Sunday, June 5, 2016

Jackson County may not own Courthouse Square

The beautiful oaks on Courthouse Square were planted by
Aesop Bellamy, one of Marianna's first African-American
business owners in ca. 1873.
Is the Jackson County Board of County Commissioners on the verge of cutting down trees that the county doesn't even own?

That question has unexpectedly come to the surface as citizens await a final decision from their county commissioners on the fate of the historic live oaks that surround the Jackson County Courthouse in downtown Marianna. The last vote from the board took place nearly three weeks ago when the commissioners agreed to seek cost estimates on the removal of all of the trees.

The question now rising, however, is whether the county actually owns the historic oak trees - or the ground in which they grow?

Part of the Battle of Marianna was fought on Courthouse
Square on September 27, 1864. This scene is from the
150th anniversary commemoration of the battle.
A thorough search of both public and private archives of deeds and other records has produced no deed or other document proving county ownership of the courthouse square. In fact, it appears that the City of Marianna may actually own the trees, the square and even the ground on which the county courthouse stands.

This unexpected discovery results from political maneuvering that took place in the earliest days of Jackson County's history.

The county was created by the Florida Territorial Legislature on August 12, 1822. The territory had been part of Spain just one year before and it would take another twenty-three years for Florida to secure admission into the union as a state. Jackson County was named for Andrew Jackson, the former major general who served as Florida's U.S. first governor. It included all of the land between the Choctawhatchee and Suwannee Rivers.

The "Widow Hull's Place" was near today's Waddell's Mill
Pond in rural Jackson County, Florida.
The first meetings of the county's government took place at the Widow Hull's place, a home that stood on the south side of today's Waddell's Mill Pond not far from Springfield A.M.E. Church. Mrs. Sarah Hull provided lodging and food for the County Court, a predecessor of today's Board of County Commissioners. The court then included three members.

A controversy soon developed over where to place the permanent county seat. The legislative council first designated the Widow Hull's as an interim location but later changed the interim meeting place to Webbville, a community about half way between Campbellton and what is now Marianna.

Richard Keith Call was a protege of
Andrew Jackson and the
Territorial Governor of Florida.
The controversy intensified when Robert Beveridge, a Scottish merchant from Baltimore, secured title to 160-acres of prime Chipola River land on November 1, 1827. The patent included the site on which the Jackson County Courthouse stands today.

Beveridge pushed forward the development of a new town that he called Marianna. His business partners included Richard Keith Call, an ally of Andrew Jackson and future governor of Florida. With such powerful influence on his side, Beveridge soon lobbied the legislative council to designate Marianna as the permanent county seat for Jackson County.

The developer offered to deed to Jackson County the public (courthouse) square and two downtown lots if the legislature would give Marianna the county seat designation. The town's citizens also offered to donate $1,500 to be used in building a courthouse and jail.

The offer met with a friendly reception in Tallahassee and a bill designating Marianna as the county seat of Jackson County was passed on October 20, 1828. A second act approved the incorporation of the town of Marianna eight days later on October 28, 1828.

Webbville as it appears today. The "ghost town" is still the
actual county seat of Jackson County, Florida.
The news was met with outrage in nearby Webbville, which was then the county's largest town. Unable to sway the members of the legislative council, Webbville residents took their case to the U.S. Congress.

Marianna's developers, meanwhile, went forward with their first sale of lots on January 25, 1829. Bids were opened for the new courthouse and jail on the same day.

Robert Beveridge maintained possession of the courthouse square during that sale, along with the now lost Masonic and School Squares, the future site of Marianna's Riverside Cemetery and the triangular park then called "the Plaza" (today's Confederate Park).

As the incorporation of the community took effect and Marianna's citizens elected their first leaders, these holdings became the property of the town. Beveridge continued to pay taxes on the lands until the organization of Marianna's government could be completed.

The Jackson County Courthouse in the late 1800s, about
20 years after Aesop Bellamy planted the Courthouse Oaks.
He was one of the county's first black business owners.
Robert Beveridge still owned the future site of the Jackson County Courthouse when the U.S. Congress intervened and annulled the legislative council's action designating Marianna as the county seat. Since Florida was still a U.S. territory, Congress and the President held ultimate power over local governmental decisions. In a rare display of this power, Congress overturned Marianna's designation as county seat on January 21, 1829.

