the Eliza Battle sank and a strange glowing bank of fog began to roll down the river. I asked him what happened next and he told me he got out of it as fast as his boat would.
Although the steamboats are the most evocative sightings of images, they are not the only ghosts along the river. I have heard two ghostly stories about the Tombigbee in Columbus, and both take place at the site of the old ferry at the foot of Main Street that was the site of the 1870s Iron Bridge. It is now there. location of the new bridge and on the Columbus side of the Riverwalk.
Carolyn Kaye described to me how two people saw an apparent ghostly image along the Riverwalk. It was about a man rowing an old wooden boat on the Tombigbee. He was wearing an old-fashioned white shirt and a straw hat. Just as he reached the new bridge, he disappeared. He’s not the only endangered apparition there.
Uncle Bunky’s mother and Aunt Eva often told him that in the late afternoon an old man in a heavy overcoat and hat walked slowly behind old Bob’s Place towards the river . They both said that no matter where he was on the path, his back was always facing them and they could never see a face. Just as he approached the bank of the river, he disappeared. This was also where a ferry landing in the early 1800s and later the 1877 bridge were located. Bunky remembered his mother saying this had happened on several occasions. It was the same spot on the river where the man in the riverboat had disappeared.
When we think of the ghost stories of the area, we don’t need to think of haunted houses only. There are also some pretty weird stories along the banks of the Tombigbee.
Rufus Ward is a local historian.
Rufus Ward is a native of Columbus a local historian. Send your questions about local history to Rufus by email at [email protected]