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:

No comments: