On a recent visit to the “North Carolina” Room, of the New Hanover County Library in downtown Wilmington, NC, I found that they were having a “Book Sale.” I walked over to the cart of books & pamphlets and started to look them over. I’m sure my eyes lit up when I recognized the face of a small pamphlet which was enclosed in a clear plastic cover.
The title of the pamphlet was “A Colonial Apparition” with the author being James Sprunt. I quickly recognized a picture of the Steamer WILMINGTON on the cover. An attached note said that the booklet was $5. I asked the library representative if she realized that this was an important artifact, “as important as some of those items over in that display case,” I said. She told me that she was not the usual librarian. I continued to look through the items for sale, and found a large, old black Bible, KJV, also for $5. When I started to pay, I only had a $20 bill, and the librarian said she didn’t have change, but I could either “pay by check” or go downstairs to get change. I wrote out the check.
I wasn’t familiar with the story set out in the pamphlet, but when I got back to my apartment in Fayetteville, I sat on my sofa and started to read. I immediately became excited by the imagery created by reading the first pages. I always like developing visual images & vignettes from written words. I like when something comes to life. When I can take a description and meld it with my personal experiences and imagine the scene as if I were, or had been, there when, or as it happened. I understood the first paragraph completely as it described the many winters I had grown up near Swansboro, NC, “A biting storm of sleet and snow is seldom seen in Wilmington. For many years the winter season passed with scarcely frost enough to chill the poor, and then a Christmas season came that will long be remembered for the rigor of its cold..“ It was rare for Christmas or the whole winter season to find snow upon the ground. If one of my presents was a new football, then I just needed to put on my sweater and coat and head outside to throw the ball around, to myself. Cold, but not even a dusting of snow on the ground.
“The Southport mail boat, Wilmington, made her daily runs without a break,… Captain Harper knew his craft and kept her well in hand. With steady stare ahead and vice-like grip upon the wheel, he safely steered her up and down, without an accident…“
“With plank hauled in, the rail secured and hawser neatly coiled, the stately steamer shaped her course. But ere the double bells were rung, a little rivet broke away from thousands of its kind, and soon caused trouble with the furnace fires. There was a pause; then a parley through the speaking tube revealed the fact that nothing less than six hours’ work would “mend the kettle” in the engine room…“
As the story continued, the passenger’s (Mr. McMillan) historical references addressed to the captain, began to put me to sleep, and these I started to skim, but eventually, we were back upon the deck of the steamer, along side of the Mate, Peter Jorgensen, as he came “face to face” with a hideous haint. A haint, by the way, is an apparition, and as we mostly call them today, a ghost. Later, I stood upon the deck of the steamer as all eyes gazed upon the apparition of the kilted Scots. And when they disappeared, we were almost immediately upon the wreck of a capsized vessel, and clinging to that vessel, two seamen, survivors, but both near the end of their lives. Then quickly came the rescue and arrival of the steamer, at her wharf in Southport, and the brightening sky of Christmas morn. The tale ended as we followed Captain Harper up to his home and inside, as he kissed his sleeping, “motherless boy.” I closed the pamphlet and put it down on the table, but as I did, I said to myself, but out loud, “Wow. What a wonderful story!” *If you would like to read this short story, Google has digitized a book version, which includes photos & drawings of Capt. Harper, the Mate, Peter Jorgensen, the Engineer, Mr. Platt and the Passenger, Mr. McMillan. **And for more images and info regarding the WILMINGTON.
I made a note to find out when Mrs. Harper had died, for I knew that Capt. Harper had died about a week after the death of his 12 year old daughter, Ella.
NOTE: If you clicked on the link above, “vice-like grip upon the wheel”, and have looked at the image of the hurricane deck and wheelhouse of the Steamer WILMINGTON, you might note the search light on top of the pilothouse. *I believe that I have read somewhere that this light was originally on the Steamer CITY OF FAYETTEVILLE. Attention to this advertisement, which includes a drawing of the steamer and a beam of light projecting forward from atop her pilothouse.
