Monday, November 2, 2015

The Marianna B-47B Crash of 1952

USAF B-47B Stratojet during take off.
"The flames and fuel exploded all around us and engulfed my brother and sister."

Those thirteen words form what may be the most heartbreaking sentence ever written in the history of Jackson County, Florida. The writer was a young boy named Billie Williams and he was describing the explosion of a U.S. Air Force B-47B Stratojet bomber over Marianna on July 22, 1952.

Williams wrote his account of the crash in the mid-1950s at the suggestion of a minister. He was suffering from nightmares.

The Williams family, more than any other in Jackson County, has lived for more than 60 years with the horrible legacy of that tragic day. Billie now calls himself Bill and lives in Central Florida. His brother and sister - Rufus and Peggy Williams - died that day, as did the four crew members of the ill-fated aircraft.

B-47B on the runway at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
The B-47 was a workhorse of the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War. A long-range strategic bomber, it flew at the high altitudes and high subsonic speeds needed to help it evade enemy fighter jets. The plane carried 17,000 gallons of fuel, more than triple the load of the B-29 bombers used during World War II. The improved B-47B, which came into service in 1951, carried an additional 1,600 gallons of fuel in external tanks.

The bomber was a vital part of U.S. plans for defense and retaliation against attacks from the Soviet Union or Cuba, but was not without its flaws. Jet aircraft technology was less than 10 years old at the time of the Marianna crash and engineers still had much to learn about the effects of pressure on aircraft stability.

The B-47 type aircraft were particularly susceptible to catastrophic failure while making the transition from low to high altitudes.

On the morning of July 22, 1952, a B-47B took off from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. The bomber headed north over the Gulf of Mexico at a high rate of speed and was flying at an altitude of 7,500 feet when it suddenly exploded over Marianna, Florida.

The plane's four turbojet engines broke away as the wings separated from the main fuselage. More than 10,000 gallons of fuel caught fire as the burning wreckage fell to earth.

Billie Williams woke up that day to the sounds of his parents arguing about a dog. His mother asked him to help get Rufus and Peggy, his younger brother and sister, dressed and ready to start their day. He was heading down the steps to take them to a neighbor's house when his mother noticed that he wasn't wearing shoes and told him to go back inside and put some on:

...She also told Peggy and Rufus to start walking to the Williams' and that I (Billie) would catch up with them. I ran back in the house and was sitting on the bed with my shoe in hand when I heard my mother from the front porch screaming at me. She was screaming through the screen door telling me to get out of the house and run. I dropped my shoe and I ran to the front door and out on to the porch and saw my mother running down the street. I jumped from the porch down to the ground and stopped. I heard a loud roaring sound and looked up toward the sky and saw a giant plane on fire with pieces of the plane falling towards me. - Excerpt from childhood account of Billie Williams, written in the mid 1950s.

(Story continues below map, which shows proposed marker location at the crash site.)

Williams ran around the corner of the house and could see his brother and sister standing near the fence around the home of Rev. and Mrs. C.H. Fort, who lived at the corner of 6th Avenue and 4th Street in Marianna. A wing and what appeared to be a large tank, possibly one of the external fuel tanks, were falling directly above them:

...I started running toward them when the tank and wing hit the ground exploding like a napalm bomb. The flames and fuel exploded all around us and engulfed my brother and sister. The explosion picked me up and hurled me against the house, almost knocking me unconscious. I got up and saw the flames everywhere, trees were on fire and the back of the preacher's house was burning. I looked at my shirt and saw it smoking. I turned and saw chickens and a cat on fire. The chickens were trying to fly through the woods. - Excerpt from childhood account of Billie Williams, written in the mid-1950s.

The account goes on to describe the horrible burns suffered by Rufus and Peggy Williams. Billie carried Rufus away from the fire and was trying to save Peggy when a second explosion blew him away from her. Rufus and Peggy died at nearby Jackson Hospital, despite the best efforts of the medical staff there to save them.

Body parts from the plane's crew, pieces of wreckage and other burning debris were found as far south as the old Marianna High School building on Daniels Street, while the main fuselage crashed into the block bounded by 4th Street, 6th Avenue, 5th Street and 7th Avenue.

All four members of the crew died in the crash and numerous other people on the ground were injured, including Billie Williams. His hair was singed and a piece of metal penetrated his arm.

The U.S. Air Force officers killed that day were Maj. Frederick Ewing, Capt. Oscar W. Yon, Capt. Richard E. Francis and Capt. James H. Forman.

Maj. Ewing is primarily remembered today as the pilot of a military aircraft that flew a mysterious crate from the site of the Roswell incident near Roswell, New Mexico, to a base in Fort Worth, Texas. The government originally announced that the Roswell incident involved the crash of a "flying disc" or UFO and many have speculated that the crate carried away by Ewing's flight contained the bodies of alien beings.

Either fuel or burning wreckage set the home of Rev. and Mrs. Fort on fire and it burned to the ground. Mrs. Fort and a friend, Mrs. W.C. Segers of Altha, suffered burns and were hospitalized.

A number of Marianna residents witnessed the crash or its aftermath before U.S. military personnel arrived and sealed off the neighborhood. Student volunteers from Dozier School for Boys helped collect the debris from the plane as the investigation went forward. They later wrote an account of their observations for the school newspaper.

Pieces of wreckage were never found and one of the conventional bombs from the plane plunged so deep into the ground that it was never found. The non-nuclear device remains buried somewhere under northern Marianna to this day.

Many local residents still remember the crash. No matter how vivid their memories, however, it is Billie Williams who still holds the most vivid thoughts of that day. I have withheld the most graphic parts of his account at his request.

An effort is now underway to place a metal historical marker at the site of the crash. Donations are requested to help with the $2,000 cost of the marker, which will be placed at the intersection of 4th Street and 6th Avenue in Marianna. If this story has touched your heart, as it did mine, please follow the link below to make a small donation to help in the placement of this memorial.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Ghost of Bellamy Bridge mini-documentary (Marianna, FL)

The legend of Bellamy bridge is one of Florida's best known ghost stories!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Greenwood and the Alcatraz Escape: Anglin brothers sighted in Florida?

Greenwood, Florida
Home of the Alcatraz Escapees?
UPDATE: The History Channel aired a documentary on 10/12/2015 revealing a probable photograph of the Anglin brothers said to have been taken in Brazil in 1975. This new evidence in no way counters claims that the two men were living in Jackson County, FL 25 years later.

MORE: Informant claims one of Alcatraz escapees is still alive (6/20/2014).

In June 1962 three inmates slipped out of the United States Penitentiary, Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay and carried out what many believe was the first successful escape from the federal prison that is still called "The Rock." The incident formed the basis for the Clint Eastwood movie "Escape from Alcatraz."

Alcatraz Island
Carol Highsmith photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.
No one knows whether Clarence Anglin, John William Anglin and Frank Lee Morris are alive today. If so, all three would be between 83 and 89 years old.  Alcatraz is now a national park and the escape is part of American history, but the U.S. Marshals Service continues to search for Morris and the Anglin brothers. A reward for information leading to their capture remains in place.

While many people have at least heard of the 1962 Alcatraz escape, most do not know that Jackson County was the scene of a major local and federal search for the escapees in 1989-1991. That investigation was launched after compelling evidence surfaced that two of the three men had not only been seen in Jackson County, but were living near Greenwood.

Much of what I am about to write has never before been disclosed. I am familiar with the story because I unexpectedly became part of it in the summer of 1990.

W.L. "Mac" McLendon
U.S. Marshal Retired
The news broke on Christmas Eve 1990 when the San Francisco Daily Journal reported that federal authorities had been investigating the possibility that the Clarence and John Anglin were in Jackson County. U.S. Marshal W.L. "Mac" McLendon told the Journal, "What we're looking at is the possibility that two of the three escapees, the Anglin brothers, who were raised in this vicinity, possibly escaped and came back to this area."

Despite the 1962 pronouncements of some federal officials that Alcatraz was "escape proof" and that the men had drowned, the U.S. Marshals Service has always known that the escape probably succeeded. The evidence was compelling. The makeshift rubber raft used by the men had been found on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, along with  homemade paddles, life vests and footprints. Investigators had also interviewed numerous eyewitnesses who reported seeing the men, in the process trailing the escapees east across the United States. Then the trail then went cold.

Clarence Anglin in 1960 (FBI)
That all changed in 1989 when NBC television aired a special edition of the program "Unsolved Mysteries" that focused on the escape. To the surprise of U.S. Marshals, a woman they would only identify as "Cathy" called the show's tip line to report that she not only recognized a photo of Clarence Anglin, but knew him to be living on a farm near Marianna under an assumed name.

Authorities were initially skeptical of the woman's claims, but she provided incredible detail on the escape and correctly identified Clarence Anglin's height, eye color and other physical features not generally known by the public. She also described the farm where the man she believed to be Clarence Anglin was living, placing it in a rural area near Greenwood.

Clarence Anglin as he might
appear today (FBI).
According to "Cathy," the escape had been carried out with outside help. Her story, in brief, was that individuals with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Alabama made contact with a former Florida sheriff to solicit his help. The former officer agreed and went to San Francisco. The escape was timed with precision and he was waiting with a car when the men reached shore. "Cathy" said the party was well away from San Francisco by the time the guards realized the men were missing. The three escapees split up, she said, with two eventually living in seclusion near Greenwood. She identified one of these men as Clarence Anglin and the other as likely being Frank Lee Morris.

Frank Morris in 1960 (FBI)
An investigative team from the U.S. Marshals Service quietly came to Jackson County and launched an extensive search for the farm described by "Cathy" but was unable to find it. Arrangements were made to fly the woman to Jackson County so she could direct authorities to the home she had described. At this point, however, she suddenly stopped talking, telling deputy marshals that her family had warned her to "keep her mouth closed." She was brought to Jackson County by plane but remained uncooperative.

I became aware of these activities in 1990 while I was working as Regional News Director for WJHG-TV in Panama City. With cooperation from law enforcement, I filed reports on the search and encouraged anyone with information to come forward. Due to a commitment I made to Marshal McLendon, I never reported on the events that followed.

Frank Morris as he might
appear today (FBI).
Almost immediately after news of the search hit the national news wires, I was contacted by a California writer who claimed to have information on the location of the escapees. He asked if I would be willing to speak with him in person and offered to fly to Florida from California.

I agreed to see him, but also notified then Jackson County Sheriff John P. McDaniel and Chief Deputy John Dennis of his claim. Marshal McLendon was alerted and a special surveillance team was brought to Marianna by the marshals service. By the time the writer arrived, this team was in place in Jackson County with a surveillance van, cameras, hidden microphones and more.