Officials in Washington, D.C., followed on March 2, 1829, by giving congressional approval to Webbville, provided that the proceeds from the sale of one-half of the town's lots be spent on public education. Webbville followed through, raising $7,000 for the construction of a public school.

The beloved old Jackson County Courthouse as it
appeared on a postcard during the mid-20th century.
The Federal courts followed the decision of the U.S. Congress. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Florida convened in Webbville in September 1829, as did the Superior Court for Jackson County. 

Webbville thus became - and remains - the official county seat of Jackson County. The town no longer exists, but its designation by Congress has never been overturned.

Marianna, meanwhile, went forward with the construction of its courthouse and jail. Robert Beveridge, however, never deeded the square on which these were built to Jackson County. The legislative council finally imposed a fine against any public official that did not conduct business from the new courthouse, a move that had the result of shifting the county's public business to Marianna although Webbville still remained the official county seat.

As has been noted, Beveridge's lands became the property of the City of Marianna as the city was formally organized. He payed taxes on them until that time.

The beautiful live oak on the northeast corner of Courthouse
Square was planted by Aesop Bellamy in 1873 and can be
seen in the far left of the 1880s photo above.
A thorough search of the deeds and other records in the Clerk of Courts office and archives of the Jackson County Courthouse, as well as the private records of Florida Land Title & Trust, reveals no deed or other document showing that the city ever gave the county title to the square.

Jackson County has since spent untold dollars maintaining and operating five different courthouses on the square, even though the square has apparently remained the property of the City of Marianna the entire time.

Which brings us to today and the controversy that has grown over the future of the live oaks that surround the Jackson County Courthouse. 

Unless the county can provide some long lost proof that it actually owns the square, then its own records indicate that the trees and the dirt in which they grow - as well as the dirt on which the courthouse stands - actually belong to the City of Marianna.

This fact raises serious questions over whether the Board of County Commissioners has any authority at all for any of its actions regarding the trees or square. The city, probably through lack of knowledge that it still owned the square, has never intervened in the construction of courthouses on the site so it is possible that the county may legally own the actual footprint of the the courthouse.

The rest of the square, however, is unfenced public land and appears to be owned by Marianna and its citizens. Unless the county commissioners can prove otherwise, the City of Marianna is the entity that should be making decisions about the courthouse square and its trees.

Note: To learn more about the early history of the area and the political battle between Marianna and Webbville, please consider:

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Chuck Hatcher named to key State Parks post

Chuck Hatcher
New Assistant Director of Florida State Parks
Photo courtesy of Patte Hatcher
Jackson County's Director of Parks & Recycling has been named Assistant Director of Florida State Parks.

Chuck Hatcher, a Dellwood resident, will be leaving for his new position on March 7th after a remarkable 10 years of service to the people and visitors of Jackson County. He began his work with the county on September 26, 2006.

Hatcher will be supervising day to day operations for all 174 of Florida's state parks. Stretching from the Keys to the Perdido, the system's lands include hundreds of thousands of acres of some of the most pristine, historic and ecologically significant places in the state.

In a phone conversation this morning, he told me that he will miss his role in Jackson County. "I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish in Jackson County," he said. "We are a rural county but we have done some major development in the areas of parks and recreation."

It was a modest understatement. During his tenure at the head of Jackson County's park system, Hatcher has supervised dramatic improvements in facilities and park operations. Visitation to Blue Springs alone has skyrocketed and now pays for the county's entire parks effort. In addition to noted and visible improvements at Blue Springs, he has also supervised an upswing in cleanliness and use of parks and recreation sites from one side of the county to the other.

Chuck Hatcher at Bellamy Bridge
I had the opportunity to work closely with Chuck in the realization of our dream to see Bellamy Bridge once again open to the public. Without spending a single dime of property tax money, we designed, funded and developed the new Bellamy Bridge Heritage Trail on Highway 162. The one-half mile nature trail leads to the historic bridge and has been visited by thousands of people in just a few short years.

Chuck has also been instrumental in securing funding for boat ramps, boardwalks, the new Jackson County Greenway on the Chipola River and improving the quality of the county-maintained parks along Lake Seminole. His key accomplishments are bringing tourists to our area in growing numbers while also benefiting the citizens of Jackson County on a daily basis.

Chuck and his wife of many years Patte reside in downtown Dellwood. They have two highly accomplished daughters. The entire family has been visible and active in Jackson County for many years and will remain so after he transitions to his new position.