Just last night, I once again googled on “City of Fayetteville” and found an index which referenced an article, in the “Marine Engineer” magazine, regarding the steamer. I then searched to see if this magazine were available online and found it. Google had digitized the “Marine Engineer” magazine, Vol. 7, which included the June 1902 issue and the article entitled, “Stern Wheel River Steamer.” The drawings included were of the steamer’s profile, her saloon deck, her engine and a cross-section of the boat. All “priceless” to a better understanding.
My introduction to the Cape Fear River Steamers came when I first read an account of the Great Fire of Wilmington, North Carolina of the 21st of February, 1886.
The fire started aboard the steamer Bladen which was approaching the end of her 120 mile journey, from Fayetteville to Wilmington. About 150 yards from her dock, fire was discovered amongst bales of cotton, located near her boiler. There was a strong, almost gale force wind blowing up from the Southwest, which whipped the flames and spread them quickly from bow to stern, forcing the passengers and crew to flee toward the boat’s stern paddlewheel.
There were eight passengers on board the Bladen that day, Mr. A. J. Harmon of Bladen County, Mr. Robert Lee of Wilmington, Dodson, a commercial traveler, Mrs. Thomas Hunley and child, Miss Erambert of Richmond, Virginia, and a couple of other gentlemen whose names had not been learned.
Fortunately, several small boats were dispatched from both sides of the river when the alarm went out. It was stated that for a brief time, before being rescued, Miss Erambert was in great danger, with her clothing being scorched and her hair singed. All passengers were rescued, however, they lost all their baggage and personal belongings.
Captain R. H. Tomlinson and his mate, Capt. Jeff D. Robeson, were both aboard the Bladen at the time, and Capt. Tomlinson immediately headed the boat for the nearest wharf, that being the dock of the Clyde Steamship Lines. The fire spread to a nearby lighter which was loaded with firewood and then to the wooden wharf, sheds and buildings along the waterfront.
In addition to the Bladen, another river steamer, the River Queen and a three masted schooner, the Lillie Holmes were burned “to the waterline” and sank where they were tied up.
The Wilmington Morning Star reported that, “Oil, tar, rosin and spirits turpentine in yards adjacent were ready fuel for the devouring flames, and in a very short time the whole river front from Chesnut to Mulberry was ablaze, and the stores and offices on the west side of Water street for the same distance, were enveloped. The firemen fought manfully and determinedly, but their efforts were futile; nothing could stay the progress of the flames, which leaped and roared like a demon, sending aloft showers of sparks and burning brands, that the high winds carried and hurled on the roofs of buildings squares away from the raging conflagration.”
By the time the fire had been brought under control, the next morning, much of the Wilmington business district had been decimated including the railroad yards and warehouses. The total estimate of the damage ranged from $500,000 to $1 Million.
I said that the reading of this account was my introduction to the Cape Fear River steamers. Before reading the article, I wasn’t even aware that steamboats had, or could have run between Fayetteville, NC and Wilmington. The image I had of a steamboat, at that time, was one like those portrayed in movies which ran on the Mississippi River, large, wide, multi-decked vessels, ornately adorned, capable of carrying hundreds of passengers, large cargoes of cotton, and an assortment of “riverboat” gamblers. But, what I found were smaller, narrow, light draught vessels capable of navigating the winding Cape Fear, making their way at times, on just a couple of feet of water, sometimes not being able to travel at all because of “low water”, and then having to travel against or with the strong currents of freshets.
The steamboat captains, pilots, boat hands, owners formed an extremely tight-knit group where often, blood or marriage played a large part. There were many negro pilots which plied the Cape Fear.
The era of the Cape Fear River steamers lasted about 121 years, roughly from about 1818 until 1939, when Capt. Henry H. Hunt tied his boat, the Thelma, up to her wharf at Elizabethtown, NC, where she was left to rot, till this day. But, during that era, there were many well-known and beloved captains, many boiler explosions, fires, sinkings, drownings, freshets, picnics, excursions, and other incidents which are worth recounting.
And so, I will.