John Anglin in 1960 (FBI)
The meeting with the writer went downhill quickly after he told Sheriff McDaniel that he thought all Southern law enforcement officers were members of the KKK. The assertion was made after the writer became frustrated that neither the sheriff nor I would provide him with details on the investigation beyond those that had been made public. The sheriff rightfully was insulted by the claim, as were other officers in the room at the time. To the best of my knowledge the writer's claims of having information on the whereabouts of the escapees were false and I do not believe he ever learned that he was under federal surveillance throughout visit.

John Anglin as he might
appear today (FBI).
During my discussions with federal investigators as the writer's visit took place, however, I was given access to much of the information provided by "Cathy" before she ended her cooperation with authorities. I immediately recognized the home she had described and was able to point out its location to investigators.

Now operating with better directions, authorities visited the farm where "Cathy" said she had visited with Clarence Anglin. They found the house and barns to be exactly as described by the Texas woman with one exception - the home was empty. Neighbors reported that two men had lived there, but had moved away suddenly the previous year. Several indicated that one of the men did bear a strong resemblance to a photo they were shown of Clarence Anglin. It was determined that the departure of the men from the farm coincided with the dates when "Cathy" was known to be speaking with the U.S. Marshals Service.

Greenwood Town Hall in Greenwood, Florida
That was not all. It turned out that Clarence and John Anglin had been born in Donalsonville, Georgia, just 23 miles northwest of Greenwood. They had gone to federal prison for robbing the bank in Columbia, Alabama, another area town that is less than 40 miles north of Greenwood. Relatives of the men live in Southwest Georgia to this day.

Investigation also revealed that the retired Florida law enforcement officer named by "Cathy" was a real person, but had passed away between 1962 and 1989. He had a brother living in San Francisco and was related to an individual in Birmingham, Alabama, who was an avowed member of the Ku Klux Klan and a suspect in the Birmingham Church Bombing.

Christmas decorations at the Boys' School when
Clarence Anglin was serving time there.
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
Documentary research revealed that Clarence Anglin and Frank Lee Morris had previous history in Jackson County. Both had spent time as juvenile offenders at what later became the Dozier School for Boys.

Finally, eyewitnesses saw a man they described as John William Anglin write a check at the Red and White Food Store in Brundidge, Alabama, on January 4, 1963. The check was returned to the store by Brundidge Banking Company because it had been written on a non-existent account. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was notified and the Mobile office sent investigators to Brundidge. The eyewitnesses who saw the man pass the check firmly maintained that he "was identical" to photographs of John Anglin.

Wanted poster for John Anglin (FBI)
The check was sent to Washington, D.C., for examination by the Bureau's handwriting experts. These investigators compared the check with examples of John Anglin's handwriting and admitted they could not determine "whether ANGLIN did or did not" write the check. The handwriting, they reported, was very similar with only small differences.

The check is preserved as evidence by the FBI and remains an intriguing clue to the presence of at least one of the Anglin brothers in the Wiregrass region months after the Escape from Alcatraz.

So did two of the 1962 Alcatraz escapees spend years living on a farm near Greenwood? The evidence is compelling. Former Jackson County Chief Deputy John Dennis concluded in 1990 that "they were here."

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Electric mist at haunted Bellamy Bridge near Marianna, FL

Photographs from showing strange electrical interference at historic and haunted Bellamy Bridge near Marianna, Florida.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The killing of Calvin Baker at the Cypress Town Jail (March 4, 1911)

Old Cypress Town Jail in Cypress, Florida
The old Cypress Town Jail stands empty along main street in the now unincorporated Jackson County community of Cypress. Its concrete walls and roof are remarkably well-preserved considering the number of years since the last prisoner was held there.

The jail was built in the late 19th or early 20th centuries and was often called a calaboose during its early days. The term is a Creole word derived from the old Spanish word calabosa (dungeon). It served to house individuals charged with violating municipal ordinances and as a place of temporary confinement for suspects charged with more serious crimes until they could be moved to the county jail in Marianna.

The entire jail was smaller than a normal cell today.
Such small municipal jails were common in Florida well into the mid-20th century and at least three still stand in Jackson County. The others are in Sneads and Grand Ridge.

The Cypress jail was made almost entirely of poured concrete, which was used to form not only the walls but the roof or ceiling as well. The floor is a slab of concrete and the window is a small opening closed with heavy iron bars. The front door was of heavy wood and was locked from the outside with a padlock. If you were unfortunate enough to be placed in the jail for a night, you were simply locked in and left on your own. There were no overnight officers or guards.

Calvin Baker was locked in the jail on March 4, 1911.
This was the situation of a young man named Calvin Baker on the night of March 4, 1911. Following an encounter with alcohol, Baker allegedly proceeded to have an encounter with the town marshal.

Although accounts are meager, Baker was described as a new arrival from Georgia in Cypress, which was then a booming sawmill town on the L&N Railroad. Following an altercation of some type that was inflamed by alcohol, he produced a gun and opened fire in the dirt streets. The town marshal was summoned, but when he approached came under fire from Baker as well.

A posse was organized and together the men finally managed to subdue Baker and take away his weapon. He was lodged in the little Cypress calaboose for the night. As was the custom, the wooden door of the jail was padlocked from the outside and the prisoner was left on his own until morning.

Interior of the old Cypress Town Jail
He never saw the light of another day. The following is the account of Baker's killing as wired to the New Orleans Times-Picayune from Marianna on March 5, 1911:

...Calvin Baker, a negro, who came here from Georgia recently, was shot to death by a mob at Cypress, a small town near here, last night. Baker yesterday had threatened to shoot up the town, it is said, and attempted to shoot the town marshal when that officer went to place him under arrest on the charge of disorderly conduct. Later he was arrested by a posse and placed in the town lockup. Some time in the night a mob battered down the door of the jail and poured a fusillade of shots into Baker's body.

The murder or lynching was investigated by the Jackson County Sheriff's Office, but as no witnesses ever came forward, no arrests could be made. No evidence of the names or number of the people responsible for Calvin Baker's killing has ever been found.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Sharkansas headed for Syfy release?

The Jackson County-made horror film Sharkansas Women's Prison Massacre is expected to finish production in Los Angeles tomorrow. Sources close to the project indicate that the Syfy channel has expressed interest.

The movie was filmed at Florida Caverns State Park, Merritt's Mill Pond and at other locations around Marianna and Jackson County, Florida, in early 2014. It was directed by famed B-movie king Jim Wynorski. His previous credits include Not of This Earth, The Return of Swamp Thing, Transylvania Twist, The Wasp Woman and Dynocroc vs. Supergator.

Sources indicate that the new film, in which the Florida Panhandle doubles for the Ozarks of Arkansas, will be reviewed by the Syfy channel for broadcast consideration. The timetable for a decision by the cable channel has not been released, but Syfy has aired a number of Wynorski's previous films.

Sharkansas filming at Florida Caverns State Park
If Syfy picks up Sharkansas, the movie will likely be a ratings grabber for the channel which has seen huge audience spikes with its modern-day monster movie franchise. The success story of Sharknado, of course, is well known to viewers and film industry experts alike.

In another development, Wynorski announced on his Facebook page that the movie contains no nudity, an indication both that he is aiming for a television release and that he is keeping his promise to local tourism and parks leaders that the movie will have no worse than a PG-13 rating.

Sharkansas tells the story of how an accident during an oil "fracking" exploration unleashes a swarm of prehistoric sharks from a buried sea deep underground. The accident coincides with an escape attempt by inmates from a women's prison and soon escaped sharks meet escaped prisoners and the rest is history.

The preview is now available and you can watch it right here:

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Sharkansas preview! First look at new Jackson County made horror movie...

Here it is!  Your long awaited first look at new Jackson County made horror movie "Sharkansas Women's Prison Massacre." It is set for release in May!

The movie was filmed in and around Marianna and Jackson County. Filming locations included Florida Caverns State Park, Merritt's Mill Pond and El Rio Restaurant.  Some local folks even made the cast as extras.

I'll post more on how to see it as it is released.  Expected rating is no worse than PG-13.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

#51 Jewels of Light, The Windows of St. Luke's (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

St. Luke Window
On Sunday (1/25) at 2:00 p.m., St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Marianna will offer its second "Jewels of Light" Tour. This year's event honors Father Norman Bray, whose passing on January 21, 2014, was felt by friends from all denominations.

The name "Jewels of Light" refers to the church's extraordinarily historic and beautiful stained-glass windows, which are #51 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.

Special thanks are due to Mary Robbins for assisting with this history of the windows:

The story of the stained-glass windows dates back to the Civil War. Union troops burned St. Luke's Episcopal Church to the ground during the Battle of Marianna on September 27, 1864. In the hard times of Reconstruction, it took the parish fifteen years to raise enough money to replace its lost sanctuary.

Rare photo of 1879 church with original stained-glass windows.
By 1879, however, the replacement structure was nearing completion when Mr. Charles B. Benedict of St. John's Episcopal Church in Jacksonville offered to pay for stained-glass windows. His wife, Martha Alston Baker - called "Pattie" by her husband and friends - was a native of Marianna and the two had been married at the home of Dr. J.T. Holden in the city on August 15, 1876. She died less than three years later on January 31, 1879, and Mr. Benedict asked to donate the windows in her memory.

Rare photo of church after 1941 fire.
Courtesy of Mary Robbins
His incredible gift was accepted and the windows were prepared by the renowned artists of Payne-Spiers Studios in Patterson, New Jersey.  They graced the beautiful little church until another fire struck on March 2, 1941. The blame this time was electrical.

Once again war and hard times intervened in the replacement of the structure and it was not until Easter morning, April 6, 1947, that the present building was dedicated. World War II had slowed the work of rebuilding.

Inside St. Luke's with the windows glowing from sunlight.
To preserve the memory of the beautiful windows lost in the 1941 fire, the church contacted Payne-Spiers. The studio created the stunning windows seen today in the sanctuary, chancel and nave, along with two windows in the stairwell and two in the sacristy.  All were placed in 1946-1956.

Local artisans Ashley and Yoshiko Hill, assisted by noted artist Maria Therrien Johnson, designed and produced two windows for the Children's Chapel in 1997 and the glass transom and door windows on the north side of the church in 2002.

Philips Memorial Window
The windows placed in the 1940s and 1950s are similar to the ones donated by Mr. Benedict in 1879. The altar window is a Philips Memorial window that is but slightly changed from the original. Many of the sanctuary windows were donated by families and friends in memory of loved ones.

Of special note is the Friendship Window high in the west wall of the church. It was placed to the Glory of God and as a show of appreciation for the many friends that came to the aid of the parish after the heartbreaking fire in 1941.

Section of the St. Peter Window.
Other windows include the Nativity Window, dedicated in memory of Mr. John Hardin Carter; the Presentation Window, placed in memory of Francis Asbury Robinson and his wife, Lorena A. Bush; the Ecce Agnus Dei (Behold the Lamb of God) Window, placed in appreciation of the organists of the church; the Sermon on the Mount Kilpatrick Memorial Window; the St. Luke Window, dedicated to the Glory of God and in memory of Dr. N.Albert Baltzell; the St. John Window, in memory of John and Floie Milton; the St. Peter Window, in memory of Sen. William Hall Milton; the St. Philip Window, in memory of Phillip D. Mathews; the St. Bartholomew Window, for the Baker family, and the St. Andrew Window, in memory of Rev. J. William Foster and his wife, Elizabeth.

The "Jewels of Light" Tour will be this Sunday, January 25, at 2 p.m.

To learn more about St. Luke's Episcopal Church, please visit

To see the full list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida, as it is unveiled, please visit

Sunday, January 18, 2015

#52 Did Titanic Curse sink the John W. Callahan? (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

The John W. Callahan
The paddlewheel steamboat John W. Callahan was a beloved sight at Jackson County's river landings. It sank in 1923 in an incident that some have linked to a curse of the Titanic.

The alleged connection between the John W. Callahan and the RMS Titanic is #52 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.

In some ways it is appropriate that the fate of the Callahan has been linked to that of the Titanic. Each was a luxurious vessel that ranked among the largest ever operated by its line. Each was known for its decor and the hospitality of its crew. Each was captained by a confident officer. And each steamed off on its final voyage carrying passengers confident in ability of the vessel to overcome all obstacles of man and nature.

Interior of the John W. Callahan
The John W. Callahan was a river steamer of the Tri-State Navigation Company's Callahan Line. Named for Bainbridge, Georgia, businessman and investor John W. Callahan, Sr., it was built at Apalachicola, Florida, in 1907 and carried passengers for the first time on January 3, 1908:

By invitation of Mr. John W. Callahan a large number of invited guests were given a steamboat ride last Friday afternoon on the new steamer The John W. Callahan, which will make weekly trips to the Dead Lakes of Florida and Apalachicola. It is 127 feet long - two decks and thirty state rooms. It is electric lighted and is fitted up with the most improved machinery. - Bainbridge Democrat, January 9, 1908.

Many of the people living along Florida's Chattahoochee, Apalachicola and Chipola Rivers in 1908 had never seen electric lighting or some of the boat's other amenities. The Callahan was a marvel to them and for the next 15 years was a much anticipated sight at Neal's, Parramore, Peri and Butler Landings in Jackson County.

John W. Callahan
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
The boat also had a dramatic impact on the economy of the region. Its cargo capacity was huge and within 9-months the steamboat was bringing affordable and quality merchandise in such quantities that merchants in Northwest Florida, Southwest Georgia and Southeast Alabama were able to significantly reduce their prices.

By the time the RMS Titanic sank in 1912, the Callahan was the undisputed queen of the region's river steamers:

Passengers who have enjoyed the ocean trip between Savannah and New York find the Callahan's appointments of as high class, and the hourly changing scenery hardly as monotonous as just water, water, water. They find the fifteenth meal as palatable and as plentiful as the first, and they begin to figure out how much they would have to add to the round trip ticket price to buy the food alone in a hotel or cafe of the better class. - Charles F. Pekor, Jr., "Down the Chattahoochee on the John W. Callahan," Columbus Daily Enquirer, January 9, 1922.

The John W. Callahan was the first boat to pass under
old Victory Bridge at Chattahoochee, Florida.
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
Ten years after the loss of the Titanic, however, the crew of the Callahan committed an error in judgment that some would blame for the steamer's loss.

Sailors believe even today that it is extremely bad luck for the name of the Titanic to be mentioned aboard ship while a vessel is at sea. Doing so can bring down a curse upon a ship, its crew and passengers.

On New Year's Eve of 1921, however, the crew of the John W. Callahan did not just mention the name of the Titanic, they sang a song about the ill-fated liner while their vessel was underway, inviting upon themselves a curse tied to the luxury liner.

It was tradition aboard the river steamers of the Callahan Line for the head stevedore to form his men into a chorus for the entertainment of passengers each New Year's Eve. On December 31, 1921, head stevedore Gross Harvey kept this tradition alive aboard the John W. Callahan, singing for the tips of the passengers.

The Titanic Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Library of Congress
He and his men, however, ran out of songs before their audience ran out of money so they turned to a new folk song then spreading across the country:

Ladies and children saved their life,
Husbands parted from their wife - 
It was sad when that great ship went down.

The lyrics are from "The Titanic," a tuned created by an unnamed troubadour in around 1915. It was first recorded in 1924 by Ernest V. Stoneman and became the first country record ever to sell 1,000,000 copies. You can hear it by clicking play at the bottom of this page.

If you believe in such things, the crew of the Callahan invited disaster by singing about the Titanic while their steamer was underway on the Chattahoochee River. In less than one year a series of strange accidents began to plague the vessel. Within two years, the John W. Callahan was history.

The problems began with a series of nagging incidents that troubled the Callahan throughout 1922, the most serious of which took place in November of that year when the steamer struck a snag near Gunn's Landing and started to sink. The quick-thinking pilot ran the boat aground to save her, but she still sustained serious damage when one end of the vessel sank to a depth of five feet.

John W. Callahan underway
State Archives of Florida/Mwmory Collection
The boat was raised, restored and back in service by March 1923. On the 3rd of that month she left Columbus with the largest shipment ever carried by a river steamer from that city - 337 tons of cargo and as many passengers as her cabins could hold. The Callahan made it to Apalachicola but it would be the last time that she would ever sniff the salt air of the Gulf.

The John W. Callahan began its ill-fated final voyage on March 20, 1923. On board were some of the leading businessmen of the South, among them James W. "Jim" Woodruff, for whom the Jim Woodruff Dam at Chattahoochee, Florida, is named. The vessel was also attempting to break its own record for cargo. On her decks were 375 tons of fertilizer and a large amount of other merchandise.

The Chattahoochee River was running extremely high when the boat left Columbus and some in that city expressed fear that she would not be able to steam under the bridge at Eufaula, Alabama. The Columbus Daily Enquirer made note of this concern , "It was thought that in spite of the depth of 20 feet the boat, upon unloading some of the freight at Eufaula, would be able to get by the bridge."

Chipola River near where the John W. Callahan sank
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection (Photo by Charles Barron)
The steamer passed under the bridge at Eufaula without incident but her pilots failed to consider the cable that pulled a ferry back and forth across the river at Gordon, Alabama. The cable normally was high enough above the surface for steamboats to travel beneath it without trouble. With the river at flood stage, however, the Callahan ran into it and decapitated herself:

At Gordon, Ala., according to the local officer of the company, the boat was tied up for two days when a ferry cable caused the collapse of the builder and hurricane decks. The smoke stacks were torn down as a result. - Macon Telegraph, March 27, 1923.

As soon as the debris of the upper decks was cleared away and the stacks repaired as much as possible, the steamer continued her trip downriver. Residents of Jackson County watched as she steamed past Neal's and Parramore Landings for the last time.

The John W. Callahan
The boat made it to Chattahoochee and passed beneath Victory Bridge there to begin her final run down the Apalachicola. She reached Iola Landing on the night of March 24 and turned into the Chipola Cut-off, a channel that connects the Apalachicola with the Chipola River, the next morning. It was a Sunday:

Columbus, Ga., March 26. - There will be no salvage of the river steamer John W. Callahan, Sr., running between Columbus and Apalachicola, Fla., which struck a snag and sank 315 miles from this city Sunday afternoon, according to a statement made public today by General Manager O.W. Donnell, of the Tri-State Navigation Co., owners of the boat...The steamer is a total loss, which is estimated at $35,000 by the manager with only $8,000 insurance. - Macon Telegraph, March 27, 1923.
The steamboat Chipola, seen here at Iola Landing, helped
rescue the passengers and crew of the John W. Callahan.
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection

Like the Apalachicola and Chattahoochee, the Chipola was at flood stage when the John W. Callahan went down. The pilot tried to run the steamer aground in a repeat of the maneuver that ad saved her the previous November, but this time the effort failed. The Callahan sank in 45 feet of water near the mouth of Magnolia Slough about 2 miles from Wewahitchka. She was a total loss, but the crew was able to get all of the passengers safely to shore as the paddlewheeler went down.

The scene was surreal, and the boat's loud steam whistle sounded incessantly as she slipped beneath the water:

All members of the crew escaped without injury from the steamer but Jasper Carlo, Columbus... standing on the bank dropped dead as the big whistle, which had in some manner become caught and shrieked until water killed the steam, ceased blowing. The sounding of the whistle's last blast marked the passing away of a [man] who had worked for 20 years on the Chattahoochee river being the veteran stevedore of the Tri-State Navigation Company. Carlo was buried at Wewahitchka. - Columbus Daily Enquirer, March 28, 1923.

Jasper Carlo had been one of the crewmen of the Callahan that sang about the sad fate of the Titanic just fifteen months earlier on New Year's Eve.

For years after the sinking of the John W. Callahan, river men whispered that the crew of the elegant steamer had brought disaster upon themselves by singing of the Titanic. The curse of the great White Star liner, they said, had sent the Callahan to a watery grave.

You can hear the original recording of that song here:

To read more of the stories on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida, please follow this link:

Thursday, January 8, 2015

#53 The Spanish claim to Blue Springs (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Blue Springs from the air
Shortly after Florida became part of the United States, land commissioners in Pensacola stripped a Spanish citizen's heirs of their title to more than 8,000 acres of prime land surrounding Blue Springs in Jackson County.

The story of the Blue Springs Spanish Grant is #53 on my list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.

The United States took possession of Florida from Spain in 1821. Among the first issues that officials of the new territory encountered were the claims of residents that they had been granted land in the former colony by Spanish authorities. The Spanish governors and surveyors involved in these transaction had beeen reassigned to other countries and in many cases U.S. commissioners relied on their abilities as hand-writing experts to determine whether or not alleged Spanish grants were legitimate.

1825 survey map showing Blue Springs
There were American settlers living in the area when Florida became part of the United States. Federal land office records show that 52 Americans claimed to have settled land in modern Jackson County when Florida was a Spanish colony. None of them, however, had secured land grants from Spanish authorities.

The only person to enter a formal claim for land in Jackson County under a Spanish grant was Margarita Goquet, the mother of a deceased grantee named Jose Poll. According to her claim, Poll had settled at Blue Springs (also called Jackson Blue Springs) in November 1817. Goquet said that her son had been granted 10,000 arpents there by Governor Jose Masot.

Blue Springs
An arpent is an old European unit for measuring land. In this case the 10,000 arpents claimed by Mrs. Goquet as an inheritance from her son equaled about 8,448 acres. She produced documents signed by the Spanish governor in 1817 and also found eyewitnesses willing to support her claim:

Joseph Moura, being sworn, saith that, in the year 1817, he assisted in transporting hands and provisions to the tract of ten thousand arpents of land at the Big Spring, on Chipola, granted originally to Joseph Poll, in order to commence improvements and cultivation thereon; that five or six months afterwards he visited the same place, at which time they had built a house and cleared and enclosed a large piece of ground; that Joseph Poll was the son of Margarita Goquet, who inherited the said tract of land at his death; and further saith not. - Claim statement included in report of U.S. Land Commissioners to Treasury Secretary William H. Crawford, November 12, 1824, American State Papers.

It would have been nothing short of suicide for an American settler to build a house and clear land at Blue Springs in 1817. The First Seminole War erupted that fall and continued until the fall of 1818. The alliance of Seminoles and Red Stick Creeks at war with the United States had no real issues with the Spanish citizens of Florida, however, and generally allowed them to live in peace. 

Blue Springs from the water
The war did cost Jose Poll the African laborers he had brought with him to Blue Spring, which as noted in the reference above was then usually called the Big Spring of the Chipola. Whether they were slaves or free men of color is not known, as the available documents do not provide additional detail. A second eyewitness produced by Poll's mother mentioned that the laborers all left the farm. Like many other African-Americans living on the Southern frontier, they probably joined the American Indian forces then fighting against the United States:

Manuel Moura, being sworn, saith that he attended Joseph Moura when he visited the said tract of land at the aforementioned periods, and is acquainted with the facts stated by him; and further saith that the negroes employed by said Poll in the improvements and cultivation aforesaid absconded, and of which was never recovered; and further saith not. - Claim statement included in report of U.S. Land Commissioners to Treasury Secretary William H. Crawford, November 12, 1824, American State Papers.

The decision of whether to grant Mrs. Goquet title to more than 8,000 acres of prime agricultural land in newly formed Jackson County was placed in the hands of three American land commissioners - Samuel Overton, Joseph White and Craven P. Luckett. The first of these men, Overton, was a close friend of Andrew Jackson.

Merritt's Mill Pond just below Blue Springs
The three ruled against Mrs. Goquet, probably much to the relief of William Robinson who was in the process of establishing a plantation on the property in question. The deliberations were subjective, as the commissioners agreed that the documents presented by the lady had actually been signed by former Governor Jose Masot.

In fact, the three U.S. commissioners almost without exception rejected any claims filed by Spanish citizens asserting ownership of large parcels of land in Florida. The three Americans did not believe that the King of Spain had given his governors the authority to make grants of large parcels of land, so they either denied such claims or sent them to the U.S. Congress for final disposition.

Did the commissioners improperly deprive a Spanish lady of 8,000 acres of land at Blue Springs that had been settled by and granted to her deceased son? The possibility that they did is very real. Whatever the truth, the land became the home and farm of William Robinson and after his death formed the core of Sylvania, the plantation of Governor John Milton.

The intriguing Spanish Land Grant at Blue Springs is #53 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County. To see other items on the list, please visit:

To learn more about the history of Blue Springs, please visit: /

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

#54 The Ellicott Line (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Ellicott Line marker on US 231 north of Campbellton
Although the marker is at the state line, the actual
Ellicott line is south of this point inside of Jackson County.
Just south of the Alabama state line and stretching from one side of Jackson County to the other can be found a line of unusual earthen mounds. These mounds are found at precise one-mile intervals and look so much like prehistoric Indian mounds that even professional archaeologists have mistaken their true origin.

They do not date from thousands of years ago nor do they contained artifacts associated with ancient American Indian burials. The mounds actually date from the late 1700s and were built by a team of American and Spanish surveyors. They form the eastern end of a survey known for more than 200 years as the Ellicott Line.

1826 survey plat showing the Ellicott Line in Jackson County
The Ellicott Line came about as a result of the Treaty of San Lorenzo, a friendship agreement signed between the United States and Spain on October 27, 1795. Among other things it established the line between Spanish West Florida and the lands of the United States as the 31st Parallel.

No one knew exactly where to find that parallel, so the two countries agreed to carry out a joint survey to locate and permanently mark their mutual border. Once the treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1796, President George Washington appointed Major Andrew Ellicott as Commissioner of Limits to represent the United States in the survey.

Ellicott was already a man of considerable note by the time of his appointment to survey the Florida
Andrew Ellicott
border. Even though he was a pacifist Quaker, he served in the Maryland militia and achieved the rank of major during the American Revolution. After the war he helped future President James Madison complete the survey of the Mason-Dixon Line, a boundary still recognized today as separating North from South.

An acquaintance of Thomas Jefferson, Major Ellicott was appointed in 1791 to survey the borders of the new District of Columbia. That task completed, he revised the original plans for and laid out the nation's capital city of Washington, D.C.

After his appointment as Commissioner of Limits by President Washington in 1796, Ellicott joined with his Spanish counterpart Stephen Minor to locate and mark the 31st Parallel (Latitude 31 North). The parallel remains the border between Florida and Alabama to this day.

One of the Ellicott Mounds in Jackson County
The two men headed a survey and military party that ran the line of the 31st Parallel from the Mississippi River east to the Chattahoochee River at the very northeast corner of what is now Jackson County. Most of the work was actually done by the men of the survey party and not by the two commissioners, who avoided the backbreaking and dangerous of hacking through the virgin wilderness and building a line of large earthen mounds, each one mile from the last, to mark the border. Ellicott and Minor determined starting and ending points, but otherwise traveled by boat to meet the surveyors each time they emerged on a major river.

Elliott's Jackson County observatory was at left on the
west bank of the Chattahoochee River north of Neal's Landing.
By the time the surveyors and their small military escort reached today's Jackson County in 1799, they were in serious danger of being wiped out by irate warriors from the Creek Nation. The Creeks had not given away their lands and did not like the idea of two other nations dividing it up. Only the intervention of Col. Benjamin Hawkins, the U.S. Agent for Indian Affairs, and some of the senior chiefs saved the lives of the surveyors.

Ellicott and Minor reached the eastern end of the line on July 25, 1799, and met the survey party on the bank of the Chattahoochee River just north of today's Neal's Landing Park. An observatory was set up there and astronomical and meteorological observations were carried out until mid-August.

Heavy rains, cloudy weather and even a tornado interfered with the work but a final mound was placed just west of the river and the line was ruled complete. The surveyors then dropped down the river to present-day Chattahoochee where they set up another observatory to begin marking the line that divides Florida from Georgia.

1855 survey plat showing the easternmost Ellicott mound.
The Ellicott Line does not actually mark the border between Florida and Georgia. The instruments used by the surveyors were not as accurate as modern equipment and they missed the actual 31st Parallel by a good distance. Troy University resurveyed the line about ten years ago and found Ellicott's mounds as much as one mile south of the actual border with Alabama. The ones in Jackson County are hundreds of yards south of Latitude 31 North.

Of the 30 or so mounds erected along the line in Jackson County, roughly one dozen can still be located today. The others were plowed away or otherwise destroyed long ago. The best preserved ones are along the eastern end of the line north of Neal's Landing.

The 215 year old Ellicott Line is #54 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida. To read more items from the list, please visit:

Saturday, January 3, 2015

#55 Original Weeki Wachee was in Jackson County? (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs in 1969
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
When the words Weeki Wachee are mentioned, images usually come to mind of crystal clear waters and Florida mermaids. Weeki Wachee Springs is now a state park in Hernando County and the attraction's famed mermaid shows remain popular with visitors.

You might not know, however, that the first documented use of the words Weeki Wachee in Florida applied not to the South Florida park, but to the creek that now forms part of the western border of Jackson County. Now known as Holmes Creek, the original Weeki Wachee is #55 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.

Rising just north of the Alabama line, Holmes Creek flows in a southwesterly direction from its source until it merges with the Choctawhatchee River in Washington County. Its upper course forms the dividing line between Jackson and Holmes Counties.

The stream has been there for thousands of years and provided a route of transportation and source of food for early American Indians. The Chacato Indians lived in the area delineated by the Chipola River to the east and Holmes Creek to the west when Spanish explorers first reached the area in 1674. They fished in the creek and hunted for food along its banks.

Holmes Creek
The oldest known mention of Holmes Creek appears in the account of Fray Rodrigo de la Barreda, a Franciscan missionary who passed through Jackson County more than 300 years ago in 1693. Writing of the expedition of Spanish Governor Don Laureano de Torres y Ayala, on which he took part, Barreda described his arrival at the creek:

...On the 14th [i.e. June 1693] I resumed the march northwest, and, after traveling a little more than a league through pine woods, I came to a creek. To facilitate crossing this stream, it was necessary to break down a good deal of underbrush.... 

A reading of Barreda's full journal reveals that this unnamed creek could only have been the stream we know today as Holmes Creek.

Section of Purcell-Stuart Map of 1778
"Weekaywee Hatchee" is in the right 1/3 of the image.
The next detailed document mentioning the creek was written 85 years later during the American Revolution. The colonies of East and West Florida, then possessed by Great Britain, had remained loyal to King George III despite the rebellion staged by the 13 colonies to the north. American Patriots invaded East Florida in 1778 hoping to capture St. Augustine. Military commanders there called for reinforcements from Pensacola an expedition set out from the latter city.

The British crossed into Jackson County along the old Pensacola-St. Augustine Road, a trading path that followed the general route of today's State Road 2. Mapmaker and surveyor Joseph Purcell accompanied the expedition, preparing a detailed map of the road and keeping an itinerary as the party advanced.

Reaching the northwestern corner of what is now Jackson County, Purcell related that the party forded a stream that he called the "Weekaywee Hatchee" or "Spring Creek." His map and itinerary make clear that this was today's Holmes Creek.

Holmes or "Week-hay-wee" Creek on the Vignoles map of 1823.
Purcell was correct in his translation as Weekaywee (or wekiwa) means "spring" or "springs" in the Hitchiti language of the Lower Creeks. Hatchee means "creek" or "river" in the same language. The modern name Weeki Wachee is a corruption of this old Hitchiti term and when the words Weekaywee Hatchee are pronounced aloud the resemblance is easy to hear.

Although the lower end of the creek was sometimes called the Okchoyee ("Little Okchoy") in those days, the upper part bordering was still called Wekiwa Hatchee (or "Weeki Wachi") as late as 1822 when Jackson County was formed by the Florida Territorial Legislative Council. The Vignoles map drawn the following year shows it as the "Week-kay-wee."

Holmes Creek
The name Holmes Creek came into use at around that time as documents from the mid- and late 1820s use the modern name. The origin of the present name is subject to debate. Old tradition in Washington County holds that it honors the Red Stick Creek chief Holms who battled Andrew Jackson during the First Seminole War of 1817-1818. This is certainly possible, although documents from the mid-1820s note that a "Dr. Holmes" was living near the creek at that time and could also have been the namesake for the stream.

The memory of Florida's original Weeki Wachee has long since faded away, but the name lives on at Hernando County's beautiful and fun playground of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

To see more from my list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida, please visit: