Towboat Photos and Text

Updated:1/4/08
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The following photos and text was composed from multiple sources.

And Now,

TOWBOAT

Do not try this at home.

Thanks To Correspondent Wes Boyd For Helping Put together An Amazing Historical Text --
Historic Photos In A Trunk For 20 Years - Awaiting The Internet?

Our Wes Boyd Has Tracked Down The History

Did We Say -- QUITE VERY INDEED & ABSOLUTELY AMAZING ?

These Photos Have Been Seen At Other Websites -Which Have Disappeared.

So We Decided To Preserve Them.


The photographer of this amazing sequence of photos may have been a reporter from the Linden, Alabama DEMOCRAT Newspaper en route to Meridian, Mississippi -- at the time of the incident. Others say the pictures were not from a newspaper, but used for safety training services to the river transportation industry. Either way, these are photos from the East end of the bridge as the towboat CAHABA "blew for a draw," as it is called -- at the Rooster Bridge.

1. On April 28, 1979 tow boat M/V CAHABA, commanded by Capt. Jimmy Wilkerson, was dropping 2 barges, with coal, through the non-lifting East span of Rooster Bridge on the Tombigbee River (mile marker 200), with intent of then running the tow boat around through the West bridge span which does lift & then catching the barges downstream of the bridge.
Pilot Earl Barnhart & 2 deckhands were placed on the tow to cast off the safety wires & winch wires.

2. For some unknown reason, the hands on the barges had taken loose all rigging except the starboard tow-knee wire on this barge laded with coal.

Notice that the tug has released the barges here in mid stream due to the current.
The actual bridge opening is over on the far bank. Due to the high water and fast current
the towboat cannot make it over to that side and control the barges.
This is a planned release, the deckhands are on the freefloating barges
passing under the bridge span. The captian is alone.
The Towboat is backing as hard as possible to stop it's foward motion and
move to the far side and pass through the bridge opening.

4. Capt. Wilkerson has now underestimated the current & moved too close to the East span of the bridge and can't back down enough against the current and the stern is starting to swing.

5. The Tombigbee's current has swung CAHABA around sideways. She can't back down enough against the current. The CAHABA Is In Deep trouble. Get the upstream gunwhale down, and then you're "out of business.!"Uh Oh! The current has swung the boat around sideways.

Words fail me here.

The boss is going to be REAL mad!

Uh... Boss? Do we have flood insurance on this boat?

Uh.... Boss? You ain't gonna believe what we just did!

She's low, but the flag is still flying.

The wheelhouse door and the door in the second deck are now open.
Look close at the bottom right hand side of the picture and you will see that the bridge guardrail is underwater.

Throughout the ordeal, Capt. Wilkerson remained at the sticks. At one point, when the boat was completely horizontal, he was straddling the port pilothouse door frame. During the time the pilothouse was immersed, the port front pilothouse window blew in, filling the space with water.

14. The Working Deck Is Still Underwater, But CAHABA Continues To Rise. According To Crew, CAHABA Had Just Topped Off With Fuel At Demopolis, 14 miles Upstream. CAHABA Has One Central Fuel Tank Forward of Her Engines.
Had That Fuel Tank Been 1/2 full, She Probably Never Would Have Come Back Up.

15. The Boat With Blue Trim That You Saw in The 1st Picture On This page Is M/V CATHY PARKER. She Was Waiting Above The Bridge For Her Turn To Pass Through (if you look closely, you can see the CAHABA immediately to the left & upstream of the CATHY PARKER). CATHY PARKER Radioed To Capt. Gary Grammer On M/V TALLAPOOSA (which was down the reach below Blacks Bluff) That Something Had Happened To The CAHABA. Capt. Grammer Tied Off TALLAPOOSA's Tow & Then "Light-Boated" To The CAHABA, Where He Pushed Her Out Into A Flooded Corn Field. TALLAPOOSA Then Rescued The 3 Crew, & Secured The 2 Loose CAHABA Barges.
Look at the water pouring out of the second deck doorway.

16. Key To Survival: Engine Is Still Running!!! As To Another Key To Survival, It is Understood That Operator - Warrior Gulf Navigation Co., a Subsidiary of Pittsburg Steel - Ballasted All Their Vessels With 3 To 4 Feet of Cement In The Bottom. Thus, The M/V CAHABA Righted Itself After The bridge - As It Was Designed To Do
The working deck is still underwater, but rising.

17. CAHABA's Starboard EMD16V149 Engine Remained Running The Entire Time. Notice The Prop wash At The Stern of The Tug. The Boat Is Upright & Back Under Power. M/V CAHABA Was Built At Pine Bluff, Arkansas & Is powered By1800 Horsepower Twin Diesels. She is named after one of the 8 Local Indian Tribes.

Notice anything unusual? Look at the smoke coming from the starboard exhaust. This thing is running!!!

Notice the prop wash at the rear of the tug. The boat is upright and back under some power.
Not just another day on the river.

And here's the real story...

It was either late 1978 or early 1979, I have forgotten exactly, but anyway,
I am close on either... The river is the Tombigbee River and this happened
to be the record high water ever for that area. The towboat you see coming
down on the bridge is the Motor Vessel Cahaba owned by Warrior Gulf
Navigation out of Mobile, Alabama. Warrior Gulf is a subsidiary of
Pittsburgh Steel. I know you are familiar with Birmingham's coal mines and
steel mills, and this company would haul iron pellets up to Birmingport and
off-load to make steel plate. On the return the barges were filled with
coal for export at the McDuffie Coal Terminal at the mouth of the Mobile
River and at the head of Mobile Bay.

The Bridge was the Old Rooster Bridge (since demolished and removed - I saw
the explosion to tear it down also) located below Demopolis, Alabama. The
land-side highway dead ends at the bluff, and you can still drive to this
site and imagine how high the river had to be to get to the bottom of the bridge...

The pass or Channel span of the bridge was located on the far West side of
the river, or on the opposite bank from the photographers standpoint. In
normal river flow, we would drop down near the rock bluff and steer through
the opening to pass southward with our tows of coal barges. Normal loads
were six barges, each measuring 195' X 35' and loaded to a 10' draft. This
allowed each barge to carry approximately 2,000 tons of coal (times six =
12,000 tons X 2000 pounds = 24 Million pounds of cargo.) The boat is 1800
Horsepower twin engine diesel built in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It is named
after one of the eight "friendly" Indian tribes. It is the Motor Vessel
Cahaba. At the "sticks" or helm is Captain Jimmie Wilkerson, a long time
river pilot and was my personal friend - since deceased. The river current
was so very treacherous that we were forced to drop down to the bridge in
the slacker water on the left descending bank and when we got down to the
bridge, we uncoupled the boat from the barges and let the barges drift down
under the bridge. The bottom of the bridge would "shave" the coal stacked
in the barges off to a level surface. The next step was to back the vessel
upriver and then go over to the far West side and traverse the bridges
channel span with the boat, and run down and catch the barges. It was just
too dangerous to try to bring the barges through the bridge span in the current.

Anyway, Jimmie dropped down properly and with the entire rest of the crew
standing on the barges for safety, he began to reverse his engines to back
away. His stern would have to be kept directly pointed into the current or
the boat would travel sideways like a kite without it's tail. Captain Jim
was a fine pilot, but he made a small mistake and his stern was caught in
the current, twisted sideways and the river smashed him into the bridge
sideways. Notice that the boat re-surfaced right side up on the down stream
side. What luck you say? Nope, WGN ballasted all their vessels with three
to four feet of cement in the bottom. The boat was like a little yellow
rubber dickey, and came back up like a duckie oughta do. The boat suffered
major cosmetic damages, but little flooding because of water tight doors,
except in the pilothouse. Notice the picture where the boat is not quite
righted and you can see water pouring out of the wheelhouse door. The chair
washes out, and Jimmie told me he was holding on to the controls with all
his might to keep from going out the drain and into the river. He was very
shook up and you can see him approach the tow of barges downriver. Well he
didn't get it together quite soon enough and he smashed into the barges,
causing further damage.

I next saw Jimmie about a month after this and we had a cup of coffee
together and talked about the incident. He was smoking a Camel Non-filter
but didn't even need an ashtray because his hands were still shaking too
much for the ash to build up to any degree.

How do I know all this? I was on the boat that went through the bridge
immediately before the Cahaba. The Motor Vessel James E. Philpott made the
bridge and was headed south at close to 15 MPH. For all you who don't
understand, that is very fast on a commercial towboat with that much
tonnage.

Glad to pass this on to everybody...
Captain Michael L. Smith

Epilogue:

According to historical sources, the Tombigee River was running at an historically high level When this incident occurred. At Demopolis, Alabama the river was running at 73 feet. A typical flow is approximately 12-13 feet.

CAHABA is still running the rivers but is renamed M/V CAPTAIN ED HARRIS.

Towboat Photos


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