Congratulations to a long-time friend!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Snow flurries in Two Egg, Florida (1/23/2016)

Snow flurries continued through much of the night in Two Egg, Florida. This video was shot by at around 3 a.m. on January 23, 2016.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cabinet hears Dozier Report, apologizes for "unspeakable horrors"

A group of Jackson County's Citizens of the Year warn the
media in 2014 that it was being one-sided in its coverage and
that no evidence of murders of students by staff would be
found at the Dozier School for Boys "Boot Hill" cemetery.
Photo courtesy of the Jackson County Times.
In a meeting that began late and was filled with jokes, the Florida Cabinet today heard the University of South Florida's project at Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

Please click here to read a summary of that report or to read the entire document.

Cabinet members and Governor Rick Scott apologized to former Dozier students for the "unspeakable horrors" inflicted on them by the Jackson County residents who worked at Dozier School for Boys. The Cabinet members also praised Dr. Erin Kimmerle of the University of South Florida (USF) and the former students of the school.

Kimmerle presented her final report to the Cabinet. She called it a "historic project" and said the results achieved were "remarkable."

She said that the objective was to locate the burials and to identify the individuals buried in the graves so their remains could be returned to their families. She also said a main objective was to study the 1,400 acre campus to find other graves that might be located there.

Kimmerle told the Cabinet members that her team pursued all leads on the history of the Campus, a deliberately incorrect statement as she and her team refused to examine thousands of pages of documents offered to them by this writer.

She said that prior to the beginning of the exhumations, she and her team did ground truthing to determine which features were graves and which were fence posts, etc.  At the time, however, USF denied that it had dug into any of the graves and said it was only doing "stratigraphic" analysis.

Kimmerle also mentioned that her team found and removed thousands of artifacts. She did not mention that other artifacts were left behind in the tracks of her team's vehicles.

Among the coffins found, according to Dr. Kimmerle, were seven infant coffins that contained the remains of students and employees who died in the 1914 fire at one of the school's dormitory.

She mentioned that "a number of the boys" had burial shrouds, a standard mortuary practice of the early 20th century.

The professor, however, left out key information when she told Cabinet members that a lead pellet consistent with a lead shot was found in one of the graves. She mentioned the pellet, but did not tell the Cabinet that FDLE has examined the artifact and determined it was likely from a muzzle-loading black powder weapon. Guns of that type were antiques by the time the Florida Reform School (later Dozier School) was even built.

She said her team used "fire hoses" to push water through screens while digging at the site of the burned dormitory. Kimmerle indicated that small fragments of bone were found at the burned dormitory site, all believed to be associated with the individuals who died in that fire more than 110 years ago.

Kimmerle also said that USF has positively identified only 7 of the individuals that her team exhumed from the cemetery. Four have been reburied. The other 47 individuals exhumed remain in boxes at the University of South Florida.

Although the university earlier claimed to identify the remains of one of the employees who died in the 1914 fire, Kimmerle today said that they cannot positively identify his remains and that he will likely be buried with the "unknowns."

She made no references to murders in her discussion. Later in answer to a question from the Cabinet members, the professor said that, "We feel like our field work is done. "We feel like we have exhausted everything we can do in looking for additional burials."

Kimmerle was followed by Dr. Christian Wells, a professor of archaeology at USF. He indicated that the university investigated a number of other locations pointed out by former students as "burial" sites. "We surveyed 35 different regions," he said. None of those areas, he reported, revealed any evidence of human remains. In other words, claims that "hundreds" of graves and a "second cemetery" would be found on the campus were completely false.

Wells also indicated that contamination was found on areas of the campus. He encouraged the Governor and Cabinet to follow up on the issue.

Antoinette Jackson, another USF professor, then spoke about "the living." She said that "segregation" resonates today at the campus, which is now abandoned. She noted that some communities disagreed with the project and that the university needed to incorporate them into their narratives, something they have yet to do.

Jackson mentioned the need for additional "financial support." She focused on education, although many of the university's public forums and discussions about Dozier have focused on "restorative justice."

She mentioned that the team will be traveling to Japan - presumably at taxpayer expense - to tell the Dozier story.

Jackson concluded by encouraging those with "stories" to come forward. While the project was underway, however, USF absolutely refused to view thousands of pages of documentation in the possession of this writer.

None of the professors ever mentioned the word "murder" in relation to the graves. Kimmerle also finally admitted that all of the burials were found in a 50 by 150 foot area on Boot Hill. A few pieces of bone were also found in the ruins of the burned dormitory but did not contain enough material for DNA analysis.

NO other graves were found on campus. There was no second cemetery nor were any hidden graves found.

Jerry Cooper, a former student, addressed the Cabinet and urged that the bodies "not be returned to that area" saying the reasons why were "apparent." He said, "I don't know what happened at Marianna."

Charles Fudge, another former student, then spoke and said he was "Troy Tidwell's office boy" and swore there is a second cemetery with at least 30 graves on campus. He asked that the White House Boys be allowed to go look for it. The area he claimed contains the cemetery was among those investigated by USF and nothing was found.

Other former students said they wanted the dead interred "somewhere other than Jackson County." "Please don't leave those children there," the widow of a student begged, claiming that there are more graves still to be located at the campus.

Robert Straley, a former student, said that he has suffered an unfortunate accident recently that left him with his sixth concussion. He pointed out that many in Marianna are being forced to live with the blame for something they did not do. He called for a monument to be built and spoke of forgiveness and reconciliation.  He said the "whip has no place in our society." Corporal punishment at Dozier School ended more than 40 years ago.

Andrew Puel said he had heard "very credible testimony" that boys had been murdered at the school. USF, however, found no evidence of murders. Puel said he had "sworn statements" from former juveniles that they had seen killings, including a shooting, at the school.

Puel went on to say he wasn't telling the stories to be "sensational." He requested access for researchers to the ledgers that remain sealed due to juvenile privacy laws. FDLE, however, does have access to these ledgers as part of its current investigation.

Jerry Cooper then reappeared before the Cabinet and said that many former students had cancelled plans to attend "at the last minute." Others were present and he introduced them.

Dale Landry from the NAACP then appeared before the Cabinet. He called for a place that they can "sanctify" to hold the remains until they can be identified. He called for turning the old chapel on campus into a mausoleum until the remains can be identified, even if it takes decades. He also called for turning the "White House" into a permanent memorial to the "horrors" that took place at the school. Landry also asked for the state to fund reburial of identified remains.

Jim Dean, City Manager of Marianna, then spoke. He said he appeared with a group of civic and business leaders including County Commissioner Chuck Lockey and others. He offered the community's support to bring closure to the process.

Elmore Bryant, former Mayor of Marianna, spoke and asked for the land to be given back to Marianna. He said the leaders of Marianna were "men of character." He said that "We will make you proud of what we do with that land. We've been banged, but there are some good things that people don't talk about." He noted that the people of Marianna "respected me as the first black mayor of Marianna."

"When you come to Marianna, there are many good sides," Bryant continued. He invited the governor to come and talk.

Attorney General Pam Bondi then said to the White House Boys, "We know that you have suffered terrible, unspeakable atrocities." Bondi apparently didn't know the name of Jackson County, which she called "Marianna County, a beautiful county." She called Bondi a "Hero."

Earlier in the session, Bondi yelled out "Yayyyyyyyy!!" when told that USF students were in the room and praised Kimmerle for her "ground-breaking" work.

The university spent more than $600,000 in state and federal taxpayer funding on its Dozier project, even after FDLE had determined that there was no evidence of criminal activity by employees involving the cemetery. Meanwhile, USF President Dr. Judy Genshaft told Cabinet members that her institution has eliminated more than 50 other educational programs, including industrial training.

Please click here to read a summary of the key points in the USF report or to read the full report itself.

To learn the true history of the Dozier School cemetery, please consider my book Death at Dozier School: The Attempted Assassination of an American City (available in both paperback and Kindle formats).

Cabinet meeting continues: Atwater fondly remembers grandmother's switch.

Jeff Atwater, Florida's Chief Financial Officer,
fondly remembered his grandmother's switch
during today's Cabinet meeting.
Jeff Atwater, who serves as Florida's Chief Financial Officer, fondly remembered his grandmother's switch during today's meeting of the State Cabinet.

It was an odd moment in a meeting that will soon include a presentation from the University of South Florida (USF) on its project at Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. Among the allegations made against the school are charges by former students that they were "beaten" in a structure called the White House.

In a different discussion, Atwater mentioned that his grandmother kept a "Kentucky" switch on her front porch to assure good behavior and good grades.

The Cabinet meeting is still underway at this time (11:47 a.m. Central) and is several agenda items away from USF's presention.

-- Earlier posts on today's Cabinet meeting--

Attorney General Pamela Jo "Pam" Bondi yelled out "Yayyyy!" for students of the University of South Florida (USF) as the Florida Cabinet convened in Tallahassee this morning.

Representatives from the university are expected to present their final report on archaeological/anthropological work at the Dozier School for Boys cemetery later this morning.

Please click here to read a summary of that report or to read the full 168-page document.

Former County Judge Woodrow "Woody" Hatcher is in Tallahassee to respond to USF's presentation, but has already been told that he will only be allowed to speak for 2 minutes. That is less time than Bondi was given to show off a 40-pound dog available for adoption. It is also less time than the number of minutes late that the meeting was called to order.

USF President Judy Genshaft and Florida's other university presidents have been address the Cabinet about Governor Rick Scott's "Ready, Set, Work" challenge. When she mentioned that some USF students were present, the attorney general broke into a loud cheer of "Yayyyy!" and then mentioned Dr. Erin Kimmerle and what Bondi called her "ground-breaking" work. Kimmerle has directed the USF project at Dozier School for Boys.

Genshaft answered a direct question from Governor Scott about what study programs her university might have closed. Apparently, even as USF has spent more than $600,000 in state and federal taxpayer funds on the Dozier project, it has closed more than 50 of its study programs. Among these was a program that prepared students for jobs in industry.

The discussion with the various university presidents is still underway after more than 2 hours.

I'll post another update at 11:00 a.m. Central/12 Noon Eastern or shortly after unless something significant takes place before then.

Until then, please click here to read yesterday's story on USF's final report or to read the report itself.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

No evidence of murders by staff members at Dozier School: USF final report is released

Dozier School Cemetery prior to its destruction
by the University of South Florida.
The University of South Florida (USF) has submitted its final report on the "Boot Hill" Cemetery at Dozier School for Boys in Marianna to the Florida Cabinet.
No physical evidence was found to support claims that employees of the former state facility killed any of the students buried in the little cemetery.
No evidence of a mysterious "second cemetery" - a theory widely promoted by the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald and other major news outlets - was found.
No evidence of "hidden burials" was found in any of the dozens of locations pointed out by former students of the school, many of whom call themselves the "White House Boys."
The only "projectile" found in association with any of the graves was a small bb-size piece of lead. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department previously said there was no evidence the individual in this grave was shot and suggested that the item could have been in his pocket. Analysis confirmed this assessment. The item could not be positively identified as a projectile at all, but was consistent in size with a buckshot from a black powder muzzle-loading firearm. These types of weapons were antiques by the time the Florida Reform School (later Dozier School for Boys) was even built.
The only verifiable murders that took place at the school were those of Robert Stephens, Earl Wilson and Eddie Black. All three were murdered by other students who were arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison for the murders.
USF said it was not able to view documentation about the 1966 drowning of Alphonse Glover in the school swimming pool. This statement is inaccurate as the coroner's report on Glover's death was among the documents in my possession that I offered to let researchers examine. They refused to look.
So far, USF has positively identified only seven of the bodies that it dug up from the school cemetery. The total cost of the project was nearly $700,000. The names of the others are mostly known and are consistent with the report completed by FDLE prior to the beginning of the USF project. DNA analysis is still pending and may determine the identifies of seven of the other bodies.
The report indicates that USF found three more graves than it can account for by name. The school, however, missed four deaths known to be associated with Dozier School. Three of these (2 students and one employee) took place prior to 1910. The fourth, of a male employee, took place during the influenza outbreak of 1918. Since one of these individuals is buried at Riverside Cemetery in Marianna, the other three could and probably do account for the three additional graves found by the university at the school cemetery. This information was offered to USF researchers but they refused to review it.
The school has no money to rebury the 51 bodies that it exhumed.
So in the end it comes down to this simple fact: The Dozier School Cemetery ("Boot Hill") is gone. No evidence of murders by staff was found. There was no mysterious second cemetery.
The USF report concludes with social justice language about "restorative justice," etc., and brags that the project generated news stories reaching an estimated 1.18 billion people around the world.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) will have the final say on the cemetery, likely sometime in February. So far, there has been no indication that the state agency will draw any different conclusions about the nature of the graves.
If you would like to read the real story of the Dozier School Cemetery now that the vast majority of the media coverage has been discredited, please consider my book: Death at Dozier School: The Attempted Assassination of an American City (available in Paperback and Kindle formats).

